Blair Beebe, M.D. Medical lessons from Vietnam; what did we learn?
Almost fifty years after the beginning of American involvement in
the Vietnam War, we still remain embroiled in military actions that
generate disease, disability, and death. Frontline physicians who
were in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and
Vietnam faced the medical consequences of war every day. My new
novel, Doc Lucas USN, based on real people and real events, brings
the war down to a human scale, one person at a time. History gives
us statistics and dates, but fiction helps us to better understand
the meaning behind those facts. One of my old professors defined
history as "lies we tell about dead people." We understand more
from reading Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Margaret Mitchell, and
Stephen Ambrose than we ever learned from dry history textbooks.
Paradoxically, the truth comes out in fiction. During my time in
Vietnam, and for many years after, I listened to stories from other
physicians who served during the war and from naval aviators and
marines who faced combat every day. I also heard different points
of view from Vietnamese civilians who had come to America to escape
the chaos after the war. Their eyewitness accounts are the true
history, but unless someone writes them down, we lose them forever.
Moreover, individual stories may have little meaning to us if they
lack context. I've often heard both veterans and civilians say, "I
don't talk about my experiences, because anyone who wasn't there
could never understand how bad it was." That's why we need a novel
to give us a complete account in an organized way. Each character
and each scene moves the action to develop a central theme about
the war. We want more than anecdotes. We want to understand the how
and the why of the unfolding tragedy. Doc Lucas not only recounts
the stories, he lives them. We feel his anxiety, his terror, and at
times, his joy. When things go wrong, we know why, and we can feel
his despair. In the good times, and there are many, we laugh along
with him. In the end, Doc Lucas learns important lessons about
himself and his values centered on human rights and the relief of
suffering. He emerges from the war better equipped to take his
place with stronger convictions about his role in his society.
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