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John Sweeney
HARROWING DISPATCHES
Contact Wounds: A War Surgeon’s Education
By Jonathan Kaplan (Picador 416pp £17.99)

The final lines of Lermontov’s ‘The Sail’ – ‘Restless, he begs for storms, / As though in storms there is rest’ – sum up the spirit of this book. Raw courage, skill and knowledge are on show in these dispatches of a battle surgeon from harrowing places. But there is also a saddening sense of personal dislocation, as if the author is not a man who is at ease with himself.

Nor is all of the book an easy read. Kaplan was, for a time, the only surgeon for 160,000 civilians in war-torn Angola. Some of his descriptions – in particular of a pregnant woman with one eye popping out from its socket after she had been shot at in a battle – I found so disturbing I had to put the book aside and think about little fluffy kittens for a bit. I’m afraid to say there was a part of me which thought, I wish I hadn’t read that.

The central theme of the book is the formative influences that made the author into a war surgeon. It’s a compelling life story, beautifully written but somehow a little comfortless and chilly. Contact Wounds is the second instalment of his memoirs, the first being The Dressing Station. Kaplan is a South African Jew and son of a surgeon who, as a teenager, began to realise that apartheid was rotten to the core. His own distancing from the land of his birth doesn’t happen in a thunderclap, but is more a question of a growing awareness of noises off: of a burning injustice not addressed, while his mates mess about. There’s some real affection for the South Africa of his youth, and a lot of comedy, but you can feel Kaplan going into exile in his early teens – long before he makes it a reality.

A trip to Israel in 1968 opened the eyes of the young student to the ugliness and unfairness of the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The teenager, intent on becoming a doctor, was cut off from believing in the two countries that somehow formed him. Perhaps it isn’t too surprising that he grew up to care for the dispossessed and landless peoples of Africa and the Middle East, in particular the Kurds.

Along the way, we get a beautiful and often very funny description of studying to be a doctor in South Africa in the mid Seventies. His first childbirth was in a black hospital where the instructions to the mother-to-be were simple and crude: it’s like trying to do a shit. The baby popped out so quickly he almost dropped it, but even so, the mother asked him in Afrikaans what his name was so that she could name the boy after him.

Kaplan did his clinical year in the Seychelles, and clashed with the Mancham regime over a woman whom both the young medical student and the Prime Minister of the Indian Ocean paradise fancied. He had to disappear off the main island for a couple of weeks, and this exile seems to have provided a momentary blast of blissful happiness.

The main events of the book are war and cruelty, and how the West’s proxy wars with the Soviet Union so scarred the wretched people of the earth. Angola is one of the bleakest, most cruel countries on the planet. I knew a former British officer, a young chap whose knee was smashed in a bad parachute landing, who spent four or five tours clearing landmines for a charity there – before an anti-tank mine blew him up. And after all the good work he had done for that country, the only thing the Angolan cops could do was charge baksheesh before they would allow the bits in the coffin to go home to England.

Kaplan’s stories about the horror of Angola are so vivid that I found a couple of them hard to stomach. The narrative moves to Iraq, and the chaotic mess created by an American superpower which is profoundly ignorant of matters abroad. Kaplan has seen with his own eyes what Saddam’s men did to the Kurds, so his eyewitness account of an American soldier saying ‘these ragheads did 9.11’ gives you an insight – with a fine economy of words – into how such a good cause as the removal of Saddam’s tyranny could have been so horribly bungled.

The terrorist outrages in New York, Madrid and London have changed the stature of Kaplan’s own trade: he now teaches doctors in the big Western capitals about triage, and how to flick through multiple cases, sorting out who may live and who is going to die.

If you really want to know about man’s inhumanity to man, then read this book – but be warned, you may want to throw up.