It's hard not to read The Healer's War with an eye to the current military crisis the United States finds itself in. The comparisons to Vietnam have been hot and heavy throughout the Iraq War, mostly with the administration denying the similarities for fear of having to live with the same results. The Healer's War is a tough, personal, partially fictional account of a nurse serving in Vietnam and discovering the joys and horrors of a foreign land that is being destroyed for idealistic reasons. The writer, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, talks in the afterword aout her own experiences in Vietnam and what she was trying to accomplish with her novel.
Kitty McCulley is a lot like any of the other volunteers who went to Vietnam, seduced by the beauty of the country when it is not being destroyed by warring factions and too young to have any firm sense of who she is as she serves heroically in an evac hospital. She is not exactly innocent as we meet her, having been in Da Nang long enough to see how the game is played, both in the hospital she works in and in the relationships that surround her. But she is devoted to her patients, both American and Vietnamese, and thus appears to be innocent in that light. The difference is that she generally knows the results of her standing up for her patients, but doesn't really care as she is doing the right thing for her patients. Fortunately, for the first half of the novel, it really doesn't matter as her superiors share that same incentive. Often, she andher coworkers end up defending the Vietnamese in their orthopedics ward from the anger and hate that the war has riled up in the American soldiers. Kitty's analysis, though, allows the reader to see that while some of the soldiers are born sadistic, their training and situation has made the rest a mix of very human characters in situations that would try the strongest people.
So, why is this a speculative fiction novel? As Kitty treats her patients, she meets a Vietnamese holy man named Xe who eventually gives her an amulet that allows her to see and manipulate the auras of the people around her. Suddenly, Kitty can heal magically, her only limitation being when she runs out of enough of her own energy that she is giving to the ill. But she is also able to form chains of power, allowing the energy from individuals to flow through her to her patients.
However, the book is really not about the magic. In fact, I believe the book to be an example of magical realism, where magic works and folks generally accept it, but the magic is not central to the telling of the story. The story really is about the Vietnamese people and the impossible position they were put in during the war. Scarborough treats both Americans and Vietnamese with candor and compassion; people are just people, with weaknesses and strengths that are exploited by their circumstances adn the other people around them. This analysis is enhanced by Kitty's amulet as she can see the turmoil mixed in the auras of the people around her.
Eventually Kitty finds herself lost in the Vietnamese jungle with a child amputee victim, for whom she was once again trying to do the right thing. Until this moment, her views of the events of the war have been those of a bystander, only dealing with the casulaties of a distant battle that rarely impinges upon her daily life. Suddenly, she is in the midst of the war, fighting to use her skills and newfound abilities, to save her allies and herself. Just who the enemy is varies from battle to battle, and she comes to recognize that the cliche is true--war is chaos.
The magic Kitty carries remains in the background and is, honestly, a plot device to keep her alive in circumstances where she should be immediately killed. This allows her to tour the war from both sides, putting a face on the excessive cost of a war fought for ideals. The cost for her continues once she is rescued and returns to the United States. As has become convention, nobody understands her and she is broken by the events of the war. However, Scarborough's deft handling of Kitty's characterization lifts this portion of the novel beyond merely trope. Kitty suffers, but she survives and rises above the obstacles that face her at home, without the aid of the magic she carries.
There are going to be similar stories after Iraq, describing the heartache and horror that was the war there. I just hope that they will be told with the compassionate honesty that lifts The Healer's War beyond just another "war is hell" novel.