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The Soldiers’ Testimonies–Another View

March 27th, 2009by Haim Watzman · 7 Comments · Politics and Policy

Haim Watzman

Have Israeli soldiers’ values—and the moral choices they make in combat—changed? Do the soldiers’ testimonies from the Rabin pre-military academy show that the IDF and its soldiers have adopted values different from those of earlier decades and earlier wars?

I’m not convinced. They might, and the charges made in the testimonies certainly need to be thoroughly investigated (impartially, not by the brigade commander, who says he spoke to the soldiers involved and denied that the incidents took place). But I’m dubious about jumping to conclusions, as I think Gershom did in his post yesterday.

Gershom argues that Israel’s strategy in the Gaza war—which involved the use of intense fire power in densely-populated civilian areas, so as to ensure a minimum of Israeli casualties—gave soldiers the message that human life on the other side was of no value. Rules of engagement were eased up and soldiers were given the message that they should have few hesitations about killing ostensible non-combatants.

It’s certainly possible that the grand strategy made an impact on the actions of individual soldiers. But we don’t, at present, have any empirical evidence of that. We’d need to see statistics showing that proportionally more incidents of unnecessary shootings of civilians by soldiers took place in this war than in previous wars. Yet the incidents described by the soldiers from the Rabin academy, while extremely disturbing, are not different in kind from what has happened in the IDF’s previous wars, or indeed in wars fought by the countries of other Western nations in the past half-century.

The soldiers’ testimonies certainly make some of their comrades sound quite different from the idealistic, peace-loving soldiers who related their experiences in The Seventh Day (called Siah Lohamim in Hebrew), the oral history compiled after the Six Day War by Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira. But, while The Seventh Day represented Israel as it wanted to see by others and as many Israelis wanted to see themselves, it was highly selective. Oz and Shapira excluded the testimonies of soldiers—in particular, religious soldiers—whose values conflicted with the image of the Israeli soldier they wanted to project, and heavily edited the testimonies they did include.

It’s certainly true that the demographics of Israel’s fighting forces are different today than what they were in 1967. There are far more religious soldiers, graduates of the religious-Zionist educational system where messianic, nationalist ideology prevails. And there are fewer socialists and secularists from Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim.

But here’s a caveat from my own experience in the army—I saw that men’s political and religious ideologies were not accurate predictors of their behavior toward Arab civilians. Some of the meanest, least considerate soldiers I knew were vociferous advocates of territorial compromise and accommodation with the Palestinians, while some of those who went above and beyond the call of duty to treat Palestinians as human beings were advocates of Greater Israel and settlements.

One little-remarked detail that stands out in the testimonies from the Rabin academy are that, time and again, these men mention how bored and frustrated they were during their long weeks in Gaza. Motivated to fight for their country, they found that the air force and artillery had done much of the work for them before they even arrived. They saw little action and spent most of their time holed up in houses they had commandeered. They had little to do, felt largely useless, and endured all the discomforts of a war zone—they ate bad food, had nowhere to shower, and had plastic bags for toilets.

The training that the Rabin graduates received may have helped them deal with that frustration better than other soldiers could. But, again, my experience is that boredom and frustration can cause highly-motivated combat soldiers—and I mean men who in other circumstances are thoughtful, intelligent, and sensitive—to lose their moral bearings.

I don’t know what was in the minds of the soldiers who allegedly shot a mother and her two children in one incident and an old woman in another. Were they motivated by ideological passion? Were they apathetic to human life as a result of seeing their army bomb Gaza? Had they come to seen Arabs as less than human? Possibly. But it’s no less likely that, bored by inaction and eager to fight, they jumped at the opportunity to shoot at what seemed to be a legitimate target.

This is not in any way to excuse these actions. Soldiers must have more moral presence than this. But if we’re to prevent such things in the future, we need to understand what caused them. If it’s moral apathy brought on by boredom and frustration, we need more programs like the Rabin pre-military academy and stronger leadership by officers. We may also want to seek to balance the army’s demographics and reconsider the strategy pursued in Gaza—but for other reasons, not because of the killings reported by the Rabin graduates.

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