Responsibility Towards Wounded Civilians

Midn 2C Jarrod Larson

            Evan Wright is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. During the buildup to the invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom he was embedded with the Marine First Recon Battalion, the 'tip of the spear' of the invasion force into Iraq. He wrote about his experiences while attached to the unit and later compiled them in the bestselling book, Generation Kill. At one point in the book Wright retells an incident where the Marines fire on and critically wound an Iraqi boy, whom they had mistaken as a hostile, and the events which transpired after the shooting.

            During an assault on an Iraqi airfield (while the book is not clear on the exact amount of resistance they receive, it is minimal) the Marines get word of a change in the Rules of Engagement (ROE) to include pretty much anything that moves. The Marines engage a group of Iraqis intermixed with camels in front of some nearby huts. After taking the airfield the Marines are approached by two Bedouin women dragging what turns out to be one of the women’s twelve-year-old son, who had been wounded during the attack. He is examined by the Navy corpsman attached to the unit, who determines, not only that he will die without immediate medical attention, but also that he was shot with four 5.56mm rounds, meaning he was shot by Marines. During this time an interpreter with the unit relays the grandmother's story of the shooting to the platoon commander. She explains that during the assault the family's camels were startled by the Humvees and her grandsons ran out after the camels, only to be gunned down by Marines. The brother is later brought in with a leg wound.[1]

            The platoon commander and battalion surgeon decide to request a medevac for the boy from the battalion commander. Their repeated requests are repeatedly denied. The battalion surgeon, a Naval Academy graduate, then devises a plan which he explains to the platoon. "Put him in my care. I stay next to the battalion commander. If he's in my care, the boy will stay with me at the headquarters. Colonel Ferrando [the battalion commander] might change his order if he has to watch him die."[2] The surgeon's plan works. The Marines bring the boy to headquarters where, after an ensuing confrontation, the battalion commander approves the boy's transportation to a shock trauma unit.[3]

            This situation raises an ethical dilemma that many soldiers in combat are likely to face. The boy in this incident was wounded by fire from US Marines. In this case it happened to be the indiscrete fire from a Squad Automatic Weapon, yet it was allowable in accordance with the updated Rules of Engagement. Regardless of how he was wounded, what the intentions were, or what was stated in the ROE, the boy was wounded by US soldiers. The corpsman and several of the Marines felt that it was their duty to seek out medical attention for the boy, even though a medevac was repeatedly denied by the battalion commander. Here they reached the dilemma of whether to obey their commander who twice refused a medevac, or take matters into their own hands in order to save the boy's life. I will argue that the Marines had a moral duty to see that the boy got the medical attention he needed. The US military has a moral obligation to provide medical attention to civilians who are wounded by US troops in combat.

            The doctrine of Utilitarianism states that whatever decision results in the greatest amount of happiness is the right decision to make, and we therefore have a moral duty to make that decision.[4] It is fairly easy to see that the greatest happiness (in this case the greatest happiness results from the least amount of pain) will be achieved by providing medical attention to a wounded civilian. While the soldiers in the unit may have to endure hardships to ensure a civilian receives adequate medical attention, this is far outweighed by the opportunity to save that civilian's life. By evoking the Greatest Happiness Principle we can see that the greatest amount good for the greatest amount of people[5] will be achieved by seeking medical attention for civilians wounded by our own forces. Utilizing Utilitarianism we can see that it is our moral duty to provide medical attention to these wounded civilians, such as the boy in the opening story.

            German philosopher Immanuel Kant stated that what is good is good because of its will and that an act is determined to be right based upon good intentions.[6] The intent to give aid to wounded civilians is obviously good, even more so when they were wounded by our own troops. By Kantian ideals this means that providing medical aid to said civilians is the morally right decision. Kant goes even further, stating that consequences do not factor in determining the moral worth of an action.[7] This means that the consequences of providing medical attention are not important. If the platoon commander or battalion surgeon were relieved for disregarding their superior's order, or if the Marines invasion was slowed down by seeking medical aid for the boy, it would not have mattered because the Marines were doing the right thing.

            Natural Law theory states that even without set laws rational creatures will have a natural inclination to do what is right.[8] Soldiers, just like all other humans, are rational creatures and one can easily see that any person's natural inclination would be to assist wounded civilians. If they were wounded by our own side we should feel an even greater urge to help them. This is because giving them medical aid is the right thing to do, and as humans our conscious tells us that it is our moral duty to give them aid. One of the four inclinations of Natural Law is self-preservation, which instills a moral obligation to promote and sustain our own health and life[9]. This can be expanded to include a duty to sustain the lives of others, further influencing the need to provide civilians whom we wound the medical attention they need.

            One of the main tenants of the doctrine of the Conduct of War is that combatants must place the safety of civilian non-combatants over their own, as soldiers have a duty to preserve civilian lives even at the risk of their own.[10] In the United States the soldier is often viewed by the public as the protector of those who are not able to protect themselves. These are the civilians in war. Not only this tradition, but also the doctrine of the Conduct of War emphasizes the soldier's duty to ensure the safety and protection of non-combatants. This suggests that it is a soldier's duty to provide medical attention to a civilian, especially one which he has wounded. He must provide this aid even if it puts himself at risk. While transporting the boy back to headquarters may have opened up the platoon to attack, or affected their ability to assist other units, this is a risk they must take in accordance with the Conduct of War.

            On the flip side Utilitarianism can also be used to argue against providing medical aid to civilians wounded by our own forces. By stopping to provide medical attention to civilians which we have wounded we are essentially taking that unit, platoon, or squad out of the fight. This may expose us to a greater risk from the enemy and result in greater casualties to our troops. It may also stop us from aiding other civilians who may be in danger. In the long run, which Utilitarianism insists we consider, we may actually be doing a greater good for a greater number of people by not assisting wounded civilians, even though we may be responsible for their injuries. Additionally, by providing medical aid to civilians who we wound we could set a dangerous precedent. We may find ourselves constantly giving medical attention to wounded civilians, many of which may not have been wounded by our troops at all, but may take advantage of our situation. This will neutralize whatever that unit's primary mission was. In the end our soldiers are there to fight and beat the enemy, not to act as a personal ambulance service for the civilian population.

            The best argument against providing medical aid to these wounded civilians comes from the constitutional paradigm. In the hierarchy of loyalties the mission is second from the top, beneath only the Constitution.[11] Civilians are not on the list but we can assume that they would be placed near the bottom. As mentioned earlier, aiding wounded civilians could seriously endanger the mission, regardless of whether they were wounded by US troops. Being how a soldier's ultimate duty is to the hierarchy of loyalties it may not be essential to provide medical assistance to civilians whom we have wounded.

            Based on the evidence from varying forms of ethical reasoning there is significantly more support for providing aid to the civilians who our own soldiers have wounded. Not only do we have a duty to do what is right but also to minimize hardship on the civilian population as a result of our actions. As fighting men in our military we have a duty to provide for the protection of civilians. When we falter in our guarantee to ensure their protection by injuring them on the battlefield we take on a responsibility to do all we can to save their life. This includes ensuring that they receive the utmost medical attention based on their wounds.

            While there may be exceptions to the times in which we can provide medical aid to civilians brought down by our bullets, as a general rule I feel that we have a duty to provide as much aid as possible to civilians who are wounded by our military. As a dominant world power, and especially as Americans, we have an obligation to take the moral high ground in wartime.  Providing appropriate medical attention to civilians whom we have wounded is this high ground. America is a nation that stands for what is right, what is just, and for the little guy. Aiding civilians wounded by our servicemen is all of these.




[1] Evan Wright. Generation Kill (New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004), 171.

[2] Wright

[3] Wright

[4] John Stuart Mill. "Utilitarianism," in Ethics and the Military Profession, ed Dr. George R. Lucas Jr. and Captain W. Rick Rubel (Boston: Pearson, 2005.

[5] Mill

[6] Immanuel Kant. "Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals," in Ethics and the Military Profession, ed Dr. George R. Lucas Jr. and Captain W. Rick Rubel (Boston: Pearson, 2005.

[7] Kant

[8] St. Thomas Aquinas. "Summa Theologica," in Ethics and the Military Profession, ed Dr. George R. Lucas Jr. and Captain W. Rick Rubel (Boston: Pearson, 2005.

[9] Dr. C. E. Harris. "The Ethics of Natural Law," in Ethics and the Military Profession, ed Dr. George R. Lucas Jr. and Captain W. Rick Rubel (Boston: Pearson, 2005.

[10] Dr. George Lucas. "The Moral Code of the Warrior," in Ethics and the Military Profession, ed Dr. George R. Lucas Jr. and Captain W. Rick Rubel (Boston: Pearson, 2005.


[11] Colonel Paul E. Roush. "Constitutional Ethics," in Ethics and the Military Profession, ed Dr. George R. Lucas Jr. and Captain W. Rick Rubel (Boston: Pearson, 2005.