Given the many American servicemen and women who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan disfigured, Marc Dugain’s The Officer’s Ward is painfully relevant in these times. Dugain has written an excellent, thought-provoking novella that will appeal to any sensitive audience, but especially to those involved with injured and mutilated veterans or in the field of disability studies.
While the story revolves around the experience of a young French officer facially disfigured at the onset of WWI, there’s surprisingly little of what one would expect from a WWI novel: no tales of trenches, of mustard gas, of going over the top, etc. For the book’s protagonist, the war is over in an instant, and he will spend the rest of it undergoing painful reconstructive operations with other mutilated men, well behind the front lines. The Officer’s Ward brings to mind Ernest Hemingway’s “In a Foreign Country”.
For a while, I will confess, that is all I thought this short novel was: a revisitation of a theme already deftly handled by a great writer. The second half of The Officer’s Ward, however, dispelled this idea, and it’s in the latter half that Dugain really stands out as an author with something more to offer us than existential dread. This is not to say that the book is deliberately uplifting or sanguine; it’s not. But it is hopeful and honest and, upon reflection, realistic.
These days, it seems that for a realistic literary work to be taken seriously, it must be tragic. Yet, after WWI, countless disfigured veterans married, worked, lived out their lives. This is not fiction; it is fact.
In terms of the psychology at play, in most respects Dugain seems right on. While the mutilated men (and the one disfigured woman in the novel) suffer physically and emotionally, they are also, in a sense, liberated. This is because they are so grotesquely defaced that they are no longer bound to participate in what Dugain’s compatriot, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, would call the “symbolic order” of things. For the facially disfigured, there is only the ever-present “real” of the now, where any fantasy of immortality or agency collapses.
In essence, mutilation marks the limit of human freedom. By their very presence, the disfigured shatter the belief that we are free to create ourselves and control our destinies. The disfigured represent a truth that is more horrifying than their physical injuries, and probably the principal reason that those not afflicted look away: the truth that human life is contingent, fragile, and ephemeral. The disfigured remind us that instant our sense of self could be erased.
At times, however, I must admit that I felt as though The Officer’s Ward was peopled by representative characters, rather than flesh and blood beings. For example, there’s no mention of pets in the book. No dogs, no cats—no creatures that would share their love without being inhibited or distracted by facial injuries. While animals may not have been accepted in hospitals then as they are today, I have no doubt that animals played an important part in many veterans’ personal lives and recovery. Even that famous veteran of the Trojan War, Odysseus, was moved to tears by his loyal dog, Argos. The exclusion of animals in the world of Dugain’s characters seems a peculiar oversight in an otherwise very realistic novel.
This does not make The Officer’s Ward‘s story any less insightful or thought-provoking, however. Indeed, how can one possibly read such a book and not ask, What if this happened to me? Perhaps the book is the better for Dugain’s approach; a bit of critical distance is necessary at times, and The Officer’s Ward might easily have become too emotionally fatiguing otherwise.
This is a story about the price of war and the human condition, and we should all be concerned about that.