Published on November 26, 2007
A steady hand under fire
A war surgeon swaps scalpel for pen for a tour of his time on frontlines around the world
Reviewed by James Eckardt
Jonathan Kaplan is an excellent writer with vivid descriptive skills. He's a journalist, teacher and documentary filmmaker. Oh, and he's also a surgeon. Following the first volume of his memoirs, "The Dressing Station", the second is called "Contact Wounds" and subtitled "A War Surgeon's Education". He's worked in all the garden spots: Angola, Mozambique, Eritrea, Kurdistan, Shan State in Burma and, most recently, Baghdad. He's a little vague on why.
"'Free your mind and your arse will follow,' was the claim of some profound dope-head graffiti near my London flat (along with 'Drugs: Just Say Maybe'), but in all my dreams of travel, of involvement in the world, I had never imagined the range of options that could present themselves by letting that career steering-shudder turn into a swerve," he writes.
He describes filming a documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan and treating war wounded in Burma and adds: "In those places the doubts that stalked my career progression were forgotten, the question of my destiny deferred. Unpredictability is seductive ...
"I kept intending to settle back into my professional career - to be a full-time hospital surgeon and make a worthwhile contribution to society - but my work amidst repression and pillage and random death had stolen from me some belief in the durability of human endeavour."
In "The Dressing Station", he had written about being an air-ambulance doctor in the US, a ship's medical officer in Asia and a battlefield surgeon in Mozambique. His second book hop-scotches about areas of his life untreated in the first.
Kaplan was born in 1954 in Durban, South Africa, the grandson of Jewish immigrants. His father was a World War II army surgeon in North Africa and Italy and then joined the fledgling state of Israel in the first Arab-Israeli war, which is where he met his future wife, also a doctor.
Kaplan caps off an idyllic childhood in South Africa with a summer spent on an Israeli kibbutz at the age of 14. He learns a lot but despairs of his fellow South African kids who taunt Arabs as "sand kaffirs" and "bush hogs".
Eventually he despairs of Israel, though he returns with his mother for the 50th anniversary of the nation's founding. "Since then," he writes, "the country has built a wall around itself, in the largest infrastructure project it has ever undertaken. I have not returned."
He continues with an engrossing account of his love life and medical training in Cape Town, followed by meticulous and often harrowing tales of his early surgical experiences in London.
The highlight of the book is his stint as a battlefield surgeon in the war-torn town of Kuito in western Angola. It was a Cold War battlefront between the government supported by Russia and Cuba and the Unita insurgent army supported by the US and South Africa. Here he is on his arrival at the Kuito airfield in a battered UN transport plane:
"We followed the rise of the shadowed highlands from the coastal plane, climbing and climbing. At maximum altitude, with Kuito visible as a smudge on the dark plateau, the aircraft stood on one wingtip and began a corkscrew dive that pressed us into our seats. Far below, the airfield's oily streak - its runway haloed by zigzag trench lines - whirled like a spinning clock-hand around a grid of streets that enlarged with each rotation. Columns of smoke slanted above the land to the east where the front line lay."
Back in London, he veers back to humour in his recollection of being a technical adviser on a TV medical drama.
"A perennial feature of hospital staff-rooms, alongside the smell of burnt toast, was the television set tuned to a hospital drama," he writes. "Patients - violin prodigies with brain tumours, last-chance-pregnancy fashion models, epileptic airline pilots - were forever being wheeled to the operating room by the got-the-shakes surgeon, nymphomaniac nurse and alcoholic anaesthetist amidst a welter of barked TLAs (Three-Letter Acronyms) and the portentous symphony of the machines that go beep. I'd always found it hard to suspend belief at such melodramatic overload."
His final section on Baghdad isn't funny at all. It's a furious indictment of the criminal incompetence of the American occupiers to provide basic services, or even simple security, to a hospital system that had once been the best in the Arab world.
"Among the many casualties of that war has been the idealism we offered," he writes. "Now some of the Iraqi doctors and international humanitarian workers who were my colleagues are dead, while the private security contractors thrive, charging up to ten thousand dollars for the [11-kilometre] transfer between Baghdad airport and the city centre."
James Eckardt's eighth book, "Singapore Girl", published by Monsoon Books, is on sale at Kinokuniya, Bookazine and Asia Books.