BigMo’s Blog

Politics and Economics in Israel

A Tale of Two Moralities

A “Moral” Army

It seems that here in Israel we’ve turned the clocks back to December 2008. The Israel Defense Force (IDF), reservists and the media have decided to have a very public discussion about morality, as practiced during Operation Cast Lead (OCL). There were numerous controversies during this short, but intense conflict. There was the “high” number of civilian casualties, the supposed use of white phosphorous, “wanton” destruction of mosques and civilian property and the alleged targeting of UNWRA and other NGO installations.

In a perfect world there would be no war. There are conflicts. Think of how many words the English language has for describing this state and its intensity: armored warfare, asymmetrical warfare, battle, brushfire war, combat, clash, confrontation, crusade, hostilities, fighting, guerilla warfare, struggle, mêlée, war. You probably could add a few to the list with little effort.

Obviously, none of us live in such a world and are not likely going to be any time soon. However, when faced with the necessity to take up arms and defend one’s home, family and way of life, does one toss his or her moral code aside and do “whatever necessary” to win? Does this not in some way diminish the value of those things for which one was fighting in the first place? Say someone was able to hurdle these questions successfully, fight, win and return home. Could this person segregate his or her actions as a “warrior” from the behavior expected of a “civilian” and return to society without any doubts or inner conflicts?

This is the inner conflict that several dozen are debating. That there are only a few dozen who are asking these questions out of the more than 10,000 soldiers and airmen who took part in OCL is not an issue. Their concerns and their first-hand observations of what took place have been presented to the chain of command and are being actively investigated. That this has been latched onto by the media and added it as so much grist to the mill is unfortunate, in that the media view this as only “a story.” There are larger issues behind it that cannot be captured in a thirty-second sound byte.

Kick Me, Please

First of all, there is this claim that Israel has the world’s most moral army. I was watching the evening news while writing this and an authority no less than the IDF Chief of Staff made this statement. As one commentator wrote, this is like walking around with a “Kick Me” sign taped to one’s back!

An army has two basic functions: hurt people and break their things. It’s a crude formulation, I know. However, it is one that has worked ever since the cavemen in Cave A decided that they didn’t like the cavemen in Cave B and organized themselves to act upon their dislike. Strategy, tactics and weapons are all just means to achieving the two basic functions. Philosophy cannot take a beachhead and morality cannot hold it.

To dress up one’s actions in war as in keeping with the moral codes of one’s society or “more moral” than one’s opponent is mere propaganda. It deserves all the contempt that such trumpeting is bound to receive. America learned this lesson many times over in Iraq; Abu Ghraib being the most memorable example. Every time the IDF general staff or an Israeli politician states “we have the most moral army in the world” he should expect a swift media kick to the posterior!

The second problem I have with these statements about a moral army is that it is a kind of morse code that the listener is supposed to decipher. Unfortunately, except for the extras in Hollywood westerns, no one these days understands morse code!

What should we expect?

What should we expect from the men and women we’ve asked to defend us? Particularly here in Israel, where military service is nearly a universal requirement. Do they merit a blank check from those of us who are either too young, too old or to infirm to serve? Can their officers possibly describe to them every situation they might encounter on the battlefield and how to act? Can we expect a young man, who has been trained to act with deadly force when confronted, to remember on the battlefield a myriad of moral situations and reflect on them?

We expect the political echelon to formulate clear and well thought-out policies. (See my first blog on this subject.) We expect the general staff to see to the training and arming of the army. We expect officers to lead their men courageously and also intelligently. We expect them to win. And yes, we expect them to act in the spirit of the moral values which we have asked them to defend. However, there are limitations to this.

In war we cannot ask an army to act as though it was a theological seminary or a platoon of infantry to act as if they are freshmen philosophy students. An army must fulfill its basic functions. Or the enemy’s army will fulfill its basic functions and we will be the worse-off for it. Western societies have come to view every field of human endeavor as a series of transactions in which all players should have an equal chance to win; in fact, everyone must be a winner. However, war is a zero-sum game: there must be a loser.

It’s all just a matter of opinion, isn’t it?

The term “moral relativism” has been in use for some time in Western societies. In the United States, it is often used by conservatives, particularly among the Christian Right, as a charge against Liberals. From a philosophical viewpoint, moral relativism is used to indicate several different views.

The first viewpoint is that the truth of a moral judgment regarding a person’s behavior depends on whether the person believes the actions to be right or wrong. This view is commonly expressed as “there is no right or wrong, it’s all only a matter of opinion.” Acceptance of this view undermines the claim of any moral judgment to have validity.

One who believes in moral relativism in this sense would have to agree that there was nothing objectively wrong with a person torturing or killing another person, as long as the individual committing those actions sincerely believed that they were not wrong.

Cultural Relativism

A second viewpoint, sometimes called “cultural relativism,” is the view that moral judgments and moral rules always reflect the cultural context from which they are derived and cannot be applied to other cultural contexts. Some who hold this view are skeptical about even the possibility of saying that slavery is wrong in a slave-holding society!

Since slavery as an institution has been dead for a long time – at least in America and Western Europe – let’s give that a modern spin. If I am born and raised in a culture that accepts strapping dynamite to my chest and blowing up myself in a supermarket as a legitimate method of protest, then this act cannot be condemned from a moral viewpoint. It is part of my culture, and you as an outsider have no moral grounds to condemn my act.

This cultural relativism is, in my opinion, just another form of paternalism. Perhaps it is the worst kind. It allows slavery to persist in Sub Saharan Africa and Saudi Arabia as a “cultural artifact,” not the suppression of a basic human right to freedom. It views Muslim prelates issuing death decrees against authors and cartoonists as an “understandable reaction,” not as murder. It permits women to be relegated to second-class status, as “religious practice,” not the denial of the right to education.

The societies that persist in these practices wallow in a form of medievalism. The only challenge they present to Western societies is when they try to bring their “culture” with them to the streets of Amsterdam, London, Paris and New York. At that point Western societies face a choice: allow customs and habits that are repugnant to hold sway in their streets or face the hypocrisy that they have practices vis-à-vis these societies for far too long.

The Price of Tea in China

So, what has all this discussion of moral relativism to do with the price of tea in China? It is this: moral relativism is a weapon that wounds twice every time it is wielded. First, the person or group subject to the immoral attack is injured. He, she or they are told that their attackers cannot be judged to have broken any moral law, rubbing salt into their fresh wounds. Second, the moral relativists – the apologists who often sit safely ensconced in university campuses, television studios, press rooms and trendy coffee houses – demean and dishonor the very society (and its moral code) that brought those very same university campuses, television studios, press rooms and trendy coffee houses into being.

The vast majority of the IDF acted with great restraint. Enemy wounded received medical treatment. There were many instances of soldiers risking their lives to remove women and children from harm’s way. Many times soldiers held their fire, attempting to ascertain who or what was in a building, and in the process exposing themselves to danger. The Israeli media would serve the nation and itself well if it were to remind its audience of this at the time as it reports misdeeds.

Hamas is a terrorist organization with no interest in peace with Israel. It could easily proclaim its willingness to abide by the agreements that the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed with Israel. It could easily stop shelling Israeli towns and cities. It could easily acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Hamas does none of these things.

Hamas smuggles weapons and ammunition into Gaza, in contravention of past Israeli-PA agreements and flouting international law. It does so brazenly, offering reporters tours of tunnel digging and smuggling operations. It fires missiles and mortar shells at Israeli towns. Hamas members dress their children in suicide bomber “costumes.” It sends the mentally impaired to infiltrate Israel wearing suicide belts – murder belts, actually. During Operation Cast Lead, missiles were stored in schools, weapons fire was directed from the minarets of mosques and attacks were launched from schools and hospitals.

This is their “culture,” their “moral code.”

March 23, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , | Leave a comment