Did the Carnage in Iraq Help Save Gabrielle Giffords’ Life?

A Washington Post story about the survival of Gabrielle Giffords reports that it was less a miracle than a matter of

inconceivable gains in medical treatment

. Thanks to a series of aggressive techniques—including the removal of a big piece of skull to protect the brain from being damaged by post-trauma swelling—a gunshot wound through the head is no longer automatically fatal:

These practices were developed in the civilian medical world but have been applied most widely - and perfected - in military hospitals, which have treated hundreds of soldiers with head trauma from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Whatever else it may accomplish, modern warfare is great for teaching doctors how to do the seemingly impossible. It ensures a steady supply of horribly damaged bodies—otherwise healthy bodies, which have suffered things that would be extraordinary (and almost certainly fatal) outside the world of combat. So people figure out how to treat them.

Modern plastic surgery

owes its existence

to the large numbers of young men who got their faces blasted away or machine-gunned to shreds in the trenches of the First World War—an unimaginable injury suddenly made common, and so, with practice, treatable. The whole business of rushing car crash victims by helicopter to a specialized trauma unit is a

civilian reenactment of the Vietnam War experience


And now, we’ve moved on to people who have a bullet in the brain:

In the past five years, 47 percent of patients with penetrating brain injury, almost all from bullets, treated at San Francisco General Hospital survived with moderate or no disability, Manley said, citing data he has recently collected for publication. Only 29 percent of all the patients died - far less than the 48 percent mortality seen in a nationwide registry of similar patients. The death rates recorded in military patients is reportedly less than 10 percent.

Less than 10 percent

. Alive is better than dead, and that’s a good and reasonable way of looking at it—especially here in a country where people can’t seem to stop shooting one another in the head. But the other way of considering it is to remember that for every member of the armed forces who shows up in the news, dead of a bullet to the head in Iraq or Afghanistan, there are nine more who didn’t even register as news, because all that happened to them was they got shot through the brain. “Hundreds of soldiers with head trauma,” the Post wrote. Routine business over there.