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.
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?
Thank you very much for your help.
Thank you for writing.
To answer your first question, we received classes in ethics toward the beginning of basic training. Every soldier is given a document (titled “Spirit of the IDF”) that they must carry with him or her at all times. The document lists the general rules that soldiers must memorize and adhere to. The document addresses the laws of war, but not from any international law perspective; the document outlines what the IDF code of ethics is, and this is in line with the international laws of war. Because my Hebrew was so weak during this period, I was given private lessons with an officer to help me understand the document and its practical application.
Much of Israel’s army is involved in the military occupation of the West Band. They operate checkpoints, arrest suspects and diffuse riots and demonstrations that become violent. Therefore much of the ethical training was directed to treatment of suspects, use of non-lethal force, and proper conduct at checkpoints.
In response to your second question, the ethical dilemmas that my unit faced were usually addressed by the commanding officer (lieutenant, captain, or most often, the colonel). On a very small scale, the ethical dilemmas I dealt with were very easy to navigate, and usually had to do with the treatment of suspects captured or proper conduct at checkpoints.
I was also never in war. I was never faced with the severity of life or death situations. But my officers were. All of them had experience in Lebanon in 2006, Gaza in 2008-9, or both. This is the major tragedy of the current situation regarding Col. Shalom Eisner’s violence against the Dutch protestor: the officers, especially those officers at his level, set the example for the rest of the entire battalion. The memorization of a document, or lessons given in a classroom in basic training mean nothing unless the soldiers see those ethical boundaries enforced in the field by their commanders. In fact, I would credit my commanding officers (especially my lieutenant) with molding my understanding of the ethical priorities of the IDF in difficult situations.
To answer your final question, the life experience I had going into the IDF, and the knowledge I had of the IDF’s ethical dilemmas (from an international perspective) dictated the general way I acted in the field. In other words, I knew that the military occupation of the West Bank was already an ethical dilemma, and that as a soldier of that occupation any ethical mistake I made would be compounded as a result of it being made within the occupation. The military occupation does, however, have a real purpose; there is, for the time being, still the necessity to maintain a military presence in the West Bank. With that fact in mind, I made sure that I personally made no ethical mistakes (on the small scale of an individual soldier or unit), and tried to focus on learning from the occupation and its consequences, rather than trying to change it.
The final part of your third question is tricky, because most of what IDF soldiers consider ethical conduct is in line with Jewish values. In that sense, IDF soldiers probably think about ethical problems differently from American and British soldiers. There is also the difference in the goal of each army. The IDF’s purpose is very linear: to protect the country and the people of that country. It is easy to see that in the IDF. I think the Americans and British are a little further removed from that idea, which has an effect on the way the soldiers understand the purpose of their armies, and their operations in those armies.
Thank you again for your questions. I hope you are satisfied with my answers. Good luck with your research, and please let me know if you need any clarification (we have no editors at friend-a-soldier) or any follow up questions.