War Doctor review: extraordinary accounts of barbarity and compassion

Surgeon David Nott’s stories from the world’s most dangerous war zones are haunting and not for the faint-heated

War Doctor
War Doctor
Author: David Nott
ISBN-13: 978-1509837021
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £18.99

This is the story of a surgeon who has worked in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones; from besieged Sarajevo to rebel-held Aleppo. But it is much more than that. It is a compelling depiction of humanity – of the terrible acts of barbarity and the astounding acts of compassion we humans are capable of.

David Nott is a surgeon and professor of surgery at Imperial College London. For the last 25 years he has taken unpaid leave to volunteer in some of the most dangerous places in the world. War Doctor is his account of this work and an unselfconscious, unpretentious account of why he does what he does.


The story embedded in War Doctor is one that chronicles the psychological development of the author. Nott, in an unguarded, innocent and tender way, reveals his internal psychological world, carrying the reader through his sometimes epic war stories. This is not some elaborate literary device. The authenticity and unselfconsciousness of the narrative unveils a kind of purity of intention, an innocence of sorts, on the part of the author.

War Doctor, like any other human story, tends to have its antecedents in the fertile and formative terrain of childhood. "The journey towards danger began somewhere safe" is how Nott describes his early life growing up in Wales, where he lived with his Welsh-speaking grandparents in an idyllic setting. His mother was training to be a nurse and his Burmese father was training to be orthopaedic surgeon in England.


Nott evocatively describes his early childhood as a place of safety, and deep emotional and existential security. He describes being surrounded by “family love” and the “simplicity of the way we lived – not in luxury, by any means, but not hankering after things we couldn’t have, or being led astray or feeling we were missing out on anything – was deeply ingrained.”

This idyllic early childhood changed dramatically when he moved to live with his mother and father. He was the victim of racism at school because he was the child of “mixed race” parents. His parents frequently argued and he felt alone in the world. He stoically and poignantly concludes: “I felt nobody really cared for me. But far from being a bad thing, I have remembered that feeling all my life and it has shaped my personality – I know what it is like to not be wanted and feel abandoned.” And so a life dedicated to those abandoned to die in war zones and natural disasters is born.

The chapters that follow are a compelling, detailed and disturbing journey inside some of the most dangerous places in the word. Many of these stories are not for the faint-hearted – they are haunting stories that will echo and resonate in the head and the heart of the reader long after the book is returned to its shelf.


War Doctor is a first-hand, unadulterated insight into the work of aid agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Red Cross. Nott's gritty, sometimes gruesome, but always generous account of the work and the individuals who make up these humanitarian organisations is exceptional.

If you ever doubted the value of your financial contributions to such agencies, read War Doctor. Nott's unpretentious account of life and labour inside various humanitarian agencies will assure people who support humanitarian organisations that their support is invaluable.

War Doctor is an intense read and at times a dense read. Some might criticise Nott as he attempts to provide the reader with a detailed geopolitical backdrop to the various regions he volunteers in. However, he moves from the "big picture" of the geopolitical backdrop to quickly transport the reader to the human consequences of such conflict. For example, in describing a particular scene in Taliban-held Kabul, the human consequences of geopolitical instability become all too clear: "I watched from a distance as people queued to have their hands or feet amputated with a single sweep of a machete. Many of these poor amputees made their way to the outpatients department at the hospital with their hand or foot in a plastic bag and then asked me to sew it back on."

At times it is a harrowing read and at other times the most heartening unpolished depiction of human kindness. It is at the same time utterly unsentimental – there is no neat conclusion and the reader is left to fend for themselves when it comes to intellectually and emotionally integrating the fallout from reading War Doctor.

War Doctor tells many stories; at its heart it is the story of the very human humanitarian, David Nott. His wife Eleanor brings this book to a close in a beautifully articulated afterword: "Love, like surgery, isn't always tidy, and it isn't always easy. In many ways rushing in and out of war zones is easier than the day-in, day-out normality of home life. You won't always be a hero and a saviour – there will be routine, boredom and difficult conversations."

This is an important book that speaks to important issues of our time. It vividly demonstrates the transformative power of humanitarian values in action. It also captures the beautiful paradox of human vulnerability. Nott’s wife Eleanor, captures this wholeheartedly in the closing sentences of this book describing Nott as “a hero all the more worthy of love because of his vulnerabilities. My extraordinary, complicated, beloved David”.