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Medical Ethics in the Battlefield

By Michael Cook

War turns the ethics of doctors on its head.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Films are a rich source of hypotheticals for medical ethics classes. I recall a gut-wrenching scene in The Last of the Mohicans. From a great distance the hero, Hawkeye, shoots his best friend just as he is about to be burnt at the stake by vengeful Huron Indians.

Was this a “mercy killing”? Is it ethical to kill fellow soldiers in wartime to ward off worse suffering? If that’s not clear, how about wounded enemy soldiers?

This has happened in recent conflicts. Last year a Canadian Army officer was found guilty of “disgraceful conduct” after the “mercy killing” of a wounded Taliban insurgent. Apparently Captain Robert Semrau felt bound by a “soldier’s pact” to end his suffering. “He told us that he shot the Taliban; he put him out of his misery and, if anything came of it, he would wear it,” a corporal told the court-martial.

In 2004 American Staff Sgt Johnny Horne Jr killed a badly wounded Iraqi teenager in Baghdad. He also painted this as a “mercy killing”, although it emerged that the 16-year-old had been an unarmed and innocent non-combatant. Naturally he was found guilty. “Mercy killing” was an excuse to cover up his lethal error. Or his racism. Or his sadism.

If military law does not recognise mercy killing as an option for soldiers, it is even stricter for Army doctors.

Even for them, the golden rule is still the Hippocratic...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter, BioEdge.