Autopsy of War: A Personal History
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Autopsy of War: A Personal History
by John A. Parrish, M.D.
(Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, 2012)
Right up front, I have to admit that I am an acquaintance of Dr. John Parrish. Back about 1983 I read his amazing first book, titled 12, 20, & 5: A Doctor's Year in Vietnam. Published in 1972, it was one of the first of the first-person accounts of the war, a landmark accomplishment at that time. Dr. Parrish would introduce me to his literary agent, who became my first literary agent, and after my Vietnam memoir was published in 1985 we broke bread and spoke at a Veterans Day event at a Borders Book Shop in Framingham, Massachusetts. After that event, he invited my wife and me to his home where we enjoyed wine and crackers and a spirited conversation. Then my work no longer took me to the Boston area, and I lost track of Dr. Parrish until recently when his name came up in a phone conversation and I learned he had published a later book. Reading Autopsy of War helps me to understand that the doctor had been extremely busy over the years. In fact, this book is almost entirely the story of those years, influences from his childhood, and his compelling, frightening battle with PTSD.
Parrish was brought up in the home of a Southern Baptist preacher where "we were taught that Jews had a highly unfounded sense of entitlement, a relentless work ethic, and a selfish and manipulative gift for making money at the expense of others — it was no wonder the Germans were killing most of them. Otherwise, Germans and the "Japs" were the embodiment of evil and found great pleasure in torturing and killing Americans. Catholics were to be distantly tolerated even though they were pagan worshippers of Jesus's mother. Africans and Asians, if they did really exist, were pitiful, weird, ignorant people who were doomed to hell. Missionaries tried to save a few of them by telling them about Jesus, but it was a pretty hopeless task. Even though we were poor, our white, Christian privileged status was obvious to all, and only we had the comfort of being in God's grace." He was expected to become a Baptist preacher like his father, but when he escaped from the family home to attend college he discovered a fascination with science and human physiology. He dared to interact with a member of the opposite sex and to try smoking and drinking. He applied to Yale medical school and was accepted. Upon completion of that program, he took his wife and infant daughter to Michigan where he would do his residency and internship in internal medicine. His second daughter was born, and then the draft intervened in his life. He applied for a commission as an officer. In July 1967, he reported to Camp Pendleton for orientation before assignment to Vietnam. He would work in the Phu Bai area, often in the field.
"Eventually," he writes, "all the wounds began to look similar. I couldn't process all the sights and sounds. I could only incorporate certain fragments. A total embrace of all I witnessed was not necessary, practical, or, for me, even possible. I was overloaded, yet my job required me to remain focused and efficient. The mangled flesh, the stench, the sounds of pain, the faces, the individuality and sacredness of each boy were blurred and partially buried as I let in only enough information to do my work and provide first aid and comfort to the wounded soldiers."
Autopsy of War is not really about the war. Dr. Parrish came home and, not wanting to see the insides of any more bodies, became a dermatologist. Ultimately, he became a Distinguished Professor of Dermatology and head of the Dermatology Department at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He was home, but he had not left Vietnam behind. Wracked with guilt, he saw the faces he had seen on operating tables and the terrible wounds.
There is not room here to tell the complete story, and it is not mine to tell. John Parrish tells it vividly, in heart-rending detail. He has been to hell and back, and yet I was able to recognize a number of scenes along the way. This is an important book, as my telephone friend had promised because the doctor triumphed over all his demons and found a path to sanity and survival. Ultimately, he created a new medical entity, CIMIT, the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, a unique organization tied to a number of hospitals, MIT, and an engineering laboratory. He also created the Home Base Program, a non-profit partnership between the Boston's Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital to work with soldiers suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. "The problem we face," he writes, "bluntly put, is this: Despite the best intentions and efforts of our government, the two ongoing American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are creating more disabled men and women than the present DOD and VA health care systems can treat and help to assimilate into a healthy family, society, or career."
Dr. Parrish is an overachiever. It is a common symptom of PTSD. But he is also a hero, a simple and good man obsessed with helping his fellow human beings. His story is touching, sometimes all too familiar, informative, and ultimately inspiring. It is hopeful, a tale of humanity and accomplishment despite the odds. There are used copies available on Amazon, or from ABEbooks.com. I highly recommend this book, especially if you are personally familiar with PTSD. Autopsy of War may be just what the doctor ordered.
John Ketwig is the author of ...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam which remains in print after 32 years and 27 printings (Macmillan, 1985). A new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter is slated for publication early in 2019. John is a lifetime member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.