One of the greatest challenges of a medical corps team member is to care for captured and wounded enemy soldiers. I served as an army medic during the 1967 Six Day War in the battle over Jerusalem and as a battalion physician in the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Sinai Desert. In both wars I cared for many captured and wounded enemy prisoners.
The Six Day War in 1967 broke out two weeks before the end of my last year at Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem. I had worked as a nurse in the emergency room of the Hadassah University hospital for the prior two years and I was stationed at that hospital when the war started. I also went out with the ambulances to evacuate the wounded back to the hospital and cared for them during the ride. During the first 72 hours we took care of over five hundred wounded soldiers and civilians, among them many Jordanian and Egyptian prisoners of war. All the wounded received the same care at the hospital, whether they were Jordanian, Egyptian or Israeli. I cared for many enemy soldiers and struggled to save their lives. For me, they were human beings in need of medical attention. Watching my medical school teachers and the medical teams at Hadassah fight for the lives of men who were fighting against us set an ethical standard for me that I adhered to when I became a physician.
As a battalion physician in the Yom Kippur War, I took care of several wounded Egyptian soldiers, providing them with the same level of treatment that I gave my own injured men. Even though I had mixed feelings about treating the wounded enemy soldiers, I saw them first and foremost as human beings in need of help. While my natural instincts and years of medical training urged me to help any wounded warrior to the best of my ability, I could not deny the feeling of animosity toward the enemy in the heat of battle. I managed to overcome these misgivings, however, in the hopes that our captured soldiers would be treated as well as we were treating the Egyptians. Caring for these enemy prisoners of war humanized our adversary to me, and I felt inner satisfaction that I could still honor the sanctity of the human life, a value with which I had been raised.
In particular, an experience with an injured Egyptian prisoner of war, a fighter pilot whose plane was downed by an Israeli jet, changed my perspective and humanized our adversaries to me. As I mended his broken leg and bandaged his burns, he showed me a picture of his family as a sign of gratitude. In the pictures were two young children, the same ages as my own two children. I realized at that moment that he too wanted to see them again. Following this encounter, it became emotionally easier for me to treat other wounded Egyptian soldiers.
Many of these wounded soldiers were visibly scared to death when I approached them. I could see the fear in their eyes, as if they expected that I would harm them. I wondered if their fear was based on knowing what they would have done to me should I have been a prisoner of war. I also assumed that years of anti-Israeli propaganda depicted us as monsters. Most of these soldiers were tense and apprehensive throughout the treatment and looked in disbelief as we worked to care for their wounds. I was proud that I could overcome my anger and treat these individuals as I would have wanted to be treated in a similar situation. I knew that as a Jew and as a medical professional it was my duty to do so.
The medical corps of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had always provided medical care for all injured soldiers even if they were their adversaries. This is one of the core values of the IDF and is also spelled out in the oath taken by all the physicians of the Israeli Medical Corps (see picture of IDF Medical Corps oath). Indeed, this policy is being implemented today as the IDF has opened a field hospital near the Syrian border and cares for victims of the civil war in that country. Even though there is an official state of war between Syria and Israel, over three thousand injured and sick Syrian nationals have so far been treated at this hospital.
It is my hope that those wounded enemy soldiers and civilians that we cared for in 1967, 1973, and today have served as emissaries for peace and reconciliation after they returned to their homes. Hopefully, their testimonies have advanced the cause of peace.
Dr Itzhak Brook served as a medic in the Six Day War and as a battalion physician in the Yom Kippur War. He is a Professor of Pediatrics in Georgetown University. Dr. Brook is a speaker for the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC and authored the book “In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War.” (See book cover below) The book is available on Amazon.