Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2) — War Ethics in a War Zone (3)

Waltz With Bashir
Haim Watzman

Waltz With Bashir directly addresses the philosophical question we’ve been discussing here. Ari Folman, the film’s director, served as an Israeli soldier on the perimeter of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut at the time of the massacre committed there by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen in mid-September 1982. Folman clearly feels guilt, and feels that he abetted an act that was comparable to the Nazis’ massacres of Jews in Europe—his parents are Holocaust survivors. To what extent is he, an individual soldier, morally culpable. Should he have acted otherwise than he did?

There can be little doubt that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and the top army command knew very well what would happen if the Phalangists were given a free hand in the refugee camps. The Phalangist forces had a long history of murder, mutilation, and destruction, committed not just against Palestinians and Muslims but also against rival Christian forces in Lebanon.

Many lower IDF ranking officers and soldiers had an opportunity to see the Christian militia in action. One of Folman’s interviewees refers to the “slaughterhouse,” the field in Beirut where the Phalangists interrogated, killed, and dismembered their prisoners. These soldiers had no illusions about the militia. Most were shocked. Just as many were happy that the Phalangists were doing a lot of the house-to-house fighting in Beirut that would otherwise have fallen to the IDF (you can be, simultaneously, shocked by your allies and grateful to them for enabling you to avoid dangerous combat).

Folman asks Roni Dayag, one of his interviewees, whether he suspected anything when he saw Phalangists taking Palestinian women and children out of the camps and loading them on trucks. Dayag said that he assumed that the Christian forces were acting properly in removing civilians from a battle zone where they were liable to get hurt. Only later, when some of his soldiers saw, through their binoculars, Phalangists lining other women and children up against a wall and shooting them, did he realize a massacre was taking place. He reported the fact to his superior office and was told that the matter was being attended to. He had done what he could do, he said. (At this point, remember, he had seen a single incident. While he may have suspected that it represented what the Phalangists were doing elsewhere in the camps, he had no direct evidence to that effect.)

Assuming Dayag’s account is accurate, could he have done more? Should he have organized his squad and run into the camp to attack the attackers? Should he have abandoned his post in protest? Either act would have been foolish, ineffective, and would have placed his men in extreme danger for no practical end.

It may be disturbing, and it is certainly heartbreaking, but a low-ranking soldier caught in such an awful situation can do little at the moment. Afterwards, he can and should demand an accounting of his officers. He can and should, in civilian clothes, demand accounting of his government. He can and should talk to journalists, write letters and articles of protest, make films. The army’s top officers and civilian decision makers should be tried and convicted, but the individual soldier in Dayag’s position is not morally culpable. He is right to feel ashamed about his marginal involvement in such a crime, but his atonement will come not as a soldier who leaves his post but as a civilian who does all he can to keep that crime from being forgotten, and to prevent his government, and his army, from committing such acts in the future.

See Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (1) – A National Nightmare on Film

2 thoughts on “Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2) — War Ethics in a War Zone (3)”

  1. A small correction I’d like to add is that Israeli complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacre extended further than just failure to intervene, as you claim. Not only did the army fire flares to illuminate the carnage, they also blocked every entry to/exit from the camps, except to their Phalangist/SLA buddies, so the slaughter could proceed undisturbed. IIRC, before the massacre some Israeli politician (don’t remember who) even spread the rumour that the Palestinians were responsible for Gemayel’s assassination, thus pointing their finger to the eventual victims. All that adds up to active participation in the event, even if they left the actual bloodbath to others.

    The army regularly assassinates Palestinians accused of the same level, if not less, of culpability for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. So much for double standards, unless you suggest the Palestinians should have had carte blanche to dole out to Sharon and Eitan, inter alia, the same fate that met Elie Hobeika.

    You say both here and in your LA Times op-ed “Orders are Orders” a soldier has a duty to obey *every* order, except in, well, exceptional circumstances. Ah, but herein lies the rub. When exactly becomes an order so outrageous that the soldier has a duty not to obey but to resist? What defines the line in the sand? The laws of the soldier’s country? International law, such as the Hague Convention and the Geneva Conventions? The Ten Commandments, the Torah, any other holy book? The soldier’s own conscience? It’s easy to come up with exemplary situations where most of us can agree on the outcome, proof of most of us sharing similar basic values. So what about the soldier who does mistreat Palestinian civilians? Is he
    a) really a psychopath, a bully boy, a brute for whom all our civilisational efforts are in vain (but who does love his German shepherd)?
    b) someone like the settler Aaron Levitt encountered in Tel Rumeida, Hebron (, sweet and sociable among his fellow Jews, even an opponent like Levitt, but showing his true colours vis-a-vis the Palestinian untermenschen?
    or c) an albeit all-too willing victim of the circumstances of his job, who would otherwise be a perfectly decent guy, and in civilian life usually is?

    If c), a common case of strong spirit and weak flesh, I certainly agree that all should be done to bring the flesh up to par, but when that isn’t enough, when the soldier is addicted to the petty powers of his job, when he is like the Untertan who can for once play the Obertan, to quote Alfred Polgar via Kurt Tucholsky, then he has to remove himself from his drug of choice – or be removed, a task both the higher brass and civilian command have been so far entirely unwilling to fulfill.
    Actually, “drug of choice” isn’t entirely accurate, as you have the draft in Israel. As you correctly note however, being involuntarily conscripted shifts some of the moral burden onto those doing the conscripting, and likewise gives the conscripted somewhat more freedom to resist seemingly immoral orders. With volunteers you could argue that they freely chose their profession, warts and all – but even that doesn’t entirely free them of ethical considerations, as we’ve seen in Abu Ghraib.
    That, I think, is the reasoning that ended the draft in the US after the Vietnam disaster.

    As if on cue, the story of Gaza journalist Mohammed Omer’s mistreatment by the Shin Bet has emerged: (and probably a dozen other places)

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