War Ethics: And When They Do Know the Consequences?

Haim, I agree that soldiers are often cogs in a machine, unable to evaluate the full consequences of their actions. That’s why Israelis are rightly angered by the “Sentry Syndrome” – the all-too-common outcome of investigations of military errors – ethical, tactical and strategic – in which lower ranks are blamed for the mistakes of their superiors.

Nonetheless, I think that in your last post you too easily placed Michael Walzer‘s Just and Unjust Wars in the category of the theoretical.

It’s true that war is even more unpredictable than other human enterprises. Its method is destroying order. One of the fascinating tensions in Von Clausewitz’s classic On War is this: War is supposed to be policy by other means, a way to achieve political goals, rationally chosen – yet once it begins, what Von Clausewitz calls “friction” sets in, the thousand circumstances that create chaos. So how much chance is there of achieving the original ends? As you say, even national leaders don’t really know. But then, that already brings a moral consideration: As a particularly uncertain way of achieving ends, which is certain to produce suffering even beyond what can be foretold, war should be chosen only as the last resort.

Obviously, you say. But it wasn’t obvious to Ariel Sharon before he engineered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, or to George W. Bush et al before they engineered the invasion of Iraq.

A corollary: National leaders have to employ much more than “intuition, gut feelings, and the immediate perceived requirements of the moment” in deciding whether war has a reasonable chance of achieving its ends. If Bush and Co. did expect the invasion to create democracy (and weren’t just using that as a cover), they are culpable of failing to evaluate the chances of that happening. At some point, failed evaluation becomes immoral, if not criminal. In the summer of 2006, Israel attacked Lebanon with goals that included getting back two kidnapped soldiers and forcing the Lebanese government to reign in Hizballah. The Winograd Commission of Inquiry later faulted decision-makers for failing to evaluate whether the means had any chance of achieving the ends. (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni later suggested that some of the decision-making reflected “boy issues” – that is, feelings originating below the gut.) In recent months, on the other hand, it appears that one very good reason that Israel has not invaded Gaza has been an evaluation that an incursion has little chance of accomplishing strategic goals: stopping rocket fire, breaking Hamas.

Clearly immoral decisions – in which the harm to civilians is obvious in advance – is less rare than you suggest. Read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland on the choices made both by Lyndon Johnson and particularly by Richard Nixon in bombing North Vietnam.

Sadly, the My Lais and Kafr Qasms are also not quite so rare. Blogger Hilzoy yesterday described a Physicians for Human Rights report on torture of detainees held by the US in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I won’t quote directly here because my 13-year-old daughter sometimes reads this blog and I don’t think she’s ready for the physical descriptions. Actually, I’m not sure I’m ready for them either. Suffice it to say that for these things to have taken place, many soldiers had to take part in acts over which “a black flag of illegality” flew, to use the criterion set by an Israeli court after the Kafr Qasm massacre in 1956.

I recently read Benny Morris’s new book, 1948. Morris estimates that during the war, Jewish forces killed about 800 Arab POWs and civilians. Jews were also massacred by Arabs, though in smaller numbers – simply because the Arabs were losing the war, and had fewer chances.

I should note that in the first part of the war, while the British still ruled Palestine, both Jews and Arabs killed POWs for lack of anything else to do with them; they couldn’t build POW camps. Releasing prisoners was a mortal risk. This points to a lacuna in Walzer’s book: While he deals with guerrilla war against an occupier, he doesn’t take up the issues of communal wars: two groups of armed civilians fighting each other under a sovereign who cannot or will not impose order. That said, many of the massacres of 1948 took place after Israel became an independent state and its army was fighting other armies.

My old friend Gary Weimberg and his partner Catherine Ryan have produced a superb documentary, Soldiers of Conscience, about American soldiers who became conscientious objectors during service in Iraq. Powerful as the movie is, it also emphasized for me the difference between the Israeli and American situation. These soldiers were told they were fighting for “liberty”; any sense that they were protecting their families and country was far more abstract than it is for Israeli soldiers. The Americans could only get out by saying they were against all war. I am sure the soldiers in the movie believed that they did object to all war – but both the distance of the war from home and the army’s categories made it easier to think in those terms. Ultimately, I’d argue that this very “moral” position hides an immoral consequence: Someone unwilling to fight in any circumstance is willing to let harm come to the innocent bystander.

I find the position of Israeli objectors like those I wrote about several years ago morally more defensible and politically more problematic: They accept that fighting is a moral obligation in some situations. They argued that sometimes each individual order given them while serving in occupied territory was in the gray area, but the aggregate became indefensible. The problem is that arguing about the aggregate slips into political judgments – and brings politics into the military, a dangerous development.

That’s why the Israeli court insisted on the “black flag of illegality” as a reason to refuse orders. The black flag may be rare for individual soldiers. But i think you let leaders off too easily. Even with limited information – especially with limited information – they bear a greater weight of responsibility for just and unjust choices than you imply.

4 thoughts on “War Ethics: And When They Do Know the Consequences?”

  1. Foreign minister Tzippi Livni appearsto be a more hawkish leader than prime minister Ehud Olmert.

    So why get excited about her stupid “boy issue” comment?
    *Full disclosure: this blog may soon be paying for my bed, board, and tuition.*

  2. O my son! Do not confuse tactical and strategic hawkishness. Strategically, Livni has not understood what’s needed to reach a two-state solution. She is only a half-recovered Likudnik, as I wrote here:
    http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=tough_like_tzipi
    Tactically, however, she was much quicker to recognize that Israel would need to find a diplomatic exit to the Lebanon war. Olmert and Halutz acted like a couple of street toughs pulling out their knives and shouting, “Hey! Don’t push me around!”

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