The Disease of War

I recently read a disintegrating little paperback on my bookshelves.  It probably belonged to my father, who was a public health doctor, with a masters in public health from Columbia University.  The book, Eleven Blue Men, consists of twelve stories about mysterious cases of sickness and death that came under the New York City Public Health Department’s purview in the mid-1940s.  The stories were originally serialized in The New Yorker magazine.  My edition of the book, by Berton Roueche, was published in 1955.

The stories involve cases of superlative medical detection, and they describe the extensive efforts exerted by epidemiologists and other investigators to identify and contain the culprits.  Cases of botulism, tetanus, smallpox, psittacosis, leprosy, typhoid fever, and others are described in detail.  There is a chapter on antibiotics, including the discovery of penicillin from mold, and the methods by which it was mass produced during World War II.

The outbreak of smallpox in New York City in 1947, a most contagious and deadly disease, led to the most massive emergency vaccination program in history, with 6,350,000 people being vaccinated, including the mayor of New York, within 28 days.

A new disease, which came to be named ricksettialpox, began striking inhabitants of a specific apartment complex in the borough of Queens in 1946.  It took significant sleuthing and the inspiration of an exterminator to discover the vector, a mite that fed on mice.

In the case of leprosy, the author goes into the historical discrimination and cruel torture of lepers, and the Bible-based fear of the disease, even though it is extremely sluggish and only marginally contagious.

While the stories are dated, and many of the diseases now rare in the US because of better sanitation, nutrition, and vaccinations, the afflictions themselves still exist and crop up from time to time.  The World Health Organization officially declared smallpox eradicated worldwide in 1980.  Other killer diseases like polio or tetanus now are virtually absent from the US and other developed countries.  Antibiotics like penicillin have completely changed the face of bacterial diseases and their treatments.

Medicine has made extraordinary strides in the past century, but I wonder about diminishing returns.  I read in newspapers about the starving children in Yemen and Ebola in the Congo, where there are also ongoing armed conflicts.  I think about microbiologist Hans Zinsser’s 1934 book Rats, Lice, and History, in which the author claims the bacteria win every war.  Zinsser was the original author of the microbiology text still used in medical schools today.

So, while medicine may have advanced, the social disease known as war has not, and it’s as deadly as ever, if not more so.  The starving children in Yemen are civilian victims caught in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the US assisting the Saudis through arms sales and military cooperation.  There’s no medicine that cures starvation or unsanitary conditions.  Malnutrition, impure water, and stressful living conditions are breeding grounds for diseases like cholera, which, like Ebola, is transmitted through contaminated bodily fluids.

Eleven Blue Men softened my views on vaccines.  I can’t argue with vaccines for polio, smallpox, or tetanus, but I wonder about the proliferation of vaccines for an array of milder diseases, like influenza, which are generally self-limiting.  Vaccines themselves cause risks.  American children receive some 70 vaccines before they are 18 years old.

The medical clinics in Yemen are full to overflowing, but there’s little they can do for starvation.  Clinics in war-torn or infection-ridden areas may have vaccines or medicines, too, but they can’t provide the food, sanitation and clean water that do a longer-lasting and more effective job of preventing and healing disease.

When it comes to public health, the simplest measures are usually the best.  They have to do with sanitation, nutrition, and clean water.  In the case of civilian victims of war, the “collateral damage”–as the military likes to rationalize it–most of the trauma comes not from the bombs and bullets, but from the diseases that meet no resistance in debilitated populations.  It’s no wonder that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, at the heels of World War I, was the deadliest epidemic in history, killing more people in one year than the bubonic plague killed in the four years of the Black Death.  The flu epidemic killed ten times more people than the war itself.  The flu has not been that deadly since, but neither have the people been so lacking in resistance.

We don’t think of war as a disease, but maybe we should.  It’s a social disease, and no one is immune.






22 thoughts on “The Disease of War

  1. Rosaliene Bacchus

    I agree with your conclusion, Katharine: “We don’t think of war as a disease, but maybe we should. It’s a social disease, and no one is immune.” I would go further and say that war should also be seen as a mental disorder of a species that is driven to violence in pursuit of dominance.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      We stand together on this. I’ve been thinking lately how the psychiatric establishment doesn’t think to diagnose society, but many so-called mental disorders in the DSM are directly caused by social expectations and requirements. PTSD among combat veterans is a prime example. Others may disagree with me, but I think Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the result of too many conflicting demands on attention, excessive stimulation, and pressure to perform. So we drug kids up so they’ll behave in class, and then we wonder why they’re drug addicted later.

      So war starts as a mental disorder among the people who have the power to wage war, then it becomes a physical disease among the people who are hurt by it.

      1. Rosaliene Bacchus

        Katharine, it’s so much easier to blame the individual for his/her inability to cope with life’s challenges than to consider the society within which he/she lives. For example, mothers are often blamed for mental health issues among their offspring. Very few mental health professionals consider that our mothers are also a product of their own upbringing, shaped by their communities.

      2. katharineotto Post author

        Absolutely, but blaming individuals only shames them, to no purpose. I think it’s important to recognize that all of us are shaped to some extent by the society we live in and those we are exposed to. Only by taking responsibility, as a society, can we hope to grow beyond our conditioning.

        The so-called “mental health professionals” do society a disservice by targeting individuals. While some people do need the help, it’s often reassuring to hear that “The whole world is crazy, so if you’re crazy, you’re normal.”

  2. Rosaliene Bacchus

    Katharine, I’ve just read an article by another blogger (Australian?), in the mental health profession who discusses the issues we’ve raised. Here’s an excerpt from her article, “What is radical psychology?” with link:

    “By labelling people with various mental disorders like depression and anxiety, are we blaming individual pathology for problems that are actually symptoms of an oppressive dysfunctional system?”

  3. thetruthaboutmentalhealth

    I’ve often wondered if humans are wired to fight and if it’s sadly an inevitable part of life but recently I read about indigenous Australians… Apparently there is little evidence of any intertribal warring in their long pre colonial history. Some have suggested that this might be due the absence of land ownership and the ethos that the land owns us rather than the other way around. No land ownership means no warring over who owns what. They did have personal disputes though. I wonder what it would take for westerners to adopt more peaceful worldviews

      1. Sha'Tara

        I am fully aware that love, on planet Earth, is a sacred concept; actually more of a sacred cow. No, I’m not talking about rationalization, I’m talking about Earth reality; about people’s feelings and how they respond to those. Actually there’s nothing rational about war, or any sort of violence to self or others, as there is nothing rational about love. I’ve worked it out and realized, for example, that without love you could never have hate, and vice-versa. They are two sides of the same coin. Love is a debt and it is paid back in hate. Find a hater and ask her/him what it is they love most and you will instantly see how the two are joined at the hip. (“Let no debt remain outstanding among you except the debt to love one another.”) Paul of Tarsus knew exactly what he was talking about: love is a debt and as the debt grew so did the oppressive, murderous religion he invented. Because God loves us we are indebted to that chimera for eternity, that’s the belief. Because of that we kill in God’s name, in love’s name. Desire, lust, greed, passion, co-dependency: all these are manifestations of love. “I loved the bitch so much, I couldn’t let her leave me; I had to kill her to stop her.” An actual defense after a crime of passion. “I love my country. I’d do anything to defend her.” And a-warring we go… The civilization we live in; the patriarchy that kills tens of thousands of children and their mothers yearly as collateral damage: these are products of love and we would know this as a truism if we dared look at the picture straight on and not in silhouette. Even on earth, Katharine, this will be common knowledge some day but meanwhile that “someday” is still far away.

      2. katharineotto Post author

        “Love” is an over-used and highly misunderstood word. I’ve never figured out what “love” actually means. A debt? Never thought about it. Love as an attachment can lead to resentment, feeling un-free. In that sense it could feel like a debt. On the other hand, love can inspire a person to give, in which case it wouldn’t feel like a debt but a joy.

      3. Sha'Tara

        I could not explain what I’ve been taught about love in a comment. I must return to that concept with an article on my blog. Suffice to say for the moment, as unwelcome the idea may be, that “love” is an obfuscation; a “false flag” if you will, invented to distract, sidetrack and confuse anyone who begins to realize that it is compassion we should be using, not the empty concept of love. It is never love itself that moves someone to give wholeheartedly and sacrificially to another, it is that bit of compassion that the individual has temporarily pulled out of her/himself and being programmed, brainwashed, calls it love. Compassion and love have absolutely nothing in common yet how often I hear or read people using these terms as if they were interchangeable. Love is exclusive – always – while compassion is inclusive. Love is reciprocal, compassion never is. I’ve said these before, many times. It takes a great deal of effort of mind to separate the grain from the chaff since the chaff has been sold as the real thing while the grain has been buried. Let me ask you this: have you ever seen love unfailingly do right by its promises? Compassion makes no promises, ever.

      4. katharineotto Post author

        By your definition, what I have called “love” is compassion. For instance, I have never been married or come close to it, because I don’t understand how someone can promise forever. And I don’t understand exclusivity, or its partner, jealousy.

        You say that compassion never is reciprocal, but isn’t that a measure of individual capacity? In other words, can’t two people feel reciprocal compassion without a sense of obligation?

        Generally, I don’t believe in promises, because in another context, they can be interpreted as threats.

      5. Sha'Tara

        One question, quote: “…can’t two people feel reciprocal compassion without a sense of obligation?” I think “compassion” is the square peg you’d want to put in the round hole…just to prove a point? 🙂 Two people can like each other, be attracted to each other, take care of one another, sure, totally and no problem with that: done all the time. But I would contend from my own experience that this exchange is not compassionate. For one thing it looks to me like you are describing a relationship. Compassion doesn’t do relationships, it operates through total detachment. A compassionate person can maybe have relationships, perhaps even be married (three times loser here so I’m not so sure about that) but chances are these relationships will be short lived as the compassionate being will not treat those in the relationship with any special regard and any relationship is built upon specialness. I live alone now, after being rejected by “special relationship” partners and friends because I cannot do exclusive.

      6. katharineotto Post author

        I thought about you while reading “The Art of Peace,” about the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. He talked about the one source and how everything emanates from it. Centering involves adhering to the principles of light (wisdom) and heat (compassion).

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I wonder if peaceful coexistence was more common before the Europeans and their ilk started roaming and “conquering,” with their strange notions of property rights, lines in the sane, and courthouses. Many so-called “primitive” cultures did not have written histories, so much of their knowledge and beliefs has been lost or distorted.

      I suspect many Native Americans might have lived that way, before the encroachment of foreigners with such different values. They saw themselves as “stewards,” who respected the land and its other life forms. Conflict was usually personal.

      I wonder about property rights. Karl Marx didn’t believe in them, but he would have given all property to the state, in effect, property rights by the state. The old idea of commons areas comes closer, as in grazing land.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Tangents are welcomed. The idea of property rights (including national boundaries) is possibly the most enduring excuse for war, so it’s not really a tangent but highly pertinent to the article..

  4. Sha'Tara

    Quote: “Centering involves adhering to the principles of light (wisdom) and heat (compassion).” Yes, certainly. I don’t usually talk about wisdom because it’s something that emanates from being compassionate (IMO). I can say to someone, practice compassion in all your interactions and that is a fair admonition because I am not asking an individual to do something she isn’t designed to do by nature of being an intelligent, self aware sentience, but I cannot say, practice wisdom. Compassion lies within us, is always a latent part of us all; wisdom is earned, developed from experience but not consciously, not by observing and choosing. I would call it a mental mutation. When Jesus is quoted as saying, be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves, he was deliberately giving false information as another example of his impossible exhortations – or he was misquoted… again, IMO.


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