Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Ethics Man

The medical ethics of the battlefield

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 20 July 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d3877
  1. Daniel K Sokol, honorary senior lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial College London
  1. daniel.sokol{at}

Technological advances in the treatment of combatants raise new ethical issues

Athena, goddess of war, gave Asclepius two vials of the Medusa’s blood. The blood from Medusa’s left side could raise the dead; the blood from her right side could kill instantly. The descendants of Asclepius—the thousands of medics who today grace the battlefields of the world—rarely use the right sided blood. Battlefield euthanasia, in which death is hastened to avoid prolonged suffering, is a controversial practice; but it is as old as war itself and, whatever laws or rules prohibit it, will doubtless continue until wars cease. In this column, however, I wish to focus on the dilemmas associated with the left sided blood. When should it be used and when forgone? And who should benefit from it?

The ability to maintain the wounded alive is nothing less than astounding. Medical advances, combined with improved body armour and rapid evacuation, have resulted in lives saved that would have been unsalvageable only 20 years ago. A recent visit to Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, brought home to me the remarkable recoveries …

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