Because We Are Not Animals


by Edison McDaniels II, MD

This was published in the Opinions Section of Navy Times, April 2002.

My name is Edison McDaniels and I am a neurosurgeon on active duty with the United States Navy.  Recently, I was ordered to Guantanamo Bay Naval Hospital in order to do urgent surgery on one of the detainees from the war in Afghanistan.  The man had been rendered paraplegic by an abscess in his spine.  Since returning, indeed even as I was packing to leave for Cuba, I have repeatedly been asked why we should provide medical care to these people.

The answer, of course, is because we are not animals.

Winston Churchill once said:  “Prisoner-of-war, you are in the power of your enemy.  You must obey his orders, go where he tells you, stay where you are bid, await his pleasure, possess your soul and patience.”

Of course, it is not my place to debate whether or not these men are prisoners of war.  However, it certainly seems that they are wartime detainees, and, as such, the significant implications of Churchill’s statement must apply.  In times of captivity, the onus is upon the captors to see to the well being of their captives.

So what, you ask?

Consider the horrific consequences of not doing so.  Actually, you need only to look at history for examples too numerous to count.  Read, for example, the following account of captive life at Belle Isle during the Civil War, from a young union soldier named Charles Fosdick captured at Chickamauga:

“When we first went on the island, our rations consisted of a piece of cornbread…a little bit of bacon, and a cup of pea soup. With multitudes of weevils or black bugs which would rise to the top to the thickness of an inch, at first we would take a spoon or paddle and fish out those insects.  But later on, we became so famished for food that we would break our bread into the soup and devour it, bugs and all… The pea or bug soup was set out in wooden buckets which made it very convenient for a herd of dogs, the favorites of the officers and men on duty, to go and eat and drink as their appetites suggested. This was done before our eyes…  Finally one day, one of these dogs chanced to come within the prison limits and no sooner in, than it was seized and killed.  It was then dressed to cut up and cook and furnished a pleasant repast for several hungry men.  After this occurrence, and once a taste of fresh meat, the boys contrived all manner of projects to decoy an unwary dog to cross…  And they were so persistent in their efforts, that in a short time there was not a live dog left on Belle Isle.”

Not vivid enough?  Try this morbid account of life at Andersonville prison in 1864 from inmate Charlie Mosher:

“July 31st.  I have been very sick for the past week with a dysentery.  So sick that it did not seem as if I could hold together any longer.  This is the worst sickness I have had, and there are thousands who are as bad and worse than I have been.  It is awful.  Men are lying all around in the hot sun, face up with their mouths wide.  The fleas, lice, and maggots are holding high carnival in here.  Human nature is made of good stuff or it could not stand the strain.”

Or consider the following:  On 9 April 1942, 10,000 Americans and 62,000 Filipinos were captured at the surrender of Bataan.  The ensuing march to Camp O’Donnell, Luzon, Philippines, between 12 April and 24 April 1942 resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 (and possibly as many as 18,000) of them.  The well known atrocities that occurred during the march included the failure to provide even the most basic human needs, including food and water.  And the dying didn’t end when the march did.  In the first forty days of Camp O’Donnell, an additional 1,500 Americans and 25,000 Filipinos died as a result of malnutrition.

In the Revolutionary War, at least 11,000 American prisoners died on a single British prison ship, the HMS Jersey.

During the Civil War, 25,956 Confederates and 31,000 Union soldiers died in captivity.

Of 43,648 Americans known to have been held as POWs by the Japanese in WWII, 12,953 of them died.

These are hellish numbers, and though they may seem to refute the statement made above, “because we are not animals,” they certainly do not justify letting a man die in his own excrement.

One of the detainees, waking from an operation to remove a blind eye, told his translator that he was surprised to be alive.  He thought he was being executed as he went to sleep.

What separates Americans from those that would do us harm, is not the belief that we are any better, but rather a certain knowledge that all people are better, that all people have not just some intrinsic worth, but the same intrinsic worth.  The central core value of the great mechanism that is American society, the crowning glory of the American way of life, is tolerance for race, for gender, and for religious belief–even when that belief is far a field from most western values.  It is only when that belief crosses the line that separates man from animal that one can justify forceable intervention.

Though their acts may mark them as animals, we know better and must behave accordingly, because we are not animals.

We (the American people) have provided the detainees with food and water, shelter, lodging, and basic medical care.  Nothing more and nothing less.  In a reasonable and just society, it falls to those appointed over us to determine the ultimate fate of these wretched and troubled souls.

 This was published in the Opinions Section of Navy Times, April 2002.


Saving King

Killing King

The time is the 4th of April 1968, a cool Spring evening close on six pm. The place is a predominantly black neighborhood on the south edge of downtown Memphis, Tennessee. An area of run-down homes and low incomes. At 450 Mulberry Street there sits a small, modestly upscale boarding establishment, the Lorraine Motel. It is two stories and there is a pool, installed by the motel’s long time owner, Mr. Walter Bailey. The motel is popular among black musicians who frequent the nearby Stax Records. Over the years these have included Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Waters, and Otis Redding before his death the year before.

Across the street and beyond a small brushy knoll is a two-story brick rooming house. 422 Main Street. On the second floor of this shoddy establishment, at the window of a small bathroom, a man named James Earl Ray waits with a 30.06 rifle. Ray has a clear view of the Lorraine Motel, of room 306 on the second floor.

It is one minute after six in the evening and, in the time it takes a bullet to fly the length of the knoll, everything changes.

Martin Luther King, 39 years old, has already survived one assassination attempt. Ten years earlier, on September 20th, 1958, a deranged black woman with the bewitched name of Izola Curr plunged a steel letter opener into his chest—his sternum actually—while he was holding a book signing at a Harlem bookstore. Three hours of emergency surgery at Harlem Hospital saved his life. The blade missed his aorta by a hair’s breath.

He will not be nearly so lucky this time…


In all of American history, surely one of the most atrocious acts of gun violence took place on the evening of April 4, 1968. No less a personage than George Wallace, the avowed segregationist, called the shot that rang out at 6:01 pm in Memphis, Tennessee “a senseless, regrettable act.” President Lyndon Johnson canceled an important trip to Hawaii—he had been scheduled to meet with his military commanders about strategy in Vietnam—upon learning of King’s death.

Over 100 American cities erupted into rioting on the news of what this single gunshot wrought: the stilling of the greatest single voice in the American civil rights movement, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

These facts are well known and not in dispute: King was shot at 6:01 pm and was pronounced dead at 7:05 pm at St. Joseph’s Hospital after a failed attempt at open cardiac massage. He was 39 years old.

According to King biographer Taylor Branch (At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68), King was standing on the balcony outside room 306 on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel when Jesse Jackson hollered up to him: “Doc, you remember Ben Branch?” King replied “Oh yes, he’s my man.” King then said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”

Ben Branch replied “Okay, Doc, I will.”

There was no reply.

King had spoken his last words, and in the words of biographer Taylor Branch, time on the balcony had turned lethal and King’s sojourn on earth went blank.

But did it? Did it do so immediately? Was King doomed the moment that bullet crashed through him? Is there any action that might have saved his life as he lay supine on that balcony. Bleeding profusely from a wound to his right jaw and neck? He wasn’t pronounced dead for 64 minutes. Was he, in fact, alive during that time? Was there ever a chance he could have been saved by the relatively crude trauma care of 1968? And how about today? If King was shot in 2013, might he survive?

The answers to these questions and more are interesting and worth pursueing. They illustrate, if nothing more, how far trauma care has come in the forty-five years since that fateful night. Based on a close reading of eyewitness reports, the autopsy filing, the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations’ investigation into the assassination of Martin Luther King, and other sources, I have put together a creative but nonfictitious account of the efforts to save Dr. King’s life in the 64 minutes that followed his shooting.

This is an intense, no holds barred look at what transpired in 1968, and an equally intense account of what might occur under similar circumstances today. If you have any interest in medicine, surgery, the drama of the emergency room, or trauma in general, you won’t want to miss this.

SAVING KING is about one of life’s harder moments. Available now for the Amazon Kindle. Just 99¢ & you can touch a piece of history.

Killing King

Click on the book image to buy for 99¢ for the Amazon Kindle

Now that’s damn interesting!


The Flu—A Personal Review


The Flu—A Personal Review


The flu. The name sounds mundane in this age of modern vaccines and miracle drugs. For most people, if they think of it at all, it is only as a reminder of that annual rite of passage: the late fall or early winter vaccination.

But it hasn’t always been such. We should not forget that at one time, and this was not so long ago, the flu—influenza as it is more properly recorded—killed more people than any other illness in modern history. The 1918, pandemic killed fifty million people world wide, fully three times the number of folks killed in all the years of World War I, which was one of the most terrible wars in all of human history.

The 1918 flu was the great equalizer, afflicting a whopping 25% of the US population. Incredibly, so many Americans died in that one year that the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by twelve years.

The 2012 flu is nothing like the 1918 flu, of course. A few people have died, perhaps even a few more than usual, but it certainly isn’t creating a panic in the streets. Nonetheless, it is out there. And I am living proof of that.

I was vaccinated against the flu in the late fall. A few weeks ago it nearly killed me.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I was never anywhere near death, though the idea had a certain appeal at the worst of it.

It began one evening with achiness in my legs, which quickly spread to include every muscle in my body. Such myalgias are common with the flu. What was different this time was the severe and unrelenting nature of the aches, as if I had run a marathon. Uphill. In a cold rain. Ever fiber of my being became involved before this little piece of misery was over. The soreness was biblical, with an absolute sense of being not just ill, but afflicted. And this was before the headache, which came on within a few hours and was its own little torture. At times, my head positively swam between nausea and a vice-like pressure. Misery abundant.

I took to chanting: “there is no pain there is no pain there is no pain there is no…” For brief moments, this mantra seemed to clear not only my mind but my body too, and I would lie still for minutes at a time, afraid even to breathe for fear of breaking the spell. In this fashion I passed several barely tolerable days, though in the nights my tormentor seemed to redouble her efforts. She seemed a jealous bitch, determined to keep sleep from me.

The early mornings, 2-6 am, were the worst. I couldn’t get comfortable and tossed constantly. Sometimes I got up and showered, which somehow seemed to relieve the worst of it, if only for a few moments. I took four showers in ten hours on the third day.

My appetite was not affected, though eating was a chore because I was always so tired. And I never had any trouble breathing, no pneumonia, no cough, no belly pain. Nonetheless, the flu engulfed me, occupying every part of me in the worst way. I was hot, with perhaps a moderate temp of 101-102. The world alternated between burning and freezing. And just wiggling my toes spun my head till I felt like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I couldn’t imagine a world in which head splitting misery wasn’t at the forefront of existence.

By the morning of the fourth day, the aches had begun to recede, though it took another thirty-six hours for them to dissipate altogether. The headache was a bit more tenacious, especially at the back of my head and top of my neck. I wondered for awhile if I might have a bit of viral meningitis. If so, I appear none the worse for it.

I never tried tamiflu. Possibly that antiviral agent might have reduced the intensity and or duration of the illness. I dunno. I did drink constantly, as staying well hydrated in such a circumstance is key. Rest and relaxation are the other orders of the moment, though, to be honest, I had no choice but to stay horizontal. I couldn’t function for the best part of five days.

The verdict: A difficult five days, but tolerable enough in the end. If you gotta be sick, you could do much worse than this little piece of genetic material. As a deadly illness, I give the 2012 influenza a flimsy 2/5 Stars (uncomfortable, potentially life-threatening, but a pale imitation of the real thing—though as close as I care to come for the foreseeable future). In terms of the more mundane flu we have come to know over the past decade however, this was right up there—a real whopper.

Give it a pass if you can.


The fiction world of Edison McDaniels




What I write—And Why.

My writing has been repeatedly described as intense but engaging, as well as heart-breaking and—by at least one reviewer—absolutely fantastic.

I seem to thrive when working with ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances. Think fiction at its most intense, life at its highest volume.

I write with a style that is both immediate and intense, bringing the reader into the moment or onto the battlefield, if you like. In The Crucible, I took readers into a 1951 operating room to watch as a surgeon worked to save the life of a little boy. In Not One Among Them Whole, my second novel, my canvas was a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. In The Burden, a supernatural medical thriller & my first novel (soon to be available as an eBook so watch for it!), we watched a surgeon come apart after the death of his young daughter. Later, he discovers a door to her afterlife—a door never meant to be opened. In my novella Blade Man, an itinerant scalpel salesman meets his worst nightmare on a lonely, snow bound, North Dakota highway. In Juicing Out, another of my favorite novellas, a surgeon’s already difficult night gets worse—much worse—when he gets home. Hint: have you ever tried to change the battery in your smoke detector?

I know of no other way to write than with intensity, like a fire fighter telling of his time inside a burning building while the soot and snot are still running heavy from his nose. We all know it’d be hot inside that building, but what about the sparks burning through your clothes and biting at your skin, the close sweat stinging your eyes until blindness threatens, the raspy sound of your ventilator with every suck of breath you take. How about the feel—cool? refreshing?—of the oxygen blowing into your face mask? And what does the fire sound like? Can you hear anything else? Your own pulse maybe?

I believe anybody with an interest in medicine and surgery, or who likes shows such as Law & Order or CSI will like my stories. If you’ve ever wanted to ‘open the door’ to see what goes on in the operating room, pick up Not One Among Them Whole.

If you are the kind of person who might like being a voyeur in the emergency room, even for just a short time, you’ll find much of what’s here interesting, even compelling.

Yet, despite all of the intensity alluded to above, there is a certain grace to my words. The writing is, simply put, beautiful.

Some of my favorite authors include Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian is nothing short of brilliant), Stephen King (especially his earlier books — he is always a great storyteller, but for my money his best pure story is Delores Claiborne, followed closely by Salem’s Lot & Pet SemataryFull Dark, No Stars is his best recent story collection and it rocks), Nevil Shute (read A Town Called Alice, nothing beats it for sheer storytelling, but just about every novel he ever wrote is worth picking up; there are 26 I believe, most centered around events which occurred during WWII; if you are one of those into apocalyptic fiction, as I am, On The Beach is a must read), Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain is pure artistry), and, of course, Michael Shaara & The Killer Angels (as good as the legend says it is).

Bruce Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War (The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat) is second only to Shelby Foote’s three volume epic history The Civil War: A Narrative. I highly recommend Shelby Foote.

There are five works I would recommend for those interested in the suffering war brings, and all are tough reads but worth every effort:

The first is Stalingrad, by Theodore Plievier. This is a brutally terrifying novel of life amid war. There is no greater depiction of the suffering wrought by war so far as I am aware. Written in 1948. It is not available as an eBook. If you can find it, buy it. Note: there are a number of books named Stalingrad or some version thereof. Look for the author.

The second is Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor. Probably the best Civil War novel ever written, though not widely read today. A long book at over 750 pages. If you stick with it, you will not be disappointed. In fact, you may well consider it the best book you have ever read. Nuff said.

The third is also called Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, by Antony Beevor. This is not a novel but a history of the Battle of Stalingrad and stands alone as perhaps the finest account of that terrible siege ever written. An acclaimed book. Highly recommended if nonfiction is what you are looking for.

City of Thieves, by David Benioff is a recent novel of life in Leningrad during the WWII. Very good and a much easier read. Highly recommended.

Finally, I would recommend Ulysses S. Grant’s Presidential Memoir. Widely considered the best of all presidential memoirs, highly readable despite being two volumes. This is his account of the Civil War. He finished it only days before his death.

Anyway, thanks for reading my blog, thanks for supporting me. And thanks for reading my fiction.