Sleepless in Afghanistan

In the June 22/29 JAMA, Dr. Joshua Alley, a surgeon with the 452nd Combat Support Hospital in Khost, Afghanistan, writes eloquently in an essay entitled “Sleepless” of staying up all night treating an enemy combatant severely wounded in a firefight with US troops.  Despite the fact that this patient “wouldn’t hesitate to slit my throat if he could,” the team of doctors works heroically to save his life.  Dr. Alley asks, “Why do we go to such trouble to treat our enemies?  Automatic action?  a trained response?  fear of bad publicity, echoing Abu Ghraib?  the Geneva Conventions looming over our heads?  some Pollyanna notion that when we nurse him back to health, he’ll fall down sobbing and ask for forgiveness for his actions?  a desire for “actionable intelligence” that he might give our interrogators once he’s off the ventilator and talking?

 

“Maybe some of these thoughts enter my mind, but the reason I went nearly sleepless that night is so that I can sleep all the other nights . . .”

 

He goes on to write, “One mark of a civilized people is our response to wounded enemies.  Cultural refinements like art, music, architecture, and technology don’t make us civilized.  Some of the most barbaric monsters in human history have been avid subscribers of such refinements.  How we relate to our wounded enemies, though, is our moment of truth. . . ‘Do good to those who hate you,’ we read in Matthew’s gospel.  And tonight, I can sleep, because last night I didn’t.”

 

It seems that underlying Dr. Alley’s treatment of this bloodthirsty enemy is a recognition that (even if he doesn’t put it in these words) this person, like all others, is a human being, with the dignity that all human beings — even our enemies — possess, the dignity that merits the best treatment he knows how to offer.

 

I encourage you to read the essay in full, if you can get your hands on a copy of the journal or your institution has online access.  There is powerful truth in what Dr. Alley writes.  Our actions in situations like the one he details do demonstrate what sort of civilization we have, what sort of people we are, what sort of bioethics we espouse, whether we really believe in human dignity, whether we take Jesus’ words seriously.  There are other situations as well that reveal those qualities in us:  for instance, how we treat the poor among us, how we treat the alien, the widow, the defenseless and vulnerable.  As a society, we may do well measured by how we treat our wounded enemies.  But what about the undocumented foreigner who needs basic health care?  Or who is more defenseless and vulnerable than a “disabled” child developing in a womb — or worse, in a Petri dish?  Measured by how we relate to these, we live in the Darkest of Dark Ages, employing a thin veneer of cultural refinements to convince ourselves we are a civilized society.  What an opportunity to be salt and light!  What an opportunity for Christians to make a difference!  (And coincidentally, next week’s CBHD conference will explore the Christian influence in bioethics!  I hope to see you there.)

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