Archive for July, 2007

Photograph by Michael Hicks © 2007.

I’m suddenly reminded of Robert Oppenheimer and the movie Blade Runner when I think of all the ambitious scientists and researchers working on the next generation of advanced prosthesis. I can’t help wondering if they’re as detached from the purposes of their research as Oppenheimer was. Or as keenly in touch with the idea of a Cyborg culture as Philip K. Dick was. Or maybe both.

With the discovery of myoelectricity, which allows artificial limbs to be powered by the remaining nerves of muscles that once existed (a phantom limb put to practical use), bionic prosthesis has developed to the point where dismembered soldiers are now being urged to jump back into action after losing a leg or two—or an arm or two. And while it all might seem too science-fictionally implausible to picture on a grand scale, let’s say to tally benchmarks against casualties for once, so was the Atom Bomb before the world saw its effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s where the often forgotten past of World War II and the bleak fantasy of Philip K. Dick suddenly seem all too prevalent and real.

Thirty-one amputees, including Capt. David Rozelle, who lost his right leg above the knee, and Marine Sgt. Sean Wright, who lost both of his hands, have already returned to active duty. Rozelle is one of ten amputee soldiers to return to the battle field after surgery, and now helps architect the amputee program at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. Wright currently teaches martial arts to fellow Marines heading over to Iraq. Other amputees, including Army Specialist Max Ramsey, who lost his left leg above the knee; Army Sgt. Neil Duncan, who lost both of his legs entirely; and Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge, who lost parts of both legs in different places, have appeared in the media alongside President Bush.

MSNBC reported on their website on June 28, 2006 that, “Despite a slight drizzle, Bush and Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge took a slow jog around a spongy track that circles the White House’s South Lawn. About halfway through their approximately half-mile run, Bush and Bagge paused briefly for reporters. ‘He ran the president into the ground, I might add,’ Bush said, as the two gripped hands in an emotional, lengthy shake. ‘But I’m proud of you. I’m proud of your strength, proud of your character.’”

The psychology behind the push for bionic prosthesis can be a bit deceiving at first glance; just like with Robert Oppenheimer and Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard. While amputee soldiers deserve unconditional praise for their bravery, regardless of whether or not they choose to return to active duty, the attention they are given is somewhat askew. Military doctors like Mark Heniser have come to find that amputees who suffer the loss of a limb later in their military careers are more likely to return to service. Amputees who suffer earlier are likely to take an honorable discharge and whatever benefits they can receive. While the Bush administration has celebrated both groups equally in the public eye, treating all amputees duly as heroes, if it weren’t for those who were willing to keep up the fight, the funding wouldn’t be there for the latter. Military prospect precludes scientific advancement.

And as long as the guilt of feeling obsolete exists within human nature, giving those in power the opportunity to exploit it, I won’t be surprised to see a unit of well-seasoned soldiers with one or more of their limbs replaced standing on the front lines. Right now is the first testing phases. The driving thought behind the Pentagon’s funding for advanced prosthesis is that if you can make a wounded solider feel whole again by throwing him or her back into action once, morale can never die — as long as body parts can be replaced. Now that’s scary. And the eight-year-old nerd inside of me is slumped over, depressed as hell, because the things we thought we’d never see always get exploited as soon as we get to see them.


President Bush jogging with Walter Reed amputees Max Ramsey and Neil Duncan. Photograph taken from ‘The White House News & Policies Page.’