Military medicine aims to keep soldiers and sailors fit enough to fight.
Military medicine aims to keep soldiers and sailors fit enough to fight. While it is likely that battlefield medicine has existed as long as humans have fought over territory, the subject has received comparatively little attention in the historical record. Much of this gap is attributable to poor record keeping as well as a general lack of interest; few people besides military physicians have demonstrated any interest in military medicine. Most accounts of military medicine over the centuries are found in nonmedical writings, such as memoirs, histories of battles, and diaries as well as works of art.
Military medicine on the battlefield cannot be viewed in the narrow confines of a field of combat. It encompasses the treatment of injuries sustained on the battlefield, from spear wounds to gunshot wounds, as well as the side effects of such injuries, such as shock and infection. Medicine on the battlefield begins with the recruitment of troops who are healthy enough to fight on the battlefield. It continues with the maintenance of the health of fighters through adequate sanitation, the provision of safe foods, and the availability of clean water. It proceeds with the treatment of the wounded on the field and in hospitals. Battlefield surgeons have also shaped public policy to ensure better treatment of the wounded.
Available data on
An illustration from an early sixteenth century German field manual for wound treatment, by Hans von Gersdorff, shows typical wounds. The image is by Hans Wechtlin.
The same four major factors–shock and bleeding, tetanus, gangrene, and septicemia–would serve as the leading causes of death among military wounded until the twentieth century. The near-total disintegration of Western culture following the fall of Rome in 476
In the Renaissance, the military
U.S. Marines get plasma transfusions during the 1945 invasion of Okinawa.
Until the late eighteenth century, surgeons did some field surgery, but the wounded were typically gathered after the battle and brought to the surgeon. Military leaders feared that any attempt to remove the wounded would disrupt the fighting integrity of the unit. The wounded often lingered for hours and sometimes days before being evacuated. This situation did not improve until the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), when
The state of medical knowledge was also advancing in the eighteenth century.
Eighteenth century military medicine benefited from a number of new techniques.
In the early nineteenth century, military doctors began to record what they observed with the aim of changing public policy and improving the health of the army. As an additional concern, the deaths of soldiers overseas proved to be a burden to the taxpayer. In 1863, the Royal Commission on India estimated that Great Britain lost £588,000 annually from sickness among the troops in India alone. The financial impact of disease prompted more governments to focus their resources on the improvement of military medical care.
The most common battlefield injury continued to be
Largely because of advances in military medicine during
Anderson, Robert S., and W. Paul Havens, Jr., eds. Internal Medicine in World War II: Infectious Diseases and General Medicine. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1968. This textbook covers the treatment of World War II combat injuries. Freemon, Frank R. Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. This is a heavily illustrated and highly readable account of the challenges facing Union and Confederate medical forces. Gabriel, Richard A., and Karen S. Metz. A History of Military Medicine. 2 vols. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. A superb survey of military medicine from the dawn of recorded time to the end of the twentieth century. Griffin, Alexander R. Out of Carnage. New York: Howell, Soskin, 1945. An engaging contemporary account of World War II battlefield medicine. Jadick, Richard, and Thomas Hayden. On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story. New York: New American Library, 2007. Jadick is a career U.S. Marine who volunteered in 2004 to serve as a battalion surgeon in the Iraq War. Jadick and his men followed military units through the streets of Iraq in order to reach and stabilize wounded soldiers quickly. Kaplan, Jonathan. The Dressing Station: A Surgeon’s Chronicle of War and Medicine. New York: Grove Press, 2001. Kaplan, trained as a surgeon in South Africa, recalls his frontline medical experiences in apartheid South Africa, Kurdistan, and other places where undeclared wars raged. Littleton, Mark R. Doc: Heroic Stories of Medics, Corpsmen, and Surgeons in Combat. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Zenith Press, 2005. Littleton recounts stories of medical professionals, including nurses, from World War I to the Iraq War. McCallum, Jack E. Military Medicine: From Ancient Times to the Twenty-first Century. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2008. This is an encyclopedia that opens with a general history of medicine before proceeding to nearly two hundred entries on various aspects of military medicine. Nessen, Shawn Christian, Dave Edmond Lounsbury, and Stephen P. Hetz, eds. War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003-2007. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2008. The first scholarly work to cover military medicine in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, this book covers one hundred cases of combat trauma. Salazar, Christine F. The Treatment of War Wounds in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2000. The first book to address military medicine in the ancient world.
Biology, Chemistry, and War
Psychological Effects of War