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:

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Nostalgia Makes Bad Military Policy

You can’t help liking Major General (Res.) Emanuel Sakal–even when you think his vision of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is totally skewed. At this week’s conference on The Decline of Citizen Armies in Democratic States (see my post on Wednesday), he offered a list of reasons why an all-volunteer army would be the end of the IDF. Some of the reasons were good, many were laughable, and none of them were backed up by facts.

Sakal, with his sun-wrinkled face and sharp gaze, is a paragon of Israeli republican virtue–he’s a man who devoted his life to his country’s defense and now, in his old age, gives his people the benefit of his experience and wisdom from his perch as a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

The problem is that he acquired his wisdom decades ago and hasn’t bothered to update it. Sakal’s still caught in the “trust me” attitude all too common in the IDF, in which rank and battle scars are taken to be better indicators of reliability than empirical evidence.

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Tough Love: Israel And Its Army

Haim Watzman

Big news: public trust in the Israel Defense Forces dropped a full three percentage points in the last year. Now only 71 percent of Israelis (all Israelis, including non-Jews) trust their army, as opposed to 74 percent last year. The figures come from the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Democracy Index. I would guess that the generals are not exactly quaking in their boots. But given the damning criticism of the army included in the Winograd Report (available in Hebrew here) on the Second Lebanon War, issued earlier this year, it’s rather surprising that the IDF remains so popular. Or is it?

In fact, the army remains far more popular than every other public institution in the country. Only 35 percent trust the Supreme Court (a drop of 12 points), only 17 percent the prime minister, only 37 percent the media.

Does this mean that Israel is a modern Prussia, taking glory in the macho military values embodied in its armed forces? Not exactly. Israelis are hardly alone in admiring their fighting men. In fact, armies tend to be wildly popular institutions in most countries. I recall an essay by Jorge Luis Borges (I can’t find the specific reference right now) in which he explained the central place of the army in the society of Argentina and the admiration in which it was held-despite that army’s penchant for staging coups d’etat and pushing those who don’t admire it out of airplanes.

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Running from the Siren, Biking the Green Line

The siren last night caught me backing up my hard disk. I’d planned to be at the neighborhood ceremony or upstairs with my family at the beginning of Memorial Day, but I kept procrastinating. When I got upstairs, the television broadcast of the official ceremony was just coming to an end. I had something to eat and watched the segments about fallen soldiers and their families.

“I need to talk to Asor,” Ilana said. So I called him on my cell phone, figuring that he wouldn’t answer. He did. “We needed to hear your voice,” I told him. Ilana tried to take the phone but started crying. Asor was impatient, said he had to go. Should we be thankful that we’re watching the Memorial Day programming rather than being part of it, or brood over the possibility that in some future year we might be on the screen?

When this morning’s siren went off at 11 a.m., I didn’t even hear it. The same unconscious repression mechanism that was at work last night did it again-I was in an elevator in the Malha shopping mall. The door opened and everyone was standing stock-still with their backs to me. For a second I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized that I’d again tried to avoid the moment.

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Socks and the Man

Israel Independence Day is coming up next week, and I’m feeling very patriotic. So I went out this morning and bought $93 worth of socks for the Israel Defense Forces.

Often, however, I have to buy the socks without the inspiration. Every month I shell out sums like this for hats, scarfs, t-shirts, underwear and other gear that the IDF does not supply to its soldiers. And socks. My son is in combat training in a commando unit, so he goes through a lot of them.

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The Intellectual Defense Forces

If you want to bone up quickly on any subject ranging from molecular biology to gender studies to Maimonides, where do you go? If you’re lucky enough to be able to read Hebrew, you know where—you pop over to the nearest book store or library and dig through the booklets published by the Broadcast University.

Israel’s universities may be in decline and their humanities faculties heading for intensive care, but this is one bright corner, and the light comes, of all places, from the army.

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