Culture, Global, Politics

War Ethics #2

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.

9 thoughts on “War Ethics #2

  1. You’re only now starting to figure why people are willing to go to war and die?
    Anyway, your solutions requires both sides to see the humanity of the other side. That isn’t happening on the northern side of the border.

  2. Sorry, I don’t buy it. When I load my gun with a shell, I am not going to blow up Lebanon or Hezbollah. Rather, I’m looking for slimy individual terrorist assholes to send to allah. Maybe when war was army against army, full frontal assaults, but not when the IDF is looking for tunnels, concealed rockets, and the few individuals who control the launch cell of that location.
    When and if I get a chance to see some Hezbollah ‘militant’, be’ezrat hashem, I will not hesitate to think about how it’s our duty to kill this SOB who wants to spill Jewish blood.

  3. No, formermuslim, I am grappling with why I am willing to fight and kill. If all of this seems obvious to everyone, than i am sorry for wasting space. For me, these thoughts are not so simple yet. I am someone who still lives int his world, who has fought before, and might end up fighting again before this war is over, so I need to think this through.
    As to the second comment. Of course peace requires all peple to do the right thing. Meanwhile, until everyone else is perfect, we still have an imperative to regard everyone’s humanity, including our enemy’s.

  4. Josh, your comment highlights exactly what I am saying. Yes, you, as a rifleman, have the privelage of looking your enemy in the eye, so you still see him as an individual. What about the artillery soldiers? Or air force pilots? Or the officers who send them all off? But, even if you still see them as individuals, the question still arises, which I raised in my last post. How dare you attack them, when you know there’s a chance that an innocent person might be killed. The answer, which I think, and which you provided, is because you view yourself as part of a collective. This you provided in your last line, wher eyou justified your willingness to kill Hezbollah terrorists, because they want to kill Jews. Shouldn’t their desire to kill anybody be sufficient motivation?

  5. I think this is the biggest problem with the left – as in all progressive thought. Utopiansm seems to get in the way of actual problem solving. One day we will all see each other’s pain etc. etc. But now, we must stop the war. How do we do this, assuming the pain stuff still doesn’t make anybody care? Stop wars first. philosophise later.

  6. hmm, I didn’t know I said anything political at all that would lead you to categorize me as left right or center

  7. I disagree with just about everything in the piece, but not wanting to write a treatise, I’ll limit myself to this:
    1) The central thesis is just plain wrong. The problems do not start with tribes or nations and the loss of individuality. The problems in fact start at the individual level. All the temptations that can lead to evil behavior – love of wealth, love of dominance, the desire to feel superior- manifest themselves at the individual level just as much as at the group level. Theft, corruption, rape, assault, murder – all are crimes performed by individuals who refuse to see the people they harm as full human beings deserving of proper treatment. The problems we see in groups are mostly these crimes on a grander scale (though sometimes group status does exacerbate the situation). There are specific instances where we can argue that a given group of people would have behaved better had they acted as individuals rather than as a group (there are also cases where the reverse is true). Stated generally, as in the post, though, the true problem is the age-old problem of evil.
    2) The piece makes no distinction between agressors and defenders. Even the most restrictive view of what constitutes allowable self-defense doesn’t equate an act of (in its view) unjustified self-defense with aggression.
    3) The piece assumes that collective acts are the result of group feeling which involves members of the group believing that group members have far more value than outsiders. No doubt such beliefs are widespread. But the piece fails to consider that even in the absence of such a belief – even where members of a group honestly feel that they are no better than anyone else – practical considerations would dictate that when any member of the group is attacked, all members consider themselves attacked, and that the response be brutal enough to deter any further attacks.
    I also dislike the use of the word “murder” in the first paragraph. That’s a loaded word. Make an argument for why the killing in question is murder. Otherwise, it’s just an assertion.
    I appreciate the attempts to enlighten me about pain, but even if I should be ever be worthy of such advice, I’d still have to worry about evil, grapple with the issue of the limits of self-defense, and continue to be part of various groups both for my own protection and in order to best advance my vision of what is right.

  8. hey Josh F– I’d thought it was you when I first saw you posting on Jewschool, and now I know it is. Hi!

  9. Josh F,
    actually I’m in an armour brigade, I used the ‘shell in the cannon’ to be vague. My Merkava 3 can hit targets accurately and on the first try at over 4km so I can’t really see the whites of their eyes, though I hope that at least I can see them and get a fair shot rather than feeling something hot coming through the rear of the tank. Then again, many Hezbollah terrorists have already felt what it’s like to see tank tracks up close and from underneath.
    If it is a rocket launcher we fire on, no guilt lost, if it is some dudes hanging around the rocket launcher, while also no guilt, I have already internalized that they are individual Arab drones, kids, brothers and fathers to others who want to kill Jews. Maybe it’s just me, but I have never generalized about the ‘other side’.
    Your thesis was proven wrong (though hope by a minority of spineless exceptions) Channel 2 had a special on air force pilots this week and some boasted about being humane and not firing on terrorists if they saw ‘innocents’ around. So in reverse of you thesis, these fly-boys who do not know what mud on the boots smells like would rather let these dudes live another day to try and kill more Jews.
    In any case, battle sucks to put it lightly. It is not paintball, it is not tag. It is “Private Ryan” up close and personal. Your friends get hurt, your friends get killed, there is no glory.

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