Socialist Worker

Medicine and War: is war ever responsible for human progress?

The grotesque way in which the military and medicine are linked reveals much about our society, says Siân Ruddick

Issue No. 2135

A British soldier injured in Afghanistan is treated in a helicopter. A picture form the exhibition

A British soldier injured in Afghanistan is treated in a helicopter. A picture form the exhibition

The horrors of war are usually hidden from public gaze. The images we are allowed to see are those of soldiers setting off for war, on parade on their return, and – very occasionally – being carried home in flag-draped coffins.

What happens to those who have been horrifically injured is deliberately kept from us – it is an all too powerful reminder of the reality of military conflict.

This makes the War and Medicine exhibition by Wellcome Collection even more important. It brings together the constructive and destructive aspects of humanity, and looks at how, during war, these two seemingly paradoxical elements collide.

War and Medicine assesses medical methods using statistics, images and testimony from the Crimean War of the mid-19th century to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan today. In doing so it presents us with missing pictures of the casualties of war.

The exhibition opens by comparing the numbers killed in military conflicts – yet only the figures for the Second World War and the Vietnam War include the civilians who perished.

These horrific numbers are accompanied by a quote from the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, who said, “Statistics in war are never exact, seldom truthful and in most cases, full of intentional misrepresentation.”

Medicine has developed alongside war in order to deal with the casualties and preserve the military’s ability to fight. Some argue that in this way war has helped science, and medicine in particular, to progress more rapidly than if human history had been characterised by peaceful coexistence.

But this theory disregards the way many medical developments have often been driven by the need to heal war wounds – like intensive burns or lung damage brought on by poisonous gas – rather than diseases borne from poverty, like TB and malaria.

And, of course, medicine has been driven by the need to make profits.

Reconstructive facial surgery was pioneered during the First World War. It developed and continues to be used to productively change lives today. Yet it is hard to think of plastic ­surgery without thinking of the way it has been used to cosmetically mutilate bodies – mainly women’s – as a way to reach a physical “ideal”.


The incredible technological developments that have taken place over the last century are well illustrated in War and Medicine. The exhibition shows that science can be used for both destructive and productive purposes, but that it is the priorities of society that will shape this.

One of the most poignant sections of the exhibition is entitled The Mind. It looks at how war damages mental health and how medicine has sought to treat it.

During the First World War there were over 80,000 cases of shell shock among British troops. Many of the soldiers who were too unwell to face returning to battle were shot as deserters or cowards.

Today, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a recognised condition, but away from the front the treatment of soldiers who suffer from it seems to have changed little.

Video clips show veterans from the Falklands and Vietnam wars, as well as US marines serving in Afghanistan today, speaking of the same problems as their counterparts who fought in the trenches of the Somme.

In war, and the macho frenzy that accompanies it, soldiers often feel unable to talk about the horrors they’ve seen and can’t forget. Constant nightmares and changes in character are just some of the ways combat stress destroys lives.

One US marine says, “If you have a problem in the army you don’t talk about it – people will think you’re going soft. I felt like I was cracking up… this war makes you think ‘Man, will this never end’?”

Extracts from the Vietnam film Winter Soldier sit beside video interviews with victims of the Hiroshima bomb baring their scars.

I left the exhibition feeling that the military’s need to decisively beat the “enemy” will mean that the disastrous effects of war will only increase as our technological ability to heal and cure grows. What an indictment of human progress!

Medicine and War is at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London until 15 February 2009. Go to »

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Tue 20 Jan 2009, 18:49 GMT
Issue No. 2135
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