Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 17:51 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 17:51 | SYDNEY

Medics at war: Higher obligations

19 May 2010 15:25

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

I forgive Nick Chapman for reverting to the cliché of 'First, do no harm'. I could hardly criticise, having used the one about 'all it takes for evil to prevail is that good men stay silent' in my original post.

I thank Nick for his comments. I would never argue that there are no rules in a knife fight. I do understand the UN conventions and the observance of those rules is basic to everything I did in Iraq, as I explain in great detail in my book. The observance of those rules is the difference between 'us' and 'them'.

There is nothing in Craig Jurisevic's book which indicates that, at the time he became a combatant, he also sought the protection of an international medical symbol. I can only surmise that, given the then-prevailing attitude in the Balkans, you would avoid wearing a big red cross on any part of your body, even if you were the most humanitarian of unarmed medicos, because you were likely to be sniped regardless. From my observation, more red crosses are worn in secure base areas than anywhere else.

In my war, car bombs were positioned next to potential helicopter landing areas (an open block in a city or a major road intersection) so that if the first bomb was successful in creating casualties from a passing vehicle, the medical evacuation helicopter was likely to land in the most convenient area, and could be destroyed (along with its big red crosses) by the second bomb previously placed there for that purpose.

A red cross is red so that it can be seen by an honourable opponent and not targeted. For a dishonourable opponent, a red cross is an aiming mark. It is not the red cross that protects you. It is the acceptance of that symbol by your enemy.

The comments by the President of the AMA that Craig's 'actions as a combatant ultimately conflicted with his professional role' are difficult to understand when seen in the context of Craig's story, rather than in some idealised world. When Craig was a combatant, he was not a doctor, he was a combatant and he expected to be treated like a combatant by his enemy.

I do not imagine that, on philosophical or any other grounds, just because a person takes the Hippocratic oath as a doctor in an Australian city in peacetime, he/she will never, in any circumstances, kill another human being. The fact that army medics are armed is to admit this. When the UN speaks of the 'use' of a weapon by a medic, this can be the lethal use of a weapon. A medic would be expected to kill to protect himself or those in his care.

In a 'civilised' conflict, where the world can be divided neatly on both sides between combatants and non-combatants, then the use of weapons by a medic might be rare. But my assessment of Craig's actions from reading his book was that as a combatant, he was never a medic with a red cross on his arm, but an individual faced by what he perceived to be evil.

I agree with Nick that the most desirable situation is that a doctor does more to confront evil in the world by picking up a scalpel rather than a rifle. That is the kind of world I want to live in, but it is not always the world in reality. When a person is acting as a doctor, their actions should be guided by the Hippocratic oath as amended by the possibility that they may have to kill to protect themselves or those in their care.

In certain circumstances, as a mere person, you may have to do more. Craig made that judgement. And to his further credit, he freely admits the doubts he had on those occasions when he or his companions in his presence may have gone too far.

Photo by Flickr user swiss.frog, used under a Creative Commons license.