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Page 7
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Mekong Medicine

By John Ketwig (reviewer)

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Mekong Medicine: A U.S. Doctor's Year Treating Vietnam's Forgotten Victims
by Richard W. Carlson, M.D.
(McFarland & Company, Inc, 2022)

This is a well-written book by a doctor who spent his year in Vietnam treating civilians at a crude Vietnamese hospital in the Mekong delta. Dr. Carlson was actually in the army, but assigned to a USAID program called MILPHAP. Curiously, I have a friend who was a USAID registered nurse (RN) at a hospital in Danang in 1967–'68, and she is not familiar with MILPHAP or the assignment of active-duty military doctors to civilian hospitals. Dr. Carlson does not give a specific date for his arrival in Vietnam, but he leaves on October 26, 1967, the day John McCain was shot down and captured. Throughout the book, he works with three young American nurses, also from USAID. I was surprised to find that the nurses had been made familiar with the Vietnamese language. I certainly don't remember that from my friend's book. Once again, the more you think you know about our war in Vietnam, the more you discover that you didn't know previously. I will point out that the doctors, as commissioned officers in the US military, came away with the full array of veterans' benefits, but the nurses and other workers who were in Vietnam via USAID and other, similar non-military programs are not eligible for any care or benefits whatsoever.

This book is fairly standard doctor-in-Vietnam fare, except that the sick and wounded are primarily Vietnamese civilians, impoverished peasants. Some are Viet Cong, but most are just rice farmers who have been caught in the middle of a firefight, civilians who step on a mine or are torn apart by shrapnel, or sick people suffering from Tuberculosis, Malaria, Dengue Fever, Plague, Leprosy, snake bites, or other maladies. The hospital also treated pregnancy, venereal diseases, and drug addiction. The facilities were crude, and supplies were scarce, but Dr. Vinh, the Vietnamese Head Doctor, is described as a very skilled surgeon and a good human being. Throughout the book, Dr. Carlson writes about the grave shortages of medicines, equipment, even blood plasma. All of the staff at the hospital, Vietnamese or American, gave blood regularly to give their patients a chance of survival. Of course, their efforts were often in vain.

This is a heart-rending story, but it is far from unique. Other books revealing a variety of doctors' stories about the terrible wounds and diseases they faced in Vietnam were common a few years back, and it's good to see this one appear at this moment. The American reading public needs to be reminded how indiscriminate and terrible are the wounds of war, and how poignant is the suffering of innocent civilians trying to survive in a war zone. Yes, there have been other books by doctors, but the American public still hasn't got the message. Our government, our military, the vast majority of our corporate-owned media, and the 650,000 companies with defense contracts all seek to convince us that war is an inevitable and necessary thing, but every once in a while, a book like Mekong Medicine finds its way into print and reminds us how inhuman modern warfare had become half a century before. Hopefully, a lot of readers will begin to imagine how weapons have evolved over those years, and the indescribable wounds that are inflicted in today's conflicts.

The damage done to minds among those who have witnessed modern combat has coined a new phrase among those professionals who are trying to help our traumatized, emotionally devastated soldiers. Today we recognize moral injury, or moral damage, from war, and the sad fact that many of our soldiers carry that baggage with them for the rest of their lives. Today, parents admit that they expect their sons and daughters to come home from their military experiences "changed." That they accept this is a great mystery to me, and the fact that many of them still go to church on Sunday and accept the mammoth flags and fighter jet flyovers at the start of football games, strikes me as proof of brainwashing on a colossal scale.

About a decade ago, author Nick Turse suggested that more than 30,000 books had been published about the war in Vietnam. Today, the number must be far higher. Mekong Medicine is a very welcome addition to the list. Doctor Carlson should be proud that he helped so many wounded and sick peasants trapped in the deadly environment that was Vietnam during the American war. He has told his incredible story in an extremely well written book, and I hope lots of Americans will read it and think.

John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW. He is the author of ?and a hard rain fell, and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.

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