In This Review

Aiding Peace? The Role of NGOs in Armed Conflict
Aiding Peace? The Role of NGOs in Armed Conflict
By Jonathan Goodhand
Lynne Rienner, 2006, 239 pp
Bioethics and Armed Conflict: Moral Dilemmas of Medicine and War
Bioethics and Armed Conflict: Moral Dilemmas of Medicine and War
By Michael L. Gross
MIT Press, 2006, 384 pp

Although these two books cover quite different topics, they both address the tension between humanitarianism and warfare: how the norms that govern the behavior of those seeking to mitigate the harsher aspects of war are challenged by discretionary military operations, which often claim to serve a humanitarian purpose and in which the dividing line between the military and the civil is blurred. The involvement of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in contemporary conflicts, especially those taking place within weak states, has become one of those conflicts' notable features. NGOs attempt to mitigate the effects of conflict by providing relief, helping to develop a dialogue among belligerents, and setting in motion social and economic reconstruction. This is a long way from the past refusal of aid charities to acknowledge that they had any role in addressing the sources or the conduct of conflict; their humanitarian impulses can be compromised as they find themselves providing assistance that sustains conflict and gives sanctuary to the violent. Having spent time as a fieldworker in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, Goodhand builds on his own experience by engaging in a thorough analysis of the literature on the subject. At times, his book suffers from trying to cover too many angles of the problem. Nonetheless, this is an important contribution and will be the starting point for further research. Goodhand demonstrates just how ideological this debate can become, with accusations about NGOs as agents of neoimperialism or meddlers in complex situations. He warns of the invariably political character of all notionally good works and describes the limits of NGOs' impact. He also demonstrates, however, that within those limits there are still useful contributions to be made.

It is only possible to hint at the range of topics covered by Gross' fascinating, challenging, and remorselessly unsentimental exploration of medical ethics in the midst of war. Is medicine a pacifist vocation, or at least ethically neutral between belligerents? Can the functions of wounding and of healing be truly separated in a military organization? What rights do soldiers have as patients, especially if they might return to battle or are enemy combatants? Should doctors get involved in the development of weapons that not only cause injury but also spread disease if this might deter others from doing the same? Gross outlines the established problems with the application of the principles of proportionality, necessity, and the combatant/noncombatant distinction in the medical field, and the new ones arising from irregular war and the advance of biomedical technology. Deep dilemmas tumble out of every page.