Marcus, USA

May 9, 2012

Hi,

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?

Hi Marcus,

I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to get back to you, I’ve been away for work and I’m only now catching up with all my emails.

I’ll just go ahead and dive into your questions:

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?

In IDF infantry training there is (at least) a full week dedicated to ethical and legal training. This ‘education week’ covered most of the situations that we would encounter as infantry soldiers, and how we were supposed to react to them. Almost everything was framed in an ethical, not legal, argument, and rested very much on the IDF’s creed of the purity of arms. As such, we mostly talked about problems like human shields, excessive force (what constitutes beating someone, the limits of compliance techniques for arrests and so on) and rules of engagement. The laws of war played no role in the training whatsoever. In fact, International Humanitarian Law was something that I only became aware of (and interested in) after my service. During my time as a regular soldier, everything was put in a civil law frame; assaulting people = bad. Terms like proportionality, necessity, humanity and distinction were certainly not part of my lexicon. It must be noted though that I was only a private at this point, and so my decision making powers were severely limited, perhaps explaining the lack of emphasis on the strategic level of IHL. I became and NcO later in my career (as a reservist) and by that point I had already learned much about IHL autonomously, so it is difficult to judge what was taught to me by the military at that stage.

I can’t really see any problems with the training; IHL is complicated and it is far more simple to just instill basic concepts in soldiers; simple is easier to remember. I think that, if there is a problem, it is more likely to be in the enforcement of the standards on operations, not on the teaching of them. Whilst I recognize that these abuses happen in the IDF, I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that it is any more of a problem in the IDF than any other major Western military force on deployment.

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)?

I think that I encountered many ethical dilemmas in my service. Many people believe that the military is a simple blunt tool that is used to apply force, but that is simply untrue. Violence is just one of the tools at our disposal, and it is vital to keep constant watch that it is employed only in times of real necessity. As such, the decision to use force is always an ethical dilemma as, no matter what the danger faced, it is a last resort.

No one event stands out as I can, in the name of security, justify every individual roadblock, checkpoint, search, arrest and patrol that I performed; however, I understand what the cumulative effect of those actions is on the Palestinian population, and it is far from positive. Most of our duties involve trying to stay balanced on a very fine line between security and oppression, and I suspect that, out of fear and over-caution, I may have failed to do so far too often.

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 have always believed very strongly in relationships. My relationships with the people and planet around me very much define my perception of my success in this world. As such, I always tried to solve ethical fine lines by attempting to maintain the best possible relationships with everyone involved and my own conscience. I’m not religious at all, so that did nothing to effect my process, but I am spiritual (if you’re also a surfer, you’ll know what I mean. If not, ask a surfer that you know) and I try to respect my (very insignificant) place in this world. I hold a simple code, that violence is an absolute last resort, the final line of defense that is, sadly, sometimes necessary for me to accomplish my job, which is the ultimate goal.

I have a feeling that most IDF soldiers don’t approach things the same way as me, but not because they are callous or less conscious, but rather because they are scared. As I didn’t grow up Israel (I grew up in London) I had a chance to interact with many Arabs, including Palestinians, on a completely equal basis without the inherent suspicion that one finds between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Having close Arab friends a young man (those friendships are a gift afforded to far to few young Israelis and Arabs in this part of the world) allowed me to see them less as the ‘other’ or as enemies, and more as equals that sit in the same bad situation as myself. I suspect that the lack of interaction with Arabs that many IDF soldiers have had over their lives makes them more suspicious and thus more likely to hold less empathy for the civilian populations of surrounding Arab states.

I also think that British and American soldiers (particularly the Americans) approach these same problems differently to the IDF. This is not out of a superior level of morality or intelligence, but I believe it stems from their  counter-insurgency doctrine and approach to war-fighting, which demands a far greater level of integration with the surrounding population. I doubt that the basic moral compass of military operators differs very much from the IDF to the US Army or the Royal Marines, but the operational doctrine forces them to look more at the social consequences of their actions, whereas the IDF doctrine is more concerned with short-term home front safety.

I hope that this has helped, please let me know if there’s anything more that I can do for you,

Josh

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