Military Suicide Capsules and Medical Ethics

by Steven H. Miles, MD

In December 2013, a Hearing Panel for the Health Professions Council of South Africa found Wouter Basson MD culpable for unprofessional conduct because of his work to produce chemical weapons, to medically assist rendition by commandos (kidnappings), and to provide cyanide containing suicide capsules to Special Forces’ operatives leaving for clandestine meetings. I served as an expert witness for the prosecution in the Basson matter in the area of medical ethics and military medicine.

The French philosopher-sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is partly responsible for the confusion about strategic military suicide. He defined suicide as “all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result.” He did not distinguish a soldier whose actions entail accepting the high probability (or even certainty) of death in order to accomplish some task from actions in which the soldier’s chooses to die during the course of a military operation. For example, a soldier who throws himself over a grenade to save compatriots is valorous valor but not primarily suicidal. Such a soldier would, if given the opportunity, equally bravely put himself at risk by throwing a blast suppression blanket over the bomb.

A second kind of military suicide is a soldier who serves as a smart bomb as with the Kamikaze pilots of World War II or the suicide bombers of today.

A third kind of soldier’s suicide is that which is the tragic end of combat-induced mental illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, substance abuse disorders, or despair.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.