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Medicine as a Non-Lethal Weapon: The Ethics of "Winning Hearts and Minds"

By Sheena M. Eagan Chamberlin

For decades, medical personnel within the United States armed forces have been involved in strategic actions. The Medical Civic Action Program (MEDCAP) aims to gain the trust of local populations and create a positive attitude toward U.S. troops during operations in conflict areas.

Sheena M. Eagan Chamberlin writes that this exploitation of military doctors is attracting criticism from outside and increasingly also from inside the armed forces. For the personnel concerned, their involvement in strategic military planning creates moral and ethical conflicts, leading in some cases to open opposition, and in others to early withdrawal from the action programs.

Veterans, retirees and active military doctors were surveyed in guided interviews. Some of the failings they identified were: Mobile hospitals are set up not in the places of greatest need, but at strategically important points, and are simultaneously used as reconnaissance posts, which harms the relationship of trust with the population. Physicians are often able only to treat symptoms instead of causes. No lasting treatment or aftercare is provided. Among the patients of MEDCAP doctors there are, of course, many children. But because medical supplies are solely geared to the army’s needs, there are no special medicines for this age group. In short, the medical goal of convalescence becomes subordinated to military objectives.

But the interviewees did report positive experiences as well: In her analysis, Chamberlin recommends that action programs should be planned and managed by doctors instead of military leaders. She also suggests that medical and military personnel should attend regular training sessions so that they can reflect on ethical issues, ensure effective medical care, and avoid placing the personnel concerned in moral dilemma situations.

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