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Monbiot’s Concerns


Monbiot radically misinterprets the Hippocratic principle, “First, do no harm.”

According to Monbiot’s interpretation, a doctor violates the Hippocratic oath by giving someone an injection, because the puncture harms the skin. No one has ever interpreted the Hippocratic oath that way. What the principle has always been understood to mean is that the doctor’s entire intervention should not be undertaken if it is expected to be harmful to the patient. In that case, it is better to do nothing.

That is the merest truism, as has always been understood — without comment, because the point is obvious. And the same is true in the case of military intervention that Monbiot misinterprets. In the case of Rwanda, if the expected result of military intervention was that it would cause harm, with no mitigating benefits, then of course it should not have been undertaken, in keeping with the Hippocratic truism. If the expectation was that military intervention would be beneficial, then — again trivially — the Hippocratic truism is inapplicable, as in the case of a doctor giving an injection, and the full range of consequences has to be considered. Monbiot’s discussion collapses, totally, once the radical misinterpretation of the Hippocratic principle is corrected.

The point is explicit even in the very sentence of mine that Monbiot quotes: “If you can think of no way to adhere to that elementary principle, then do nothing.” That is trivially true: if only harm will result from the intervention, then it should not be undertaken, whether it is an act by the doctor or the resort to violence by a great power. It is hard to think of a more elementary truism.

So much for the matter of principle to which Monbiot restricts himself. Turning to the case to which he refers, Kosovo in March 1999, the US and NATO command anticipated that the effect of military intervention would be to intensify sharply the level of atrocities in Kosovo, as clearly happened. These had been stable and relatively low for some time according to the State Department, OSCE, and other Western sources, and were attributed mostly to the KLA guerrillas by the British government (implicitly) and by the most serious pro-intervention scholarship (quite explicitly). Unless there is some powerful reason to the contrary, then, the Hippocratic truism implies that intervention should not be undertaken — and there is always a heavy burden of proof to be borne by the call for resort to violence, another truism.

There is of course more to the story, as there always is in the real world: thus there were diplomatic alternatives — NATO and Serbian — on the table at the time. After 78 days of bombing, a compromise was reached between them, lending further support to the surmise that the diplomatic track might have been pursued without the bombing and the atrocities against Kosovar Albanians it instigated, as anticipated by NATO, not to speak of the effects of the bombing on those targeted directly. It follows that the burden of proof to be borne by advocates of bombing is even heavier. Can it be met? Perhaps. The Hippocratic truism does not provide an answer, of course, nor did I (or anyone) suggest otherwise. But that, clearly, is the challenge that must be faced by advocates of bombing in Kosovo, intervention in Rwanda, and other such cases. We cannot evade the serious questions that always arise by gross misinterpretation of the Hippocratic truism.

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