December 12, 2007

The Comfort, The Comfort

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(click any image for larger size)

BAGnewsNotes contributer Lori Grinker spent 23 days aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort in 2003, arriving within days of the start of the Iraq war.  The ship — the seventh largest hospital in the world — was based in the Persian Gulf and treated many of the first casualties of the invasion.

In the past couple months, BNN has been surveying collections of Iraq War images from a number of photojournalists.  If there is one commonality that runs through all, it is that irony is now rampant.

Take the photo above, for example.  On the surface, the subject matter seems somewhat ambiguous.  What’s so exciting?  Perhaps a football game?  The picture sheds any bit of innocence, however, when one discovers the date is April 9, 2003, and these crew people are witnessing this.  (Meaning, this.)

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Obviously, a ship can’t run without fuel.  Still, the larger symbolism is hard to escape, with the U.S., in the Persian Gulf, collecting crude.

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In its nearly two months in the Gulf, the Comfort treated more than 630 patients, about a third of which were Iraqi civilians and prisoners of war.  (Notice the Iraqi is wearing hand restraints.)

Looking back from where we stand now, how can one reconcile the Comfort’s Geneva Convention mandate of equal medical treatment for battlefield wounded with Shock And Awe; secret renditions; waterboarding and other forms of torture; death verdicts from U.S.-led kangaroo courts; the war’s staggering number of Iraqi deaths and casualties; and the legacy of Abu Ghraib?  (Did I leave something out?)

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In the upper shot, can you make out the name in red hanging on the white sign in the ICU?  It reads: “Jane Doe.”  Many Iraqi patients who were treated were found without any ID.  In the bottom picture, nurses prepare an Iraqi patient’s leg for surgery while surgeons perform surgery on his hand.

In 2004, the PBS program “NOW” profiled Lori’s work on the Comfort.  In the piece, Grinker relates the comment of one of the orthopedic surgeons.  ” (T)he injuries … in this war were different than anything … seen before because of the velocity of the weapons.  And the bodies were pulverized.”

These photos are also noteworthy for the sophistication of the care.  In the “NOW” story, a page is dedicated to reader-supplied captions of this portrait.  “Steveo,” a Viet Nam vet contributed:

The lucky wounded able to stand aboard the U.S.N.S. Comfort facing many months ahead of standing in line for decent veterans health care.

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A Marine corporal receives the purple heart.  Either choked up or coughing, with his head down (and other soldiers laid out), the ceremony seems bittersweet at best.  Then, same Corporal, next life, we see him outside on the smoking deck with the Corpsmen who care for the wounded in the wards.

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It’s a telling juxtaposition of America’s Iraq war complex:  On the front end, we tear it up.  Then, on the back, we try and get it to stop bleeding.

Lori Grinker/Contact Press Images.  Persian Gulf.  April 2003.  Used by permission.)

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