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Australian doctors and the war

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To the Editor: Mervyn Archdall, reflecting on his Great War experience, wrote in 1941 that military doctors’ “first consideration must always be the filling of gaps in the combatant ranks”.1 How relevant is this statement to the modern Australian Defence Force (ADF)?

The role of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps remains “to contribute to the Army’s operational capability through the conservation of manpower”.2 The Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force are less prosaic but have similar intent. However, every ADF doctor is a non-combatant and remains obliged to treat all patients (including enemy combatants) equally and with primary regard to welfare rather than operational capability.3 For example, in a recent ADF operation, an enemy combatant suffered blast amputation of the hands and penetrating eye wounds when the improvised explosive device he was planting detonated. An ADF doctor performed lifesaving surgery, and the combatant was then evacuated for ophthalmic care.

Potential tension between the role of the organisation and that of its doctors is not dissimilar to a public hospital wanting to contain costs, in which doctors struggle to provide the “best care” to every patient. As in civilian health care, the theoretical tension is rarely problematic…