Culture, Global, Israel, Politics

War Ethics #1

One of the many disturbing things about living in Israel, is how easily hypothetical situations become real ones. You know, all of those fun discussions that you had in your intro ethics class. “If a train is heading down a track and there are five people tied to the rails…” Beginning the second day of the army, every Israeli starts discussing those questions, fully expecting to have to make those choices. And somehow, when they’re not hypothetical, our answers can sound a lot different.
Last Shabbat, I ended a tortured conversation about Israeli military tactics and morality by moving the discussion from the hypothetical to the real. “Yosef,” I asked, “if tomorrow we’re both in Lebanon, would you choose to shoot a civilian, or be shot yourself.” His answer surprised me and pissed me off. After all, we both had read enough Talmud to know that our blood isn’t any redder than a Lebanese, and Plato had taught us both that it is better to suffer evil than to perform it. So, how could he possibly give the wrong answer?
On the flipside, in a recent bout of drunkenness, I declared that I would prefer to kill civilians than to be captured and tortured. Yeah, even me, who knows exactly how untenable a position that is, in this moment of late night honesty, faltered.
Are both Yosef and I evil? Apparently, we’re allowing our emotions and our animal instincts for life and pleasure to overwhelm our rational faculties. But, then again, this is war, and if we were following reason, we could never fight in one in the first place. How else could we allow ourselves to shoot, if there is even a remote possibility of a civilian being hurt? Perhaps then, war by its very nature is immoral. On the other hand, if the war is thrust upon us, how can we not respond? How can we not defend ourselves? Just like in my Shabbat conversation, our instinct for self-preservation is stronger than all of our abstract reasoning.
It seems, that if war is ever justified, then all of western ethics can be thrown off the table. And, if they’re off the table, what are we left with?

10 thoughts on “War Ethics #1

  1. 1) I’m not too sure of the extent of Plato’s selflessness – I suggest you read The Republic a bit more closely. This guy’s ideal city-state has elements of what we moderns would consider a brutally oppressive oligarchy without any notion of the transcendent worth of the individual.
    2) You don’t seem to have gotten the Talmud right, either -in the hypothetical case of two NON-COMBATANTS in the desert, with just enough water for one of them to survive, the Talmudic opinion is that the one with the water need not surrender or share it – when the Talmud uses the phrase about “your blood being as red as the other’s ” in this and other contexts, it has the exact opposite meaning from what you understood – that it, one’s self-defense comes first.
    This is doubly, trebly true when it comes to defense against a military threat. The Talmud says that we should go to war – actually killing people – if our neighbors steal wheat or straw from farms on our border. Because it’s a challenge to our sovereignty.
    I realize that it’s a bit of shock for some to realize just how far liberalism has drifted from Jewish values. But the consolation (or greater shock, for some!) is that Jewish values are proving to be more realistic than extreme, decadent left-liberalism.

  2. Thank you Ben-David for saying everything I was going to (after calming down, several hours from now…). Kol ha-kavod.

  3. Wow, someone taught you that proper Western and Jewish ethics required you to give up your life if defending it might cost the life of a civilian? Dude, back to school!

  4. What is wrong with you folks ?- he specified a *civilian* – the assumption being that it’s not the civilian who is trying to kill him (otherwise they wouldn’t be a civilian anymore, would they?).
    You’re citing the wrong talmud passage. What Josh is (correctly) referring to is that one of the three things for which one must die rather than sin are idolatry, adultery and murder. Yep. Murder. Not allowed to commit it rather than die oneself.
    Plainly: if someone holds a gun to your head, and says, “Kill this person or die” you have to die. I don’t know that that’s liberal politics, but it certainly is Judaism.

  5. Kol Ra’ash Gadol, in the extreme theoretical you have it right: murder is never justified. But, to be true to the source, you have to define murder as the Talmud does: as a crime done with full intention, after being warned that the crime itself is the sole object of your intentions.
    Any cursory knowledge of situations of war in the Tanakh or Talmud will show you that non-combatants are sometimes hurt.
    In other words, if you happen to shoot in the direction of a shooter and the bullet hits a civilian, according to Talmudic logic you are not culpable for the murder. Instead, it is a form of manslaughter, to be defined by the investigating judge. So before you declare what Judaism is, Kol Gadol, listen to the still small voice and humble down.
    Interestingly, the Geneva Conventions–the basic ethical document of Western Just War theory–takes the same track. Military operations against military forces are completely justifiable, and the military force that decides to hide behind a civilian shield is the one responsible for civilian casualties.
    Hence, Hizbullah is, according to Western Ethics, ultimately responsible for Qana.

  6. Bullshit bullshit bullshit. Ariel, you ought to know better. Israel is causing civilian casualties on a scale that is large, and it is doing so knowingly, that is to say, with indifference. If I undertake any non-murderous action, with the knowledge that said action will result in the deaths of others, my action might as well be murder.
    Self-defense is not the issue here – if the “civilian” was pointing a gun at me and it was simply a question of who shot first, he wouldn’t be a civilian and murder wouldn’t even come up as a topic. On the other hand, just because some general decided that a massive air carpet-bombing would save lives, this doesn’t mean: a) that he’s in any way correct, or b) that such a response doesn’t amount to a number of murders.
    I’ve been increasingly sickened by the way more and more editorials in the Israeli papers have been reduced to comparing Israel and Hezbollah – “THEY kill civilians on PURPOSE! It’s their whole REASON FOR BEING! Whereas WE only do it by ACCIDENT!”
    Of COURSE we only do it by accident, for crying out loud. But the growing chorus of people saying we shouldn’t be sorry about it renders the accidental nature of the killing ever more unlikely in the future.

  7. False, Sam. The entire logic behind the statement, “One who rises to kill you, kill that person first” is based upon the sound conclusion that violent intent is not necessarily actionable immediately. Thus, if one knows that an organization armed to the teeth by hostile powers at war with oneself is preparing to attack, one has the expressed moral legitimacy to destroy the very foundations of that murderous organization.
    Kal V’Khomer if that organization–Hizbullah–has already started the killing of your people, and if the Hizbullah is being supported by parts of a civilian population into which it disappears.
    Every human death is a tragedy–even the death of a murderer. But what is more tragic is when one has the ability to protect one’s own, but decides not to do so because of the possible repercussions of the action.
    That’s why the Zionist Left has been so supportive of the recent campaign–we realize that the choice at this moment is between supporting the dream of the Hizbullah, or supporting the dream of the Jewish People.

  8. There are still several problems with your logic. One is that similar logic was used to justify the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 in order to deal with the PLO; this vastly disproportionate response had such far-reaching and unforeseeable consequences as: 1) Sabra/Shatila and Sharon’s stepping down as Defense Minister, 2) Osama bin Laden’s first glimmering of the idea of destroying the World Trade Center, 3) Most importantly, the foundation of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
    The strategy you support and continue to consider as realpolitik I will continue to consider misguided naivete. The preachers of “realism” will eventually be forced to face the bankruptcy of their strategy. You shall know them by their fruits, and so on.

  9. Not to mention that in this specific case as in so many others, doubt has been thrown on the ability of air raid strikes to maintain accuracy and effectiveness. Some defenders raise the point that the strike was targeting a site 300 yards from the building that was actually hit. So now the bombs can’t decide between 300 yards? What does that say about the responsibility of using them in a densely populated civilian area? Either this is indefensible irresponsibility, or malicious cruelty.

  10. Sam, you have been taking too many sanity pills.
    I remember well the support for the Iraq war–we’re turning a corner.
    Funny thing is, we’ve never stopped turning, and the population is getting dizzy. LOL
    Hey, wait, it’s that dumb .uck Mel Gibson driving! We all know how the story is supposed to end according to the end-of-times vision of Bush and Gibson.
    i don’t want any part of it.

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