I am a researcher from the State University of New York at Albany, and I’m currently working on a PhD dissertation about military ethics in the IDF, the American Army, and the British Army. My main goal is to understand the kinds of ethical challenges soldiers from each military encounter and how they solve these challenges. To answer these questions, I am interviewing soldiers and former soldiers from each military. I have interviewed around 35 American Soldiers, mostly veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I am now trying to find current and former members of the IDF. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about your experiences. Any responses you provide will be kept anonymous. Thank you very much for your help.
What kind of training in military ethics and the laws of war did you receive while you were serving in the IDF? What were the strengths and weaknesses of the training? Would you suggest any improvements?
Did you encounter any ethical dilemmas while you were in the military? Do remember any particular events in which you had to make a difficult decision about what was the right course of action? If so, could you tell me a little bit about the event(s)?
When you encountered ethical dilemmas, how did you decide the best way of resolving them? (In other words, did you try to apply your religious values, instructions provided in training, cultural values, a moral theory, etc.) Based on your experience, how do you think IDF soldiers usually solve ethical dilemmas? Would you expect IDF soldiers to think about military ethics in the same way as American and British soldiers or differently?
I apologize for the delayed response, Ive been swamped with exams lately.
In response to your first question, I can tell you that my first exposure to ethics training came on the first day of basic training. We arrived on base, got off the bus, put our gear in our tent, and went to eat lunch in the mess hall. Immediately after lunch we were given a lesson on the basic values of the IDF (a week before I even touched a rifle) and ethics as well as a pocket-sized copy of the IDF ethics handbook in each soldier’s respective mother tongue. This cursory exposure to the IDF was expanded on later in our training when we underwent a week-long course in ethics. This included simulated scenarios and an analysis of past events and controversial cases. While I felt that the training was both necessary and sufficient, there is always room for improvement. My experience with issues of misconduct in the military is that it usually occurs in isolated cases and is largely driven by the soldier in question’s own personal agenda and outside influences. I can recall one case in my reserve duty where my squad received a new soldier. His extreme right-wing views and eagerness to use violence made it quickly apparent to my squad and I that he had no place in our unit nor the IDF. Several soldiers in the squad relayed their thoughts to our commanders and last I heard, the soldier in question is no longer serving with the unit. As such, I think the IDF could probably do more to better screen soldiers prior to their draft as well as periodically throughout the course of their service.
As far as your second question goes, I didn’t encounter as many ethical dilemmas as most soldiers would due to the nature of my deployments. Much of my service was spent on Israel’s Northern border with Syria and Lebanon where daily incidents and friction are far less frequent than what soldiers would experience in the West Bank or Gaza. In this regard, flare ups on the Northern border, while sporadic, have historically been very serious and seen as acts of war thus there are generally no real questions or dilemmas of conduct- at least on the lower ranking level. That has been my own personal experience, or lack thereof. I should add though that I strongly believe that the IDF or any army should not be engaged in operations among civilians. Operations such as checkpoints, roadblocks, and disengagement should be reserved for law-enforcement and not the military. This, I feel, is a huge source of ethical dilemmas and unclear rules of engagement and conduct.
As for Question 3, while I cannot speak on behalf of all IDF soldiers, I believe that IDF soldiers would like to use common sense when faced with a dilemma. This can be problematic at times as soldiers are bound by orders which often do not make sense as lower ranking soldiers generally aren’t exposed to the full picture in the way that the higher ranking commanders are. This can often create a dilemma for the simple soldier who is bound to follow the order but can find no logic or sense in what he/she is doing and I think it’s the source or many operational blunders or mistakes. Lastly, I’m not sure what I really expect IDF soldiers to think about ethics in comparison to American or British soldiers but I do imagine the survivalist instinct may play are tangible role in the matter. The unique geopolitical conflict in this region has made it widely known and accepted here that we cannot afford to lose a war and must win at any cost unlike the US or UK who are not engulfed by hostile armies.
I hope I was able to help and I wish you success with your research, I would love to read your dissertation when it is complete. Feel free to contact me should you have further questions whether it be via Friend A Soldier, email, or Skype.
Best of luck,
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. I am very grateful for your help. I was especially interested to hear your thoughts on checkpoints and roadblocks being a source of ethical dilemmas. This is exactly what I’ve heard from American soldiers, and I’ve been struck by how many problems arise during these duties. It has given me the impression that the key to preventing incidents may be addressing these situations specifically. Your suggestion to use law enforcement rather than military forces in this role seems like a promising solution.
I do have one more question, if you don’t mind. In regard to your suggestion about screening soldiers before they enter service, can you think of any specific ways that this might be accomplished? Could you imagine any screening procedures that would have prevented the potentially dangerous soldier from joining?
Great to hear back from you, I’m glad I was able to help. I can recall one incident I was involved in during my reserves duty that really made me think about the issue of police vs. military power. My patrol was alerted to an incident which occurred not far from the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. The patrol was ordered to cordon off a specific area by restricting access through a particular road which was designated a closed military zone as a precautionary measure. This put me in an uncomfortable situation as it meant denying local residents access to their homes for the duration of the roadblock. Despite it being in their interest not to enter the zone (as there was un-exploded ordinance in the vicinity), many of the residents began to project their anger and frustration at my patrol who was only obeying orders. Eventually, one of the civilian vehicles (a 4×4 pickup truck) strayed off the road and completely bypassed the roadblock. What was I supposed to do? Sure, I was armed with an M-16 rifle and vehicle mounted heavy machine gun, but what good would they serve against a civilian who did not threaten me or my squad’s safety in any way? All I could do was notify command via radio that a civilian vehicle had breached the roadblock. My immediate thought was that a police patrol car should have coordinated the road block, not a military hummer. Unlike a military authority which doesn’t always have clearly defined rules of engagement when it comes to civilians, a police authority is in possession of both physical and legal means of enforcement. The example I provided you with is based on my limited personal experience with a civilian issue. I’m sure if you were to ask another IDF soldier who was involved in the 2005 Gaza Disengagement you would hear of much more potent incidents in which physical violence was involved.
In response to your additional question, I can tell you that the IDF does hold personal one-on-one interviews with its potential conscripts prior to their draft, usually within the year preceding their draft date (while they are still civilians). The purpose of these interviews is not only to size up the individual for the purpose of placing him/her in the appropriate unit, but also to pick up on any underlying issues such as mental instability or fanatic/extreme beliefs/ideologies which may pose a safety risk. The issue of weeding out “bad apples” is not so simple. I know that in the IDF infantry units, weekly meetings are held where soldiers and their commanders discuss any problems they are experiencing. Logistical problems usually occupy the majority of these talks, but ethical dilemmas can also be discussed here freely if necessary. I think the best way to identify and discipline problematic soldiers would probably be a combination of things. The commanders should be alert and know how to identify signs of potential problems (ie a bellicose and belligerent demeanor and/or use of racist slurs/threats), regular talks should be held on both the group and individual levels, and lastly and most importantly, moral values should be instilled early on in a soldiers service and constantly reiterated (I feel the IDF does this well) so that a problematic soldier could be reported by other similarly-ranked soldiers to the commanders (as occurred in the incident I described in our previous correspondence). I hope I answered your question and I look forward to reading the conclusions of your research.
Have a great week,