Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Calculus Of Warfare: Have Medevac Helicopters Become Valid Targets?

In war, it is widely accepted that helicopters, ambulances, hospital ships and other vehicles displaying red crosses are not to be fired on, and that usually is the case.

But just as warfare has changed, so has the ability to save the lives of the wounded and maimed, and the advances made in battlefield helicopter evacuations during the Vietnam War have reached the point that if a GI can be kept alive by battlefield medics, chances are excellent that he will be stabilized by the flight medics who speed him to a hospital in the rear except in cases of the most profound traumas.

This miracle, if you will, is brought to life in
Blood and Dust, an extraordinary 25-minute documentary by British filmmaker Vaughan Smith being broadcast on Al Jazeera television's
"People and Power" series. (Smith turned to the Arabic and English language network when no British broadcaster would air the documentary without cutting the stronger images.)

Smith spent two weeks embedded with the Army's 214th Aviation Regiment in Southern Afghanistan, and Blood and Dust shows both the shocking consequences of this war and the extraordinary skill, dedication and evenhandedness of men like flight medic Sergeant Tyrone Jordan provide to all comers -- Marines, Taliban and Afghan nationals caught in the crossfire.

"I have done a fair number of military embeds in Afghanistan over the last few years," Smith says, "but was concerned that I hadn't filmed the suffering of war, just its machinery."

Some of the images are indeed deeply disturbing, and I challenge you not to shed
tears as Jordan does everything he can to save a Marine grievously wounded by a Taliban rifle round that entered his chest and transited his heart before exiting through his back.

The frantic ministrations
continue when Jordan's Blackhawk returns to base, a medic straddling the Marine and continuing to pound his chest in a desperate effort to keep his heart beating as his comrades rush him through dust clouds on a bicycle-wheeled gurney to a hospital compound surrounded by tall concrete blast walls.

But beyond the heroism and tears, Smith poses a deeply troubling question.

Unlike past wars and given that virtually every GI who is carried aboard a 214th chopper alive stays alive,
might not these units be considered weapons in their own right?

Smith notes that there is only a certain amount that the public is prepared to lose in terms of human life, something that was borne out in Iraq as casualties rose and support eroded. But modern battlefield medicine
has become so advanced that it is able to maintain morale at home because it keeps the kill numbers down in such a way that a war like Afghanistan becomes more sustainable.

Smith asks: "Are somehow the rules of war, the Geneva Convention, a little bit out of date since they were designed for a period of time when a battle would be decided and the problem would become looking after the wounded, whereas now you can have a helicopter with a red cross which suggests that you shouldn't shoot at it?

"If that helicopter with the red cross and the medicine inside is a force multiplier, does that not make it a valid target?"

Photographs by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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