What was most surprising about the conference on Battle Ethics in the Cast Lead Operation held on Sunday by the Ethics Center at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem was how much agreement there was among speakers with ostensibly different points of view. Everyone from noted liberal Mordechai Kremnitzer to the IDF’s favorite ethicist Asa Kasher dissented from the simplistic extremes and sought to balance the conflicting demands of defense and respect for human life.
As Daniel Statman noted at the beginning of the conference, there’s no need for a discussion of Israel’s battlefield ethics if one’s position is either that either fighting in general or Israel’s fighting in particular is absolutely and utterly criminal. Or if you think that in war Israel can do whatever it pleases, without any constraints, in order to win.
That these two extreme positions play a prominent role both in Israel’s internal debate and in the international polemic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not, thankfully, deterred the philosophers, journalists, and legal scholars who spoke at the conference from thinking through the issues.
Kasher played a prominent role in drawing up the IDF’s code of ethics and is an important figure in the community of philosophers who work on just war theory. He’s best known for dissenting from one of the commonly accepted general principles of the international law of warfare—he claims that a country’s duty to protect its soldiers is no different from its duty to protect its civilians, and certainly greater than its duty to keep from harm the civilians of the country or entity it is fighting. Most just war theorists, such as the field’s seminal figure, Michael Walzer, hold that a country and army must, to avoid harm to non-combatants on the other side, incur extra risk to its soldiers.
Kasher doesn’t take this position simply because he likes soldiers. He argues, cogently, that his principle follows inevitably from the principle—accepted by all moral philosophers—of the fundamental sanctity of human life. If human life is sacred, he argues, then a soldier’s life is no less sacred than that of a civilian. And since a state’s duty is, first and foremost, to defend its own citizens—even at the cost of putting the citizens of an enemy country in danger—it follows that a state’s duty to protect the lives of its soldiers is the same as its duty to protect its civilians.
Noam Zohar, who sparred with Kasher in the conference’s final session, offered a gruesome thought experiment.
“Let’s suppose that a contingent of soldiers sets out on am extremely vital mission,” Zohar said. “Unexpectedly, they find themselves in a position where they run out of food. Let’s suppose that the only food they can possibly lay their hands on is a three-year old child from the enemy population. If they kill and consume the child they will be able to complete their mission; if they do not, they will have to abort the mission. Note that this is not a case of the child being harmed to prevent a terror attack. Are they permitted to eat the child in order to carry out their mission? I hope that we all agree that the answer is absolutely not.”
This admittedly extreme example demonstrates, Zohar claimed, that we all agree that the lives of soldiers do not necessarily take precedence over the lives of enemy civilians. Soldiers therefore must take on extra danger in order to avoid killing and harming enemy civilians.
But even Zohar accepted that this principle is a relative one. In fact, he declared that the extra risk that a soldier must take to prevent harm to enemy civilians is very small—at one point he defined it as “going from one percent chance of being killed to one and one-half percent.”
Kasher and Zohar differ on an important matter of theory. But the realities of battlefields are such that commanders at times have only a fraction of the information they would need to determine whether or not they are incurring an additional half-percent of risk. So it’s not clear whether Kasher and Zohar, were they serving as philosopher-advisers to a company commander in Gaza, would actually offer different advice about actual battlefield decisions.