War begins when the individual dies.
In my last war ethics post, I tried to understand how we can reconcile Jewish and Western notions of the sanctity of life with the reality of war. Seemingly, the two contradict each other, and we are forced to pick one or the other. However, I now know what I was missing. Community. It is when the soldier ceases to view himself as merely an individual, as valuable and capable as any other individual, and begins to view himself as part of a collective, of a nation, of a community, that he can then begin to justify murder. For even if this innocent’s blood isn’t redder then my own, still his/her life doesn’t compare with the value of the existence of my people. What’s remarkable is that not only does the soldier lose sight of his own individuality, but all those standing opposite him also lose their individuality as well. As a soldier, I do not fight against a few million Lebanese people, nor do I fight against a few thousand Hezbollah activists, rather I fight against Lebanon, or I fight against Hezbollah, or against the Terrorists. The people I see are no longer valued as persons, but only as elements of a collective. Once they are no longer persons, their blood may be spilled.
How does this tragedy happen? How does our perception change so drastically? If we look back at the beginning of the war, it’s easy to see exactly how we all made this transition. The day the first person was injured by a rocket in the North, how did we respond? We were hurt. We felt this person’s pain. We truly empathized. Why? Because we understood that it could have just as easily been us. What if we had gone for a hike near the wrong village that day? The Israeli that got hit was somebody whose place we could have taken, and therefore she was part of our community. Since she was part of our community, it is not just her that was hurt – each of us was hurt. And, as a community, we needed to strike back. We needed to punish that which hurt us. We needed to create a deterrent so that we would never be hurt again. But, as a community, we couldn’t possibly place our hands on individuals that were responsible; rather all we could see was another community. Hezbollah had killed her. Lebanon did not restrain Hezbollah. So, we attacked communities – not individuals. When the first innocent Lebanese person was killed, the Lebanese could only react in the same way. Since it could have been any of them that got killed, they also felt the pain, and identified with the victim. The result: two opposing communities are formed and individuals are gone. War.
There is a simple way out of this mess, and that is to restore the individual. If we could all just remember, for once, that all pain is the same. The same pain I feel, is the same pain you feel, is the same pain the Lebanese feel, and as difficult and disturbing it is to say this – it is the same pain the terrorist feels. We are all human beings. We are all individual persons. If we could only empathize with the Lebanese civilians the same way we empathize with the Israeli civilians. If we could feel and understand that the soldier from Tripoli’s family will mourn and cry for him the same way the family from Mitzpe Ramon cries for their loved one, then there could be no place for war. This idea is so simple. It repeats itself in art, in literature, and in endless books of philosophy, but we still don’t get it. We still imagine that there is a community on this planet which has more meaning than the human one. We still imagine that we can divide the world into us and them, and that we are better. We still refuse to understand pain.
When nation ceases to raise sword against nation, then weapons will be turned into the most common and universal tools, as we all stand freely as people.
War begins when the individual dies.