Because We Are Not Animals


by Edison McDaniels II, MD

This was published in the Opinions Section of Navy Times, April 2002.

My name is Edison McDaniels and I am a neurosurgeon on active duty with the United States Navy.  Recently, I was ordered to Guantanamo Bay Naval Hospital in order to do urgent surgery on one of the detainees from the war in Afghanistan.  The man had been rendered paraplegic by an abscess in his spine.  Since returning, indeed even as I was packing to leave for Cuba, I have repeatedly been asked why we should provide medical care to these people.

The answer, of course, is because we are not animals.

Winston Churchill once said:  “Prisoner-of-war, you are in the power of your enemy.  You must obey his orders, go where he tells you, stay where you are bid, await his pleasure, possess your soul and patience.”

Of course, it is not my place to debate whether or not these men are prisoners of war.  However, it certainly seems that they are wartime detainees, and, as such, the significant implications of Churchill’s statement must apply.  In times of captivity, the onus is upon the captors to see to the well being of their captives.

So what, you ask?

Consider the horrific consequences of not doing so.  Actually, you need only to look at history for examples too numerous to count.  Read, for example, the following account of captive life at Belle Isle during the Civil War, from a young union soldier named Charles Fosdick captured at Chickamauga:

“When we first went on the island, our rations consisted of a piece of cornbread…a little bit of bacon, and a cup of pea soup. With multitudes of weevils or black bugs which would rise to the top to the thickness of an inch, at first we would take a spoon or paddle and fish out those insects.  But later on, we became so famished for food that we would break our bread into the soup and devour it, bugs and all… The pea or bug soup was set out in wooden buckets which made it very convenient for a herd of dogs, the favorites of the officers and men on duty, to go and eat and drink as their appetites suggested. This was done before our eyes…  Finally one day, one of these dogs chanced to come within the prison limits and no sooner in, than it was seized and killed.  It was then dressed to cut up and cook and furnished a pleasant repast for several hungry men.  After this occurrence, and once a taste of fresh meat, the boys contrived all manner of projects to decoy an unwary dog to cross…  And they were so persistent in their efforts, that in a short time there was not a live dog left on Belle Isle.”

Not vivid enough?  Try this morbid account of life at Andersonville prison in 1864 from inmate Charlie Mosher:

“July 31st.  I have been very sick for the past week with a dysentery.  So sick that it did not seem as if I could hold together any longer.  This is the worst sickness I have had, and there are thousands who are as bad and worse than I have been.  It is awful.  Men are lying all around in the hot sun, face up with their mouths wide.  The fleas, lice, and maggots are holding high carnival in here.  Human nature is made of good stuff or it could not stand the strain.”

Or consider the following:  On 9 April 1942, 10,000 Americans and 62,000 Filipinos were captured at the surrender of Bataan.  The ensuing march to Camp O’Donnell, Luzon, Philippines, between 12 April and 24 April 1942 resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 (and possibly as many as 18,000) of them.  The well known atrocities that occurred during the march included the failure to provide even the most basic human needs, including food and water.  And the dying didn’t end when the march did.  In the first forty days of Camp O’Donnell, an additional 1,500 Americans and 25,000 Filipinos died as a result of malnutrition.

In the Revolutionary War, at least 11,000 American prisoners died on a single British prison ship, the HMS Jersey.

During the Civil War, 25,956 Confederates and 31,000 Union soldiers died in captivity.

Of 43,648 Americans known to have been held as POWs by the Japanese in WWII, 12,953 of them died.

These are hellish numbers, and though they may seem to refute the statement made above, “because we are not animals,” they certainly do not justify letting a man die in his own excrement.

One of the detainees, waking from an operation to remove a blind eye, told his translator that he was surprised to be alive.  He thought he was being executed as he went to sleep.

What separates Americans from those that would do us harm, is not the belief that we are any better, but rather a certain knowledge that all people are better, that all people have not just some intrinsic worth, but the same intrinsic worth.  The central core value of the great mechanism that is American society, the crowning glory of the American way of life, is tolerance for race, for gender, and for religious belief–even when that belief is far a field from most western values.  It is only when that belief crosses the line that separates man from animal that one can justify forceable intervention.

Though their acts may mark them as animals, we know better and must behave accordingly, because we are not animals.

We (the American people) have provided the detainees with food and water, shelter, lodging, and basic medical care.  Nothing more and nothing less.  In a reasonable and just society, it falls to those appointed over us to determine the ultimate fate of these wretched and troubled souls.

 This was published in the Opinions Section of Navy Times, April 2002.

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