The Past Informs the Present

In this Q & A, Caroline Alexander, author of “Faces of War,” discusses robotic faces and the timelessness of war stories

How did you first learn about the masks?
Through a circuitous route. I was very interested in a woman named Kathleen Scott, who was a very talented artist and the widow of the famous Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Scott. I was reading her diaries, and during the war she describes making busts for doctors who were working with facially-damaged men. Through her I found out that there was this whole program in England that co-opted the country's artists, putting them to use helping with this radical new facial reconstruction.

You have a slight British accent—was your family in England during World War I? Do you have any family stories?
I'm American, but I was born in England, and my family was there during the war. I don't know which family members fought in the First World War, but I'm sure my father's family did. In the course of researching this story, I met someone who asked me what I was doing, and I said I was looking at stories from the First World War, and he said, "I don't think it's possible for anyone to read those stories and not weep." It doesn't have anything to do with family connections, it has to do with the fact that it's one of the more extraordinary chapters of world history.

Is World War I the chapter that interests you most?
I'm interested in how events from the past inform the present world-view. Like many historians, I'm interested in many periods, but World War I is close enough in history that you can talk about relatives that may have experienced the events, and yet it seems like it's just a whole planet away. That has a particular power.

What surprised you about this story?
Just the phenomenon of the masks, to be honest. They represent an act of desperate improvisation, and these men were living metaphor of the horror of that war, and all wars, which is that you put a pretty cover on it and send the people away and say, well that's great, now we've fixed it. But you can't really fix it.

Was there a particular image that struck you?
Harold Gillies, the surgeon, wrote a book called Plastic Surgery of the Face, which is a landmark publication. I got the book through inter-library loan, and normally when I get books through inter-library loan I really possess them—I keep them, I go over them, I look forward to them. But this one I turned around as quickly as I could—I looked at it and sent it back the next day. The pictures are too unbearable. I didn't want it in the house. That sounds horrible to say, but it really was so distressing. It wasn't any one image, just the unrelenting batch of images. There was so much damage.

The masks are not well-known today. Was it difficult to track down information about them?
The British archives are extraordinarily good—when I was doing work on the 18th century I was able to find the records of an ordinary sailor and every ship he'd served on—but many military documents from the First World War were lost in the blitz during the Second World War. You can go from 1100 AD up to the present, but there's this jagged hole where World War I should be, and that happens to be an era many people care about. It is difficult to research the masks for that reason, more than because the men were edited out. Actually, there is now a project underway in England where they're trying to trace anything they can about the people who actually wore the masks.

In the story sidebar you talk about new technology that may help veterans injured in Iraq. Do you think anyone would really like to have a robotic face?
No, I think it's the same pipe dream as the metal masks. It's something [robotics expert] David Hanson came up with, and it sounds great, people are working on robotics anyway, they're good-souled people and would love to be of any help or assistance. But this isn't generated by any patient demand, because the bottom line is you're going to have a contraption hanging from your face that is not your face, and there's just no spin that can be put on it.

What do you think the patients want?
When I had bad allergies I had to wear a face mask just to keep the dust from coming in. That was a thin doctor's mask, but it was still very distracting, because your breath reflects back into your face. With facial injuries, it really comes down to the problem of how other people react when they see you. With these guys in Iraq, there are more of them than the public really knows about. This kind of injury is not going to stop happening, and you have to get word out about it so it doesn't seem so strange. That's probably what the patients would want. First they would want to have their faces back again, but since they can't have that they would probably like to be able to move in the world unencumbered, as themselves, and just have people sophisticated enough to deal with it.

Were people more aware of wounded soldiers during WWI?
You couldn't move in any European town or village and not see damaged people. that was an absolute reality of life. It was the same during the Second World War. My mother told me about meeting somebody who had been in the RAF during World War II and ejected, and his whole face had been burned off. She was telling me a memory she had as a 12-year-old girl, and usually when you relate a memory from childhood you retain the emotion you had when you were a child. What impressed me was that there was no horror in her description. There was infinite pity and infinite respect. It was clear to me that she had been told by her parents, "This is a war hero." The thing that's different about Europe and America is that civilians in Europe lived the war—they themselves had a sense of vulnerability, they themselves were bombed. Emotionally, people had to be aware of what was going on. I saw a documentary here the other day in which a veteran who had come back from Iraq said the hardest thing is when people ask questions. He said, "Just the other day I had someone ask, 'How did you lose your arm?' and I said, 'In the war,' and the other person said, 'What war?' and I said, 'The war in Iraq,' and the person said, 'Oh, is that still going on?'"

Considering that the war in Iraq is still going on, do you consider this a timely story?
I think that all war stories are enduring, meaning that you can take a story from the Trojan War or the First World War and it will always have a bearing on any present or future war. There are some things that never change. This story is about how war creates irreparable damage, and it doesn't matter how advanced you are in the 21st century or how much money you have to throw at it or how much technology you have, there is an irreducible reality that is never going to change. When you send men or women out into combat, they will get damaged, and sometimes that damage can never be fixed.

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