Opening Line: “The last time I talked to my dad was on a sweltering April evening in 2004.It was a lopsided conversation. He had died of a heart attack almost thirty years earlier.”
Paradise General is the gripping personal account of Dr. Dave Hnida, an ordinary civilian doctor from Colorado who spent four months as a trauma chief at one of the busiest combat hospitals in Iraq.
Staffed by reservist medics this modern day M.A.S.H unit consisted of a series of rundown buildings connected by tents, cement blocks and sandbags in the middle of the desert. For this forty-eight year old volunteer soldier the working conditions may have been sparse, but he and his fellow doctors managed to maintain a 98% survival rate. Using a form of fast-food surgery, they put the mangled bodies back together in a “get em’ in get em’ out” method that then saw them being airlifted out of Iraq for more extensive repairs. Their wounded often including the very insurgents that placed the American soldiers within their OR and the Hippocratic Oath was common place. If you made it into Paradise General his team would take care of you.
Avoiding any political judgements "Dr. Dave" instead focuses on the care of his patients, his dislike of most things military and the diverse group of surgeons who become his new family. Told with a whole lot of self-deprecating humour we witness his frozen fear during his first shift and follow him through round-the-clock on call chaos, and inspiring dark hours. Throughout he manages to provide a level of humour and comedic relief to overcome the stress of putting IED maimed bodies back together, 130 degree heat, “foo-foo” coffee, threat of attack, and military madness that surrounds him. Hnida doesn’t shy away from the blood and gore here and in doing so the reality of war and death is brought home.
This book has been heavily compared to the TV series M.A.S.H and for good reason, as Hnida and his fellow surgeons use pranks and childlike misbehaviour as a prescription for sanity. His disdain for military acronyms and authority is another obvious comparison. Although (as another reviewer pointed out) it’s more like the final seasons of M.A.S.H, when the comedy held a dark edge and Hawkeye’s despairing introspection showed the true absurdities of war.
And “Blursday” which parallels Dr.Hnida’s day in trauma with that of the missing “fifth guy” from a routine patrol, presumed dead after an IED blast took out their Humvee. Hnida finds him outside the OR smoking a cigarette in the moonlight without a scratch on him.
I also appreciated the personal look we get into why Dave volunteered and the relationship he had with his veteran father, who only in death (and combat) was he beginning to understand.
I honestly had a lot of trouble putting this book down; told with candor and boyish humour Dr. Dave manages to deposit you right into the heart of the 399th CSH and the hell that war creates and leaves behind. It will be a long time before I can forget what I’ve read here.