In this book Thomas S. Helling, a surgeon at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and veteran of the Army Medical Corps, looks at the hell of war through a special—and very specific—lens: the medical care provided to America’s soldiers and marines on the battlefields of Bataan (1941–1942), Anzio (1944), Bastogne (1944), Chosin (1950), and Khe Sanh (1968). Each of these battles presented different challenges to American forces, and each left those forces dealing with the shock of large numbers of combat injuries and deaths.

In his skilled telling of manifold stories of resilience and valor, Helling observes that the roles of medical care providers in these armed conflicts often changed to that of warriors fighting for the lives of their soldiers. “Medics, nurses, and doctors reached beyond their own safety,” he writes, “to uncover a courage few were aware they possessed.” All too often, however, the casualties came with such frightful regularity that medical staffs were unable to keep pace with the incoming wounded.

Helling notes that doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel worked under harrowing combat conditions to stop bleeding, repair injuries, and save lives—even operating on patients while under enemy attack—and to keep rampant disease in check. Some of them, of course, suffered the same fate as did their fighting soldiers. But most gave all they had against hopelessness in saving others from probable death, performing their duties with insignificant regard for themselves, often under the most horrific circumstances imaginable.

The Agony of Heroes is an inspiration to all combat medical personnel who will serve on the battlefields of the future. They are, to borrow Helling’s characterization, “mercy workers whose intent is to save and not destroy,” and all of us have a lot to learn from them.

George A. Alexander, M.D., is a former deputy surgeon general in the Army Medical Corps. He has been a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and an editorial board member of Military Medicine.

This article appears in the Spring 2020 issue (Vol. 32, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Review | Lessons and Legacies 

Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!