The morality of war

Humanity, not legality, must be our guide.

February 25, 2012 03:57
3 minute read.
The morality of war

weapons. (photo credit: Avi Katz)


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“We have work to do before we can use biblical texts as the basis for arguments about war.” With these words Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and author of the classic treatise on morality and battle, “Just and Unjust Wars,” underlines problems that most of the other contributors to “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: War and National Security,” prefer to evade.

Verses about seeking and pursuing peace are cited frequently with approval in these pages. I am all in favor of them myself. But the Bible also sanctions conduct, including the killing of male and female prisoners, which would rightly land the perpetrators in serious trouble today. And the rabbinic literature on war was developed in conditions of statelessness.Their principles were not put to any practical test.

The editors provide useful lists of sources for further reading and reference, but most of the essays here are mostly moral posturing of one kind or another with occasional pious references to convenient passages.

Remember though, calls made by the IDF Rabbinate during the 2008-9 Gaza war, which came under fire for seeming to subvert the army’s own ethics code, also contained pious references, albeit to different (and no less convenient) passages.

It follows that Jewish religious sources may at best provide some guidance for the conduct of wars, but not a complete code. That must be sought in the contemporary practice of Western nations with rich experience in tackling the moral consequences of warfare.

An honorable mention should be made of a few contributors who recount their own experiences of warfare: these pieces are compelling and raise interesting questions.

But I missed reading the views of the formulators of the IDF code of ethics: someone of the caliber of Prof. Asa Kasher, for example, would have added much to this book.

Another omission is the near total absence of any reference to the books of the Hebrew Bible other than the five books of Moses. Accounts of the battles of the Israelites, from the Judges to the second destruction of the Temple, a mother lode of rich source material, go uncited. Think for example of Jephthah. An exiled and scorned warrior, he was appointed to head Israel’s army in battle against the Ammonite enemy. His first act? He opened peace talks with said enemy.

Moral Combat By contrast, “Moral Combat” gives us a fascinating and complex account of the collision of principle and evil in World War II.

Michael Burleigh is a British historian of unusual range, imagination and scope, and he does full justice to his difficult topic. Whether reviewing the motives of French collaborationists, pointing out the number of SS administrators in Poland who were trained lawyers, or showing how the stresses of frontline combat affected Western conscript soldiers who came from societies that had never taught them to hate, Burleigh displays an eye for colorful detail and a sense of place, allied to enviable narrative skills and broad human sympathies.

He plays fair with the reader too. He warmly (and rightly) defends the British and American bombing crews against attempts to retroactively criminalize their aerial offensive on Germany, but notes also that “technicians built mock German buildings, filled with 1930s-style furnishings, to find the best way of creating the most voracious fires.” Necessary no doubt, but I defy you not to feel uncomfortable when reading this.

Burleigh offers no simple moral lesson from the war: who could? I suspect though that he believes that a key for moral progress lies in our recognition of our humanity rather than in the pronouncements of philosophers, priests, lawyers, and (especially) left-wing intellectuals, a frequent target of his acerbic asides. He quotes approvingly a remark of Churchill’s that “The letter of the law must not in supreme emergency obstruct those who are charged with its protection and enforcement… Humanity, not legality, must be our guide.”

It seems a slender hope on which to rely: still, there may be none surer.

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