Soldier, King, Slave–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The heart is two
It’s yes and no.

    <em>Avraham Halfi on stage</em>
Avraham Halfi on stage
It’s an Avraham Halfi moment. Like an overstimulated actor, I’ve pushed my way to center stage. Slipping between mothers sitting in chairs, climbing over brothers and sisters on stools, I’ve gotten to the edge of the clear spot next to the screen on which we’ve just seen a film of our sons in action. Only then do I see that N’s father is there, ready to speak. I’m such an idiot. Sorry, I mumble, go ahead. No, it’s fine, N’s father says. Really, I didn’t . . . Don’t sweat it. He steps aside.

We’re in the backyard of S’s house, a green corner deep in one of the commuter suburbs that has sprung up between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the last two decades. “We” are the families of the dozen young men in my son’s commando squad, who a week before finished their year and then some of intensive training. In collusion with us, their commander, O, brought them to S’s house, where they discovered their mothers and fathers and sibs waiting. Meat was on the grill, salads abundant. The setup was worthy of a wedding, because H’s parents, who have a company that stages events, brought a truckfull of sleekly-designed tables, chairs, stools, and even four couches to lounge on, not to mention lights, gas heating elements, a screen, a projector, and flowers.

The newly-certified commandos don’t look particularly warlike. They’re dressed in shorts and teeshirts despite the winter chill. Grins on their faces, but beyond that no sign of surprise or emotion. They are the survivors of a grueling selection process that whittled their numbers down from a group twice the current size; one of the main criteria for selection seems to have been the ability to project an air of insouciance. We parents are beside ourselves, want the boys to be surprised and ecstatic. We know nothing about what they do in the army—can’t we know something about what goes on inside them? Apparently that, too, is classified.

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Bad War, Bad Soldiers

Haim Watzman

One of our regular readers, Alon, comments (ungermanely) on my previous post:

i would like to know is how do you feel on the day that the testimonies of soldiers on the killing of civilians and vandalism in gaza — after saying in your
“Bad War, Good Soldiers” post that you were “happy to hear” a soldier telling you that “we had to show them we’re not suckers and beat the hell out of them”, and that soldiers should forget their scruples and just “do the job?”

I’m writing an op-ed for the Forward this week about these recent soldier testimonies, and I’m giving a talk on Tuesday at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies on Tuesday on the moral responsibilities of the individual soldier (sorry, the talk is not open to the public). Since the subject is a serious one, I intend to take the necessary time to research and think through the issues before commenting on these revelations in detail.

However, here are a few pointers for readers interested in the subject—food for thought until my substantive post:

1. Anyone who has Israel’s interests at heart should be outraged at the thought of IDF soldiers shooting women, children, and old people.

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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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War Ethics In A War Zone

When I told my soldier son last weekend that I was preparing to lead a book club discussion on Michael Walzer‘s book Just and Unjust Wars, he shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?” he asked. “When you are protecting your country you do whatever you need to do to protect it.”

That may sound cynical and uncaring, but it accurately reflects the feeling of many soldiers who consider themselves to be moral, thinking, and caring human beings. From their perspective, they have a job to do: most immediately, to protect themselves and their buddies; beyond that to protect their families and country. They possess very little information about the big picture and, in action, must make split-second decisions with life-and-death implications based on their limited knowledge. Therefore, their default position must be to trust the decisions made by their commanders and superior officers.

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