Vietnam Doc by William Clayton Petty

 

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In his chapter titled “Impressions” in Vietnam Doc: An American Physician’s Memoir (Life Rich, 156 pp., $29.30, hardcover; $12.99, paper) Dr. William Clayton Petty bases his conclusions about the Vietnam War on the gore and suffering he witnessed in the operating rooms of the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh. What Petty saw and did made him question his basic values of life, particularly in regard to war.

That chapter reflects everything Petty had previously written about his responsibilities during a 1969-70 tour of duty in Vietnam centered on “administering anesthetic to soldiers wounded in combat,” as he says. Primarily his patients came to Long Binh directly from battlefields. “The majority of an anesthesia provider’s time during surgery was concentrated in giving blood and fluids,” he writes, often in “large quantities.” His personal record was 108 units to one soldier.

In this area, Petty all but offers a short course on how to fulfill the two needs, especially for men on the verge of death. His zealousness for his task created within me a grisly interest in medical procedures I had barely ever thought about. The book contains twenty-eight pages of photographs, a dozen of which show the equipment used by anesthesiologists in the war zone.

Other chapters titled “Saving Lives,” “People,” “Our Allies,” and “The Enemy” provide insights into the behavior of friends and foes. Petty emphasizes the dedication with which he and his fellow docs selflessly devoted their efforts toward helping anyone in need, including Viet Cong fighters and their sympathizers.

In “Impressions,” Petty asks himself, “Why did I go to Vietnam?” His pre-departure mind provided two answers: The Oath of Hippocrates must be served. And democracy must prevail.

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In country, he learned many unexpected lessons:

  • Lots of troops did not want to serve there.
  • “A daily diet of horror” upset his intellect.
  • His relationship with God got re-arranged.
  • America’s privileged classes generally avoided participating in combat—or serving in the military.
  • Body counts lied.
  • War endeavors created knee-deep waste.
  • Survival frequently meant people “now lived with injuries not compatible with life in previous wars.”
  • The enemy was “resilient, tough, smart, courageous, and willing to sacrifice anything to re-unite Vietnam.”
  • From beginning to end, the war was “an enormous deception by America’s leaders.”

Afterward, Petty suffered through a legacy of disorders. When he reached sixty, long-dormant symptoms came alive and triggered severe PTSD. His analysis of how to treat that problem provides another short course in doctoring.

Overall, Vietnam Doc digs deeply into unfamiliar medical knowledge.

—Henry Zeybel

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