Waltz With Bashir directly addresses the philosophical question we’ve been discussing here. Ari Folman, the film’s director, served as an Israeli soldier on the perimeter of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut at the time of the massacre committed there by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen in mid-September 1982. Folman clearly feels guilt, and feels that he abetted an act that was comparable to the Nazis’ massacres of Jews in Europe—his parents are Holocaust survivors. To what extent is he, an individual soldier, morally culpable. Should he have acted otherwise than he did?
There can be little doubt that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and the top army command knew very well what would happen if the Phalangists were given a free hand in the refugee camps. The Phalangist forces had a long history of murder, mutilation, and destruction, committed not just against Palestinians and Muslims but also against rival Christian forces in Lebanon.
Many lower IDF ranking officers and soldiers had an opportunity to see the Christian militia in action. One of Folman’s interviewees refers to the “slaughterhouse,” the field in Beirut where the Phalangists interrogated, killed, and dismembered their prisoners. These soldiers had no illusions about the militia. Most were shocked. Just as many were happy that the Phalangists were doing a lot of the house-to-house fighting in Beirut that would otherwise have fallen to the IDF (you can be, simultaneously, shocked by your allies and grateful to them for enabling you to avoid dangerous combat).
Folman asks Roni Dayag, one of his interviewees, whether he suspected anything when he saw Phalangists taking Palestinian women and children out of the camps and loading them on trucks. Dayag said that he assumed that the Christian forces were acting properly in removing civilians from a battle zone where they were liable to get hurt. Only later, when some of his soldiers saw, through their binoculars, Phalangists lining other women and children up against a wall and shooting them, did he realize a massacre was taking place. He reported the fact to his superior office and was told that the matter was being attended to. He had done what he could do, he said. (At this point, remember, he had seen a single incident. While he may have suspected that it represented what the Phalangists were doing elsewhere in the camps, he had no direct evidence to that effect.)
Assuming Dayag’s account is accurate, could he have done more? Should he have organized his squad and run into the camp to attack the attackers? Should he have abandoned his post in protest? Either act would have been foolish, ineffective, and would have placed his men in extreme danger for no practical end.
It may be disturbing, and it is certainly heartbreaking, but a low-ranking soldier caught in such an awful situation can do little at the moment. Afterwards, he can and should demand an accounting of his officers. He can and should, in civilian clothes, demand accounting of his government. He can and should talk to journalists, write letters and articles of protest, make films. The army’s top officers and civilian decision makers should be tried and convicted, but the individual soldier in Dayag’s position is not morally culpable. He is right to feel ashamed about his marginal involvement in such a crime, but his atonement will come not as a soldier who leaves his post but as a civilian who does all he can to keep that crime from being forgotten, and to prevent his government, and his army, from committing such acts in the future.