Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Missing the point when it's the size of the moral universe

Here is a very strange essay by physician Vyjeyanthi S. Periyakoil about his interaction with a dying patient, a Vietnam veteran who had never spoken to people about his combat experience. The man finally confesses to the doctor the reason for his long-concealed distress. The essay is all about the terrible burdens carried by veterans.

However, what the good doctor fails to observe is that the soldier's burden is that he murdered a pregnant teenage girl in cold blood, a peasant who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, because she had seen him and might have given away the presence of U.S. troops in the area. This is the doctor's take on it:

What would I have done if I had been in his shoes, I wondered. I could have let the girl go, but maybe the mission would have been compromised and my entire platoon would have been killed or taken prisoner of war.
Er, no. Evidently this was the policy of the United States army the time, but this was in fact a war crime. I remember during the war reading an outraged essay by a conservative writer about how Viet Cong propaganda was claiming that U.S. troops murdered young women with knives. What do you know, it was true. And how weird that the New England Journal of Medicine would publish this essay in this form. These sorts of personal musings are actually peer reviewed (I have done it myself), so this was read by at least three people in addition to the editors.

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