- Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Oral Histories from Dien Bien Phu to the Fall of Saigon
While trauma care in the civilian environment or the inner city “knife and gun club” has many technical similarities with military or wartime trauma care, there are important differences. The trauma victims in combat are not random or accidental, but are the young healthy victims of deliberate organized violence on a massive scale. Furthermore the caregivers are frequently at great personal risk when they are trying to save life and limb. Lastly there are the “two rules”: In war young people die, and doctors (and other medical personnel) cannot change rule one. These facts shape life for the practitioners of military medicine.
In Navy Medicine in Vietnam Jan Herman sets out to use the voices of the personnel of Navy Medicine to tell the story of the role that Navy Medicine played during U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and I feel he succeeds. Only some data is presented in the preface concerning the overall Navy Medicine experience in Vietnam, such as the fact that only 1.5 percent of USMC wounded who made it to a surgical facility died and that almost 14 percent of all corpsmen who served in Vietnam died (Pp. 1, 2). There is no analysis, simply letting the voices of those who served speak for themselves.
The oral histories are arranged chronologically, from the refugee lift in 1954 to the refugee evacuation after the fall of Saigon. In a similar catholic fashion, all of the different types (corps) of Navy Medicine are represented, men and women, young and old, careerists and short-timers. From Marine grunt units to fixed medical [End Page 1388] facilities, from hospital ships to aircraft carriers, this sample includes almost all units where navy medical personnel served. As a bonus, there are some oral histories from the wounded, both medical and non-medical.
No attempt is made to present a point of view concerning the “big picture” of the Vietnam War. The voices speak for themselves, and the disaffection with the war and cynicism is evident in many of the narratives, especially the later ones.
The appendices list the postwar lives of the storytellers, the Medal of Honor citations for corpsmen who were awarded the medal, and the primary infantry weapons of the war. There is also a glossary of medical terms. My concern is with the third appendix and the glossary. The appendix on arms leaves out the Russian DShK 12.7 mm machine gun and the US M2A Browning .50 caliber machine gun, both key weapons, and there are other exclusions as well. Many of the glossary entries appear to have been transcribed directly from a medical dictionary and can be confusing for people not intimate with medical terminology.
The technical issues mentioned do not detract from this text. Jan Herman has presented an engaging series of personal accounts of medical personnel trying to save lives in an environment where all factors conspired to end them. For almost any major conflict since the American Civil War one can find well-edited collections of letters and papers of physicians and nurses who served. For Vietnam a classic is Dr. Ronald Glasser’s 365 Days. Navy Medicine in Vietnam is unique in the breadth of the stories being told, both in time and types of medical personnel. For those who want to understand the human element of military medicine, those who deploy to the combat zone to save lives not take them, this is a valuable read. While a collection of short oral histories like this does not give us strategic overview, it does remind us that a military is made up of individuals, and the actions and motives of those individuals count.