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.