DARPA Researches Human Zombie Serum.

Not really. Well, kind of:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now funding research that may one day bring humans to a zombie-like form of hibernation. The motivation, however, is not so much space travel as emergency trauma care for wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

As reported by Popular Science, nearly half of soldiers killed in action die of severe blood loss after being wounded by gunshots or IEDs. When emergency trauma care is administered during that first “golden hour,” soldiers’ odds of survival are relatively good, but after that their odds begin to drop quickly. That’s why TIPS researchers are looking for a way to send the human body into a state of suspended animation, essentially “shutting down” the heart and brain until proper care can be administered.

I just finished reading Atul Gawande’s Better, a series of meditations (adapted from articles for the New Yorker) about the ways in which both he and modern medicine are striving to improve.  One of the points he makes is that, whatever your feelings are on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military deserves a great deal of credit for vastly decreasing the number of battlefield deaths.  In the Revolutionary War, a wounded soldier had a 42% chance of dying.  For Vietnam and the first Gulf War, he had a 24% chance of dying.  But an American soldier wounded in Iraq today has just a 10% chance of dying – despite the fact that injuries caused by IEDs and machine guns are much worse than those caused by muskets and bayonets.

In previous wars, decreases in battlefield mortality had become because of improved scientific techniques – better sanitation in field hospitals, new antibiotics, blood transfusions.  But that’s not what happened here.  Instead, the military realized that battlefield trauma is so bad that there isn’t really a “Golden Hour” – it’s more like a golden ten minutes.  So they started sending surgeons – or Forward Surgical Teams – into battle.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, they travel in six Humvees directly behind the troops, right out onto the battlefield.  They carry three lightweight, Deployable Rapid-Assembly Shelter (“drash”) tents that attach to one another to form a nine-hundred-square-foot hospital facility… The teams must forgo many technologies normally available to a surgeon, such as angiography and radiography equipment.  (Orthopedic surgeons, for example, have to detect fractures by feel.)  But they can go from rolling to having a fully functioning hospital with two operating tables and four ventilator-equipped recovery beds in under sixty minutes.

Throughout Better Gawande points out ways – as with the FSTs – in which changes in protocol can have more substantive effects than advances in technology.  You don’t need to improve surgical techniques – just get the soldiers to surgery faster.  You don’t need to develop a better polio vaccine – just get the vaccine that does exist to as many people as humanly possible.  Bench science, in Gawande’s world, is less important than diligence, ingenuity, and organization.

DARPA, though, is not like most research institutions.  They specialize in taking real-world problems and finding effective solutions, and their zombie-serum scheme does have their signature feel to it.  By taking a serious problem – soldiers need to get to doctors faster – and finding a crazy solution – slow down their bodily functions to a point just above death – DARPA might just find the bench science that really can bring battlefield mortality counts down to 5%.  Or 3%.

A final note – I would be the last to argue that these advancements have had a net negative effect.  But at the same time, you have to wonder about the effect – on the country – of fighting a war with such a low casualty rate.  Would this war have gone on so long if triple as many soldiers were coming back dead?  After all, it’s not like our guns are a third as deadly, and there’s only one side that’s benefiting from these advances in wartime medicine.

In World War II, everyone in the country, soldier or not, lived, breathed, and slept war; it was on their thoughts both when they  awoke and when they were drifting off to sleep.  The day the war ended was a day of celebration the likes of which nobody had ever lived through.  Would the push to end the war have been as strong if the casualty rate had been 10%?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be trying to keep our soldiers alive. I am saying that it’s worth considering what happens when you lower the consequences of war.

(Photo credit: isafmedia.  Licensed under Creative Commons.)