This probably sounds like an oxymoron. It is almost impossible to believe, after a century of cataclysmic conflict that anything good, or creative, could come from war. But this is not the case. Anyone who has had a blood transfusion owes the success to a doctor operating in wartime conditions in Spain between 1936 and 1937. Anyone who has had re-constructive surgery, or even cosmetic surgery, also owes a lot to pioneers during wartime. New methods of saving life even in terrible conditions are often found in the emergencies that arise in extreme conflict: the fact that more amputees survived in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is not luck, it is due almost entirely to things that were learned in previous conflicts.
This is largely because war throws up conditions that are so extreme and so urgent, that the medics on the ground have to improvise, but their observations lead, from one situation to the next, to improvements and the things learned there, feed into medical procedures used in peacetime.
It was Doctor Norman Bethune who made great advances in blood transfusion. He was a Canadian thoracic surgeon, an ardent communist who flew to Spain in one of the transports arranged by André Malraux, who had arrived back in Paris to collect spare parts and ammunition to service his ailing squadron of fighter planes, that flew out of Albacete and Valencia to support the Republicans.
There was already a front-line blood transfusion service in operation in Spain run by Duran Jordà, but Bethune had left Canada with the express desire to set up a more efficient service which would be resourced by finance from the Canadian Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy (CASD). Dr Bethune established himself at the Gran Via Hotel in Madrid, speaking no Spanish he recruited a Spanish-speaking Dane to translate for him – his plan was to establish a Canadian blood transfusion service that would collect blood from the civilian population in Madrid, run it to the front-line where it was needed. CASD supplied money to buy a transporter and equipment, there was nothing for sale in Spain, but eventually a Ford station wagon was found in England, equipped and driven to Spain. Everything would be mobile: the refrigerator, the autoclave, and other essential apparatus, dressings, glass containers and glucose and sodium citrate purchased and transported by Canadians.
It would be virtually impossible to enumerate the extraordinary medical advances made during the Spanish Civil War, ways of dressing shrapnel wounds, amputations and blood transfusions are just a few of them.
Counter-balancing that, of course, one must not forget the quite terrible advances of a negative type – aerial bombardment being the most glaring example.
The fact that conflict influences artists of every calibre has been observed almost since the beginning of time: the caves at Lascaux show man in antagonism with the animal kingdom, albeit probably for food but the list of paintings and drawings that have depicted man’s inhumanity to man are legion. Practically every man on man conflict in history has its artistic expression from the Bayeux Tapestry to portraits and paintings from the front line in Afghanistan. Richard Rhodes concentrates on the work of Pablo Picasso, particularly Guernica and Joan Miró
Similarly, writing – books and articles, novels and non-fiction, Richard Rhodes lists many of them in this book, showing how this particular “little war” influenced writers like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, John Dos Passos and others.
Then finally there is photography. World War 1 was the precursor, especially aerial photo-reconnaissance (there are some quite remarkable examples) but photographers right at the front line was relatively new until Robert Capa and Gerda Taro came along with their sophisticated cameras and lenses. Gerda was killed in Spain, Robert Capa went on to show war at its most raw: unflinching pictures of death and destruction right up until he was killed himself in Indochina, stepping on a landmine in 1954. Nowadays, photographers and journalists are “embedded” with the troops.
Hell and Good Company brings the reader in contact with all sorts of people and situations, there are some interesting insights into what compels people to join a conflict that is not their concern; how extreme circumstances throw people together and fire up the imagination. There are extracts from war diaries and note books and new material some of which has not been published before. There is a lot in the book about the attitudes of the leaders in Germany, Italy and Russia, all of whom played their part in utilising this “little war” as a distraction from plans at home and a spawning ground for ideas that might be useful in the bigger conflict that was coming. Also the lack of participation in France and Britain and while it does not shirk the negatives, it extracts from the situation some of the beneficial side-effects, which it is as well for us to remember.