A war doctor turned poet



“Gunners in Sevastopol, Ukraine, had unhinged the gates of hell on a battalion of British troops. On October 25, 1854, cannonballs flattened dozens of men a pop, and warhorses sank to their hocks in the splatter. When the smoke cleared 110 were dead, making the Battle of Balaclava one of the most notorious suicide missions of the Crimean War.

Six weeks after the massacre Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Britain’s poet laureate, hailed the soldiers’ valor in 55 lines of verse and enshrined them in legend. A tragic ballad with a biting sense of futility (“Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die”), “The Charge of the Light Brigade” became the ambivalent banner cry of this and so many subsequent wars of questionable cause. But Rudyard Kipling’s postscript to the poem, “The Last of the Light Brigade,” written years later, went nearly unnoticed. His largely forgotten effort considered the battle’s forgotten survivors, who, “limping and lean and forlorn,” had inherited from their country nothing but shell shock, pained deformity, and crippling unemployment. Though Kipling wrote the essential poem about Crimea, Tennyson wrote the crowd favorite, as the public wants the battle but not the aftermath, like a child loath to clean up its mess.

If the war poet Frederick Foote has a mission, it would be to unite Tennyson’s gift for elegy with Kipling’s sense of debt. His debut collection, Medic Against Bomb, has enjoyed considerable acclaim since its quiet release last fall, receiving the Grayson Books Poetry Prize, earning applause from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Library of Congress, and being named by the Progressive as a best book of the year. An account of Foote’s time as a US Navy doctor in Iraq and Afghanistan, the book is a tonic for the genre. A relic of the sickbay rather than the battlefield, it prefers the guts of war to the glory, lamenting the wounded on both sides with Hippocratic impartiality.

Like Kipling, Foote knows he is here not to eulogize but to heal. And his interest in the intersection of art and war doesn’t end with his poetry collection. After studying humanities at the University of Chicago, Foote trained in neurology at Georgetown and Yale. When he returned from Iraq and Afghanistan he dedicated himself to finding new ways of treating veterans beset with brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. His approach has been auspiciously atypical. With military funding, Foote founded the Epidaurus Project, which researches and advocates the use of holistic medicine throughout the armed forces, and his writing group, the Warrior Poets Project, puts verse at the center of this practice. In other words, his writerly endeavors are inseparable from his pastoral care, devoted as it is to the therapeutic power of art. If his work as a poet focuses on the literature of medicine, his work as a doctor focuses on the medicine of literature.”