Who Am I to Say (Occasional Advice – For Soldiers)

Haim Watzman

Gershom gets requests for advice from seekers of Jewish identity, I get them from soldiers. I’ve edited the letter slightly to make it clearer and to avoid giving away the writer’s identity.-hw

Dear Sojo,

You have said something to the effect that soldiers do not have the right to refuse orders to go to war even if they disagree with the war. Morality happens at the trigger level.

soldier-doing-paperworkNow what if the military system is designed so that no one person is pulling that trigger?

I ask this because I have oversight for the pay records of servicemen who sometimes deploy to GITMO, assigned to guard servicemen who may or may not have been waterboarding detainees. If I believe that waterboarding is illegal, do I have a moral responsibility to do something contrary to military orders and the good order and discipline of the unit?

My aunt, uncle, and cousin ended up at Treblinka, sent from Warsaw. That entire system of death was designed so that no one would normally feel any onus of responsibility.

I want to avoid ever being a part of system that is similar to what happened at Treblinka.

Confused personnel officer

Dear Confused,

You’ve read me correctly. While I believe that soldiers must seek to act legally and morally, and are duty-bound to refuse to carry out manifestly illegal or immoral orders, my own army has experience convinced me that the cases to which this rule applies are rare. In the broad gray area in which a soldier serving in the army of a democratic country is charged with carrying out a policy which he thinks is wrong-headed, or in fighting in a war that he may disagree with profoundly, I believe that his duty to obey orders and to defend his comrades and his country trumps his personal misgivings. In this, I should note, I disagree with many writers about morality in warfare.

The precedent of Nazi Germany is, of course, a frightening one. But, clearly, in many ways the German soldier in World War II faced quite a different set of circumstances. First, the country he served was not a democracy. True, the Nazi regime enjoyed broad popular support, but opponents of the regime had no way of opposing its criminal policies within the system. Furthermore, the Nazi regime embarked on a campaign of conquest and genocide. As reprehensible the U.S. policies represented by Gitmo may be, they do not approach the level of unquestioned criminality reached by the Nazis.

My gut feeling is that, in the big picture, a German soldier who found himself involved even indirectly in the genocide program should have refused orders, while a German soldier at the front wasn’t morally required to do so, although he certainly would have been admirable if he did. But that leaves out a lot of the complications that existed on the ground.

I don’t know all the details of how your system works. Clearly, if you were ordered to torture a prisoner yourself, you should refuse. But that is not the case. Rather, you are charged with doing paperwork for soldiers at Gitmo who provide security for other soldiers, some of whom may be engaged in waterboarding. In this case, you are not morally required to intervene by mishandling the paperwork. Indeed, you should not do so because, as you note, it may have an adverse effect on unit order and discipline, and that may in fact place your soldiers and other soldiers in danger.

Does that make you an accessory to waterboarding? It seems to me that it does not, in any meaningful way. First, Gitmo is a large operation that does many things, waterboarding being only a small part of that. Your soldiers would be deployed there even if the waterboarding was not being done.

Second, the waterboarding policy was decided on through proper channels in a democratic government.

Third, you have other ways of protesting that policy. You can make your voice heard within the ranks, and exercise your rights as a citizen to vote to place opponents of waterboarding in government, write to your representatives in Congress, even leak information to the press if you come into possession of any secrets you think the public needs to know about.

I can understand—and applaud—your revulsion at being even indirectly associated with an inhumane method of torture. But the United States must have an army to defend itself and protect its interests, and an army can work only if its soldiers work in concert to carry out the policies decided on by its legitimately elected civilian government.

With appreciation,
Haim

23 thoughts on “Who Am I to Say (Occasional Advice – For Soldiers)”

  1. Because ethics is ususally seen as a product of reason, many tend to evaluate ethicial reasoning as simultaneously employed by everyone, in the same way. So, if everyone did this, one hears, where would we all be. An army cannot function if all refused to fight, leading to catastrophe.

    In reality, however, nonconforming ethical decisions are difficult to actualize and rather rare. Most people will not do what one argues they should, rather conforming to cultural and institutional contours.

    In my view, then, the question this American military man highlights is not whether all should do what he might do, but whether such action might have a legal path of some protection, given the very high social costs contained in public, honest defiance. Civil disobedience invites those costs. To mention Gandhi yet again, the British arrested him, once of many, for distributing Plato’s Apology of Socrates as insurgent (if I may use that word here)! Socrates point there in is to accept punishment as necessary reply to one’s stance.

    The military will do fine, both in the United States and in Israel. The question, for me, is whether the State can ultimately benefit from treating minor Socrates with respect and limited harm. And, I urge, social costs, long after the event, can be far greater than legal punishment.

    In itself, Democracy cannot protect minority rights–or recognizne them. Paralimentary democracy without written limiting constitution is especially prone to disable minority rights, as basic law, ultimately, can become a simple legislative majority; only less so a bit if some number like 2/3 is used in a written constitution, as Germany. Then we all fear election of the Nazis, or Hamas, although our own well fought majority victories are, of course, much different.

    Likud looks ready to triumph. Israel, a plurality of the electorate seems ready to say, did not go far enough. Who will speak of civil disobedience then?

    The United States Suprme Court rejected civil disobedience as a legal defense for Martin Luther King, Jr. The issue, I think I remember, was a sit in in a segregated library. That Court ruled that King, violating the law and duly convicted, must serve his sentence. I think neither Gandhi nor Socrates as written by Plato would disagree.

  2. The German soldier in World War II faced quite a different set of circumstances. First, the country he served was not a democracy. True, the Nazi regime enjoyed broad popular support, but opponents of the regime had no way of opposing its criminal policies within the system. Furthermore, the Nazi regime embarked on a campaign of conquest and genocide.

    These statements are equally true of both the USA and Israel.

  3. This question is similar to the issue of paying taxes to a government whose policies you oppose (or disagree with). One could argue that by paying taxes to the US govt, we are complicit in any wrongdoings.
    As far as I know, it’s against Jewish morality and halacha to refuse to pay taxes on the basis of disagreeing with the policies, especially in a democratic society. I believe that this approach can be extrapolated to the situation described here.

  4. Rowan – you’re just flame-baiting. Regardless of either country’s policies, what you said is almost as far from the truth as possible. It serves no purpose.

  5. You really imagine that the USA and Israel are ‘democracies’? I can assure you that I am not “flame-baiting”, whatever that means: I am absolutely serious. One should take political terms like ‘democracy’ seriously, and endevour to give them some meaning over and above prefabricated ‘parties’ and television spectaculars, you know.

  6. I see the armed forces as a tool with the personnel as components of the tool. A tool cannot work if its parts are disabled. Once in the armed forces, I don’t see how one can refuse to do anything that is asked by a superior having to do with military action directly or support of it.

    This means that by joining you are turning yourself over to the judgment of one man, the Commander in Chief in the loftiest case, usually the collective judgment of lesser authorities, and ending up with the guy one rank above you. You are at the end of a very long line of judgment about what is the right thing to be done.

    You said … the waterboarding policy was decided on through proper channels in a democratic government which means a few at the top decided not to call a form of torture, torture. Isn’t this how we all operate? Don’t we all name things in a way that allows us to do as we wish?

    A B-52 can kill from 8 miles high, dropping a bomb that easily bursts eardrums a mile from the point of impact. Who can say who dies and if their death is just? Certainly not the crew of the bomber. Yet recall the big billboard outside the air force base in Dr. Strangelove: “Peace is our Profession”.

    Those who join the armed forces in the U.S. take an oath to act against “all enemies foreign and domestic” as if it were an easy thing to define what that means and as if it were not mere mortals who do the defining for you once you are in.

    So where does that leave one? Speaking for myself, I would look at the overall situation in the world – is my country immediately threatened to the extent that my service in the armed forces is necessary for its survival? In the balance of things, is it more likely the armed forces of my country will be used defensively or in an oppressive way? If I am to be a tool, giving up all of my ability to assess my own actions, do I see that tool working more for good or ill?

    If I decide to join up, I have decided to do as I am told and that is what I should do. I am sorry to say that when I was in a position to make this decision, at age 18, I made it thoughtlessly – that I would serve – and it came automatically, just what it is hoped will be the rule among those it is hoped will join up and, I believe, a major reason that the countries of the world have no difficulty raising armies.

  7. Rowan Berkeley said:

    “The German soldier in World War II faced quite a different set of circumstances. First, the country he served was not a democracy. True, the Nazi regime enjoyed broad popular support, but opponents of the regime had no way of opposing its criminal policies within the system. Furthermore, the Nazi regime embarked on a campaign of conquest and genocide.

    These statements are equally true of both the USA and Israel.”

    Now this is very interesting that Mr. Berkeley claims that Israel is guilty of “conquest and genocide”. It seems to me quite the opposite that the Palestinian leaders are genocidal in relation to their own people not caring in the least how many woman and children are killed but what is important to them is the world opinion it buys.
    Hamas, Hisballah and Iran have basically vowed to annihilate the state of Israel with a diatribe of superlatives that know no end. So any logical human being who is threatened with annihilation is fully in his right to respond/retaliate to any degree he deems necessary to insure his country’s survival.
    Claiming that Israel and the USA are tantamount to Nazi Germany in that they are not in fact democratic is an absurdity.
    But let us follow a slightly different path of thought. For the sake of the arguement let us say the the US and Israel are not democracies according to Mr. Berkeley’s way of thinking and therefore they fall in the same category as Nazi Germany which apparently he deplores!
    ודא עקא and this is very difficult for Mr. Berkeley is responsible for the publishing of at least 2-3 pamplets of Julius Evola translated from the Italian into English.” Three Aspects of the Jewish Problem” The Elements of Racial Education” and Heathen Imperialism” Now the first two are extremely anti-semitic/jewish in their content, have surreptitiously printed on their covers a ‘Swastika’ and the website which supports these also sign in the same manner ,not only with the swastika but with other Runic symbols which were employed by the Nazis in their ‘boys’ club’.
    So what comes out of this is that Mr. Berkeley is a supporter of Nazism and its doctrines albeit not democratic but he himself accuses the US and Israel of this crime

  8. Now this is very interesting that Mr. Berkeley claims that Israel is guilty of “conquest and genocide”. It seems to me quite the opposite that the Palestinian leaders are genocidal in relation to their own people not caring in the least how many woman and children are killed but what is important to them is the world opinion it buys.
    Hamas, Hisballah and Iran have basically vowed to annihilate the state of Israel with a diatribe of superlatives that know no end. So any logical human being who is threatened with annihilation is fully in his right to respond/retaliate to any degree he deems necessary to insure his country’s survival.
    Claiming that Israel and the USA are tantamount to Nazi Germany in that they are not in fact democratic is an absurdity.
    But let us follow a slightly different path of thought. For the sake of the arguement let us say the the US and Israel are not democracies according to Mr. Berkeley’s way of thinking and therefore they fall in the same category as Nazi Germany which apparently he deplores!
    ודא עקא and this is very difficult for Mr. Berkeley is responsible for the publishing of at least 2-3 pamplets of Julius Evola translated from the Italian into English.” Three Aspects of the Jewish Problem” The Elements of Racial Education” and Heathen Imperialism” Now the first two are extremely anti-semitic/jewish in their content, have surreptitiously printed on their covers a ‘Swastika’ and the website which supports these also sign in the same manner ,not only with the swastika but with other Runic symbols which were employed by the Nazis in their ‘boys’ club’.
    So what comes out of this is that Mr. Berkeley is a supporter of Nazism and its doctrines albeit not democratic but he himself accuses the US and Israel of this crime

  9. My take on the torture issue raised by the soldier would be to default to a stance of trust in your fellow soldiers, but to act when you learn of a specific instance of unconscionable behaviour. With the new administration in place there’s (I hope) a good chance you’ll be heard.

    Haim, German front soldiers, especially on the eastern front, *were* at least indirectly involved in the genocide. They knew that after them would come the Einsatzgruppen of the SD and the Waffen-SS and what they were up to, and that the front soldiers were preparing their “workplace”. That doesn’t mean, of course, there weren’t different degrees of guilt and co-responsibility, or that it wouldn’t have been excruciatingly difficult for an individual soldier to stand up against the system – frequently he would’ve paid with his own life. But impossible it was not. There were, I believe (though I can’t pull one out of my hat right now), examples of unit commanders acting consciously and humanely, as much as that was possible in those days and places.

    I agree that mishandling paperwork, especially on an amorphous suspicion, is not the way to go, although that bit about placing soldiers in danger sounds awfully like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men.

    “the waterboarding policy was decided on through proper channels in a democratic government.” It was decided, true enough, but properly? A democratic government of a country where supposedly the rule of law applies is *not* above the law. The US have both domestic laws and ratified treaties that outlaw torture, and to define waterboarding out of the realm of torture was pure rabulism. A Chewbacca defence doesn’t suddenly make sense just because it’s The Decider using it.

    It may be true that morality usually happens at the trigger level, if only because that’s the level the average soldier will usually be working at. (I include tactical decisions by the mid-level command structure in “trigger level” here.) But at the latest since the Nuremberg trials we are also concerned with the potential criminality of going to war in the first place, though the individual soldier might be more easily misled regarding the bigger picture – as happened with the Iraq war – and so escape responsibility.

  10. I am not ‘responsible for their publication’, but for the final drafts of their translation into english. They are extremely interesting documents, well worth the effort of reading. I do not share Evola’s beliefs, of course.

  11. “I do not share Evola’s beliefs, of course.”

    Now who would even want to be associated with the publishing of writings of someone like this especially when they are published by a neo-nazi website/organization whose participants print on line the most vituperative, virulent and inciting remarks against Jews? See Berkeley’s quote in previous post on ‘criminal nature of Jews,etc.”.
    The ‘Cruor’ arguement is tangential here and he, in light of what I wrote above, has had his true nature revealed. Obviously he cannot retort to what I claimed on his views above.

  12. The relevancy is that Mr. Berkeley is an infiltrator using blogs to introduce his facist/nazi opinions in a furtive manner when he holds that Israel is a nazi/genocidal state as stated copiously on his blog site Niqnaq and whether this is call anti-zionism, anti-semitic or anti-Israel, they are basically synonymous.
    The site referred to in previous post concerning the use of nazi symbols etc. is evola_as_he_is <evola_as_he_is@yahoo.com. It would be hard for anyone who peruses its content to conclude that it is anything but neo-nazi or whatever one wishes to call and particularly the posts in the name of Rowan Berkeley.
    Almost every other post on Niqnaq has the header ‘jewish-nazi”, israeli-nazi”, zionist-nazi” etc. One can check for oneself.

  13. I wish I hed never recommended this blog – i.e. South Jerusalem – to you, Yaron. You seem to be determined to turn it into a battleground for your own private grudges – precisely what Mr Watzman asked the readers not to do, in the post directly between the two posts you have peppered with your grievances about me.

  14. I would be suprised, now that your identity is known, that anyone will take your posts seriously.
    In any event at least they will be aware of who you are and that I have not made any of this up as seen from the verifiable references I have supplied.

  15. All right, gentlemen, time’s up.
    If you’d like to continue this spat, please find someplace else to do it. You are embarrassing our respectable guests, and getting in the way of the discussion on this blog.
    Thank you for your consideration.

  16. That sounds fine to me, Gershom. I didn’t start it, after all.

    By the way, did I ever tell you and Haim what a beautifully designed website this is? Really a pleasure to use.

  17. This morning I was amazed to find 22 comments to this thread in 24 hours. Finally, I thought, the fear of speaking is crumbling. Instead, I find a Nazi-hunter and designated Nazi battling it out as if on Jerry Springer (those of you who know not who Jerry Springer is are blessed).

    Racial theories were legion in the 1920’s and 30’s. In the US, Justice Oliver Windel Holmes explicitly employed a best of the race theory in his majority (for the Court) opinion in Buck v Bell (1927), saying if a nation could ask the cream of its race to sacrifice all for the State, certainly the mentally retarded can be sterilized “to prevent our [nation from] being swamped with incompetence.” [274 US 200, 207] This decision has never been overturned, mostly because no State institution sterilizes the mentally ill, so no case has arisen. (Although the Court did prohibit the sterilization of criminals in the 1970’s–maybe 1960’s).

    I thought this thread was supposed to focus on personal decision and obligation to institution. Instead we return to the Nazis. I remember viewing a debate between American and Soviet intellectuals in the 1980’s. One comment stayed with me. An American said “We have put WW II behind us; you still live it.”

    There is obvious racism in Hamas, in haddith and in Qur’an. There is also obvious racism in the gigantic corpus of Judaism. Fine. Now where to we go?

    What the blog designers of this site have done is rare. They are providing a forum for ideas otherwise likely silenced in an environment presently hostile to such. This says much for Israel. Yet I know that, even under free speech, one may be removed for one’s thought. Are all of you, reading Israelis, going to bash one another into voicelessness?

    I am nothing: an interfering American with no personal commitment to your State. You are the important ones. Say somthing. Listen too.

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