War Ethics In A War Zone (2)

Haim Watzman

In response to your last post, Gershom, we don’t disagree about most of the big issues. Of course soldiers, like national leaders and citizens, must make moral judgments, and must make them frequently. My point my previous post was that people in all these categories inevitably make these decisions with imperfect—often woefully imperfect—information. I admire Walzer’s effort to establish practical guidelines for how to conduct war and conflict justly and I largely agree with him.

But I think he is at times overly sanguine about people’s ability to make educated judgments in real time in situations of conflict. Indeed, he acknowledges the difficulty. At the beginning of Chapter 19 of Just and Unjust Wars (p. 304 in my paperback of the 4th edition), he writes:

“There wasn’t a single soldier,” says an Israeli officer who fought in the Six Day War, “who didn’t at some stage have to decide, to choose, to make a moral decision … quick and modern though [the war] was, the soldier was not turned into a mere technician. He had to make decisions that were of real significance.” And when faced with decisions of that sort, soldiers have clear obligations. They are bound to apply the criteria of usefulness and proportionality. . . . But judgments about usefulness and proportionality are very difficult for soldiers in the field.

We can list example after example of deeds we expect soldiers not to commit and orders they should refuse, whether it’s torture in Guantanamo and Iraq or massacres like Kufr Qasem and My Lai. But the fact is that such cases are few and far between; soldiers encounter such stark issues rarely. Mostly, they deal with issues like the ones I myself faced as a reservist in the first Intifada. In general, soldiers deal with the kinds of situations and choices I describe in my memoir Company C. What do you do if your platoon is ordered to surround and forcibly enter a Palestinian family’s house at 2 a.m. because intelligence says that a terrorist is hiding out there? It’s an awful thing to do, but the individual soldier—even officer—is not in a position to evaluate the intelligence and make his own decision. His duty is to accept the orders and carry them out.

In the course of doing so, he will encounter a slew of moral choices—small but important ones. How does he treat the civilians in the house? He can slap them around and curse at them or speak politely but firmly. He can take care with their possessions or deliberately wreak havoc. These are the kinds of things he can control. I have no doubt that at times I raided Palestinian homes even when the intelligence did not justify it or when some high officer just wanted to take revenge on a particular family. But in such situations I was able to exercise my own judgment and behave respectably, even when I received orders or encouragement to the contrary (rare in my unit, but common in many others).

When holding soldiers responsible for their actions, then, we can’t reasonably take them to task for issues of policy, strategy, and tactics outside their purview. We also need to give great weight to their point of view—their need to protect themselves and their comrades in dangerous and ambiguous situations, and to maintain their unit’s morale.

One mother in my book club related that her son, a soldier now serving at a roadblock in the West Bank, is outraged by the Mahsom Watch observers who keep tabs on him and his unit. She said that he feels that the observers simply don’t understand the pressures the soldiers face and are too quick to accuse them of mistreating Palestinians. This kid is gentle and empathetic, not a macho guy out to vent his frustrations on Arabs. I admire Machsom Watch’s work and think it’s essential for keeping our soldiers to moral standards. But even these well-meaning people often fail to comprehend soldiers’ dilemmas.

So much for the soldier. I’ll take up the issue of citizens and leaders in posts next week.

2 thoughts on “War Ethics In A War Zone (2)”

  1. Machsom Watch has no way of knowing which individual soldier at a roadblock will commit abuses against Palestinians and when, and these abuses have happened much too frequently to let them pass as exceptional aberrations. The soldier you mention may be the most decent guy personally and professionally, but he is certainly aware of the unacceptable – yet accepted – conduct of too many of his comrades. The army and/or the judiciary don’t stringently investigate, let alone prosecute these cases of misconduct, except, sometimes, when foreign, western nationals are harmed or when they get too much bad press to ignore. Or sometimes, as in the well-publicized case of 13-y/o Iman al-Hams, a discontented soldier might snitch on the perpetrator. The outcome of this – but not only this – case however is a call for more of the same.
    My advice for your soldier can thus only be to consider that his dilemma is not primarily how to maintain his moral integrity while placed in a situation that downright forces a moral decay, but to weigh possible personal sacrifices against his involvement in, and support for the continuing existence of such a situation.

  2. It is easy to forget just how out of fashion just war theory was when Walzer wrote Just and Unjust Wars. In my opinion, he’s as much trying to defend an area of academic inquiry as lay out some sort of practical guide.
    It’s interesting, in this respect, to compare J&UW with his most recent “Arguing About War” where he goes to good length to not simply make a moral exception for the solider “just following orders” but the positive argument that they have to – from a moral point of view. That is, here soldiers are morally culpable if they don’t do what they’re told (unless under exceptional circumstances).
    There’s also plenty on “emergency ethics” and all that. I think the events of the last few years have had their effect.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.