Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Power of Audacity

My war begins in luxury. Those in Ottawa who decide such things have deemed that I shall fly to Afghanistan for my 5-week locum in business class. The rationale for this I am told, is that if I arrive well rested I will be all the more ready to assume my duties with a clear head, a stout heart and a steady hand. Though a year ago when I came, I travelled mostly on red-eye Canadian Forces cargo service flights and still managed to arrive feeling pretty good. What has changed I wonder in the last year? Has a civilian internist-intensivist become such an indispensible military asset that no expense should be spared in assuring him a pleasant trip? The logic that the doctor should fly business class so that the soldier won’t fly home in a coffin seems weak at best — to me anyway.
The full Colonel I am going to replace, a dedicated physician from Edmonton who began his career as a pipe-fitter, who has stayed with the Forces through good times and bad, and who has completed 3 tours in Afghanistan totaling many months, arrived here and will fly home in economy class.
I think I’m good at my job and that what I have to contribute is important. But in the grand scheme I don’t think it is more important than role of the brave medics who risk their necks “outside the wire” at forward operating bases and on battlefields across Kandahar province. In fact, 4 Canadian medics have been killed in the last 2 years here. Pictures of CplC Christian Duchesne (34) and Cpls Glen Arnold (32), Nicholas Beauchamp (28) and Andrew Eykelenboom (23) look down from a wall in the entrance to the hospital.
I have never flown anywhere in such style and I am befuddled by the array of buttons that controls my seat. Evidently I am too short for business class — a roller in the seatback, meant to gently massage my lumbar lordosis is instead crushing my mid-thoracic kyphosis and it is several panic stricken minutes before I find the button that brings this chiropractic manipulation to an end. Next to me on the flight sits a man whom I will resemble in 20 years, unless I am careful to eat properly and exercise regularly. Like a virtuoso pianist attacking the faster bits of a Rachmaninoff concerto he taps a Blackberry that matches the dark sheen of his expensive looking clothes. Interrupting his e-mail cadenza he smiles and asks in a friendly manner where I’m going.
“Afghanistan” I say. “I’m going to work on the Kandahdar Airfield for a few weeks.”
“What are you going to do there?” he says, looking a little puzzled after my unexpected response.
“I’m a doctor. I’m going to look after wounded people in the base’s hospital.”
“Are you a GP?”
People always ask that question, I’m never sure why.
“No, I specialize in intensive care. Right now, the military doesn’t have quite enough doctors who do my sort of work so they fill in the gaps with civilians like me.”
I have found that there are several common responses when people find out that I’m going on this trip. Some assume (wrongly) that it is quite exotic or dangerous on the Kandahar Airfield and that I must be a little crazy or very brave, or both. Others seem impressed at what they perceive (in part correctly) to be an act of patriotic or humanitarian commitment. Another kind of person wearily opines that the whole war is a quagmire, all the papers say so, and it may true that the Taliban are beastly, but nobody ever has, nor ever will bring “that country” under external control. Last are the people who, like my travelling companion really don’t know what to say next. Notions of war and wounded people seem thoroughly at odds with our immediate surroundings and the juxtaposition brings our conversation awkwardly to a halt until I venture to ask him what line of work he is in.
“Shopping Malls” he says brightening. “I plan them.”
“That must be very interesting,” I observe, thinking exactly the opposite.
“And where are you headed to plan these shopping malls?”
“Moscow and then India.”
I mention that my trip will take me through a city that is well known as a shopping destination.
“Yes, that place is really something, you’re going to love it,” he says with a hint of jealousy that he can’t go too. “I just attended a seminar last week about the Power of Audacity! That’s what that place is really all about.”
Adjusting my chair in to a reclining position, I feel tired but can’t sleep. I shift uncomfortably, filled with a sense of unease at being a person of privilege in this world of wars and audacious shopping malls. I think about the patients, mostly members of the Afghan security forces and wounded civilians, who within hours will be under my care, and about the global disparity between poor and rich, which is itself a form of violence.

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