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MASH Doctor in Vietnam
By Steve Krug (reviewer)
MASH Doctor in Vietnam: A Memoir of the War and After
by Reuel S. Long, M.D.
(McFarland & Co, 2022)
"No group questioned the war more than the doctors and nurses who had to care for the casualties. I could not imagine any mission in Vietnam that was worth the cost being paid by thousands of young men"-Reuel Long
The book mostly covers the memories of Dr. Long and, in part, the recollections of one of Dr. Long's war patients, Jim Dehlin. While a considerable part of the book is about Dr. Long's life in general, I'd like to concentrate on the part of the book that deals with the American war in Vietnam.
Dr. Long was an anesthesiologist in a MASH unit. He describes, in grueling detail, the wounded and dying, the long hours of surgery, and the human costs of it all. How does a Mash doctor care for their patients without becoming numbed by the day-in and day-out tedium and terror? Dr. Long talks about a song called "We Like it Here" (we like it here, we like it here, you bet your ass we like it here) sung by doctors and nurses when things got really bad. He also talks about writing to Nixon and others asking them "Why?" He queried "...why young Americans should lose their lives and limbs and suffer unspeakable mutilation to determine how such primitive people should live and be governed?" And, in a defining moment of the book, he connects with a patient, Jim Dehlin, who has lost his legs, but happens to live near Dr. Long back in Michigan. Dr. Long provides Dehlin with a tape recorder and later sends the tape, with a note explaining how it came to be, to Dehlin's family.
The book has more on their relationship later, but back in Vietnam: "....I inquired of the doctor I was reliving 'what do you have down there?' He answered 'frag wound to the head'. I asked if there was a medevac on the way and was told there was no point in a medevac. He suggested that I take a look for myself, so I made my way to the end of the Quonset hut to check the guy out. The patient's breathing was somewhat labored and displayed some stridor (noisy breathing). There was a small entrance wound to one temple and no exit wound. With my thumbs, I pulled open both eyelids, only to observe two unreactive, completely dilated pupils. There was no need to risk a helicopter pilot's life to move him. Somebody back home didn't know how devastated they were going to feel. Back in the States, Richard Nixon was preoccupied with the White House wedding of his daughter, Tricia and was more concerned about getting re-elected than keeping his promise to end the war. Nixon was laughing and dancing and celebrating while this young man was lying on a stretcher on the other side of the planet, brain dead but still breathing." The man died later.
Later in the book Dr. Long talked about Jane Fonda's visit to North Vietnam as " Despicable". At least Fonda apologized for doing and saying what she did, when did Nixon and the other liars who promoted the war ever do so?
Years after the war Dr. Long and Jim Dehlin meet up and the book shifts to Dehlin telling his story. After having lost his legs he was in a hospital ward where the nurses had to come through twice a day to change dressings. The cries of pain would get closer as his turn approached and after his turn, he listened as the nurses continued through the ward. " We never blamed the medical crew for what we went through....during that painful period I wanted every politician, every advisor, every person who had a part in the decision that involved all of us in Vietnam, to sit with me and watch what I was watching and hear what I had to hear during all those dressing changes. What if some of their kids were getting those dressing changes?" Dehlin goes on to participate in Dewey Canyon III.
In his closing thoughts Dr. Long talks about French Colonial rule and how after the second world war the US sided with the French to reimpose their control of Vietnam (reviewers note: one of the first protests of our involvement came from US Merchant Mariners who objected to ferrying French troops back into Vietnam on US-flagged ships). He talks about the war as a "profound mistake" and how the press failed its job in alerting us to the lies that got us into the war. He also blames the educational system for "failure to teach history and examine our mistakes," a potent comment given the present conservative push to eliminate any teaching that makes the student feel bad about our history. Dr. Long also mentions how government benefits are contributing to the decline of the republic and a somewhat confusing call to serve and contribute as he and Jim Dehlin did. Dr. Long and Jim Dehlin do an excellent job of detailing how corrupt and wrong the war was. Why ask others to join up to participate in other wars possibly based on lies? Isn't this contrary to honoring the warrior but not the war?
The book ends with a discussion of the faults of the M-16 rifle and of the military-industrial complex failure to deal with the problems.
Steve Krug is a retired Merchant Marine captain, was a conscientious objector during the American war in Vietnam and is a VVAW member.