Endless War As Medical Drama Backdrop

Combat Hospital, a Canadian show that’s airing simultaneously on a network in that country and on ABC here is not an astonishingly good show. But it is a very interesting one. The show, which follows an international group of trauma surgeons at a base in Kandahar, is the only show I know of to treat our involvement in Afghanistan as so much of a long-term given that it can be the basis for an ongoing television show.

Art about military doctors, which lies at an interesting intersection between medical dramas and military dramas, isn’t new. M*A*S*H is the obvious, and superior, predecessor to Combat Hospital, but that show was set in the Korean War even as it was an analogy for the conflict in Vietnam, and it’s an interesting thought experiment about whether M*A*S*H would have drawn an astonishing 106 million viewers for its first-season finale if it had been directly rather than metaphorically about the conflict at hand. So there’s something audacious about setting Combat Hospital in a conflict that’s still ongoing, and in treating that conflict both as a moral drama and as the set of limitations that determine how people date, handle pregnancy scares, and conduct other parts of their social and personal lives. Relationships are limited by rotations in and out of the base or the fact that one half of a potential pairing’s in Special Forces, a positive pregnancy test may mean losing your job, and throwing a party requires cutting deals with other units. Soldiers and Afghan translators alike are united in their attempts to keep a laptop working so the translator can get online and get a picture from a girl he’s been chatting with online, and a photographer who is taking advantage of a war zone to cheat on her husband ends up hurting a young doctor who thinks of himself as a dashing womanizer.

The show makes pretty good use of the medical setting, too. Not only are the characters dealing with life-and-death issues, but they’re dealing with them in circumstances where decisions about whether to continue surgery are based on the capacity of a limited base blood bank, and where running a women’s clinic requires balancing a patient’s need for surgery with that same patient’s need to be seen as abiding by her fathers’ orders. There’s the typical medical drama nonsense, like a terrifying and mysterious virus that strikes the trauma center, but no acts of House-like genius to mysteriously solve either odd illnesses or resource problems.

And I think most interesting to me, the show’s one of the most prominent depictions other than Doonesbury’s recent arcs, of the experiences of women in combat zones. Michelle Borth’s Rebecca can be entitled and unwilling to adapt to the realities of resource limitations, but the show is honest about her difficulties adjusting, and I think that’s useful. Despite its depictions of surgery under stressed conditions, of men in foil blankets, Combat Hospital isn’t about the gritty realities of war, and that’s particularly true of her character: I don’t really think she’s going to be one of the 19,000 servicemembers who were raped or sexually assaulted in 2010. That’s not the pretty or attractive kind of gritty that American audiences get excited about (they’re okay with seeing female doctors get raped in some circumstances, but I doubt they’d stand for a plot arc that implicated members of the armed forces or law enforcement), even though it is a reality women in the American military face. But then, not everything needs to be The Wire either, and Combat Hospital is reasonably amiable fluff that also happens to serve the useful purpose of showing women being competent in difficult military situations — and acknowledging that our involvement in Afghanistan isn’t something we’re likely to wrap up neatly or soon.