Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dante's Infirmary

Book Review: Paradise General by Dave Hnida
Having served as an Army chaplain with the 28th CSH in Desert Storm, I was eager to read how another CSH did in Iraq, which the author dubbed "Dante's Infirmary" and "Paradise General." Major Dave Hnida is a Reserve doctor who was assigned to the 399th CSH during the surge, which means he was kept busy every single day with horrific injuries. He was old enough to be most of his patients' father, which is one reason he volunteered to serve. Another was the service of his dad in WWII. I've read a lot of books about combat, but none as engaging as Paradise General, the best first-person account I've ever read about war...but as Dave says, it's really a book about life. He takes the reader into his experience of arriving as a fish out of water from a family practice to the very worst imaginable injuries ("the rude unhinging of the machinery of life") and operating under less-than-desirable conditions. A bond quickly formed with fellow physicians, and at times the narrative reads like a sequel to MASH. I found myself laughing and getting choked up with every chapter. As a chaplain, I appreciated his mention of faith, and I understand his reluctance to attend "military-style hooah chapel" services, which some chaplains are guilty of conducting. But his faith and friends get him through this hellish ordeal. He complains about the bureaucracy of the military subculture, but not with what troops call an "attitude problem." The little things, like the battle to get a decent cup of coffee (and NOT "foo foo coffee"), and the practical jokes the doctors played on one another are hilarious. He describes in detail the human face of the war, and how "some wounds just aren't fixable." The language is rough, but realistic, especially in a combat environment. There are stories you'll want to read again, and observations you'll want to remember. Don't get this from the library; you'll want your own copy.

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