Israel’s just war and ‘purity of arms’

A leader has a special obligation to the people who chose and trusted him, an obligation that must surpass his feelings for general mankind.

Smoke trails are seen as rockets are launched towards Israel from the northern Gaza Strip in July (photo credit: REUTERS)
Smoke trails are seen as rockets are launched towards Israel from the northern Gaza Strip in July
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has always been the moral case that when a civilized country determines that for the sake of self-protection and survival it must retaliate against aggression or embark on a war, the primary goal of its military should be the destruction of that which targets and threatens the country, be it weapons or soldiers. The foremost duty of that nation’s leader is to prioritize the lives and safety of those he has sent into combat.
This often forces an uncomfortable but necessary choice: minimizing the risk to one’s troops at the expense of the fighters and population of the enemy.
This is not only a civic and military responsibility, but a moral one as well, for the first principle of morality is fulfilling a commitment to those for whom one has freely chosen to be responsible.
A leader has a special obligation to the people who chose and trusted him, an obligation that must surpass his feelings for general mankind.
The same still holds true in today’s self-defense against Islamic terrorism, where terrorists purposely fight not in remote battlefields, but specifically in cities among civilian populations diabolically used as shields. In all circumstances, the war of self-defense and survival is, in religious terminology, a “just war.”
The maxim of self-defense is not an abstract platitude, but a raw, real-life imperative. Self-defense means the right to kill a soldier or civilian coming at you before they kill you. It means snuffing out on the battlefield today those poised to shoot at you tomorrow. A self-defense that is conditioned on excessive caution not to harm those pursuing you is a rejection of the whole notion of self-defense.
Is it possible that the rules of engagement for Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan and for Israelis in Jenin and now Gaza – designed to spare civilians – have led to greater death and injury among our soldiers, resulting in a lapse in our obligation to those troops? Once engaged in a just war, combat should fall within the parameters of moral combat. The primary moral combat standard is to not specifically target truly innocent civilians, to refrain from using civilians as shields, and to forswear torturing the enemy for the sake of pleasure or revenge. It’s ludicrous to penalize Israel and ask her citizens to endure unnecessary casualties, to voluntarily suffer, by reducing her combat reach simply because she has a better trained and equipped army.
Guaranteeing that civilians not be killed in collateral damage has never been a requisite for moral combat. If such was the case regarding conventional warfare, then it is certainly so when confronted by Islamic terrorism that uses civilian human shields as a strategy to freeze its Western opponents. All agree that rape, looting and bloodlust – activities too often relished by jihadists – are anathema to moral standards. Proportionality in war is thoroughly doing that which needs to be done to permanently remove the source of aggression.
The recent revelation that 3,000 Americans were killed and countless wounded on September 11, 2001, partly as a result of president Clinton’s reluctance to strike Osama bin Laden – owing to Clinton’s concern for some civilians purposely embedded near bin Laden – is testimony to the mistake of those who consider such hesitation to be a moral act.
The unwillingness of some Western leaders to tolerate collateral damage to enemy civilians forecloses our ability today to crush the enemy’s capacity to further harm us tomorrow and could ultimately cause, God forbid, the deaths of millions of innocents in Western societies.
Diabolical jihadist entities and governments will never be stopped if we are unwilling to allow the effects of war to reach their civilian populations. Indeed, many civilians are no longer innocent and are themselves being used as instruments of war.
Any leader unwilling to choose the safety of citizens entrusted to his care over those of the attacking country should not be in a leadership position.
He effectively has declared the blood of the enemy sweeter than the blood of his own people.
One truly wonders if, for example, President Barack Obama would refuse to retaliate against an Islamic regime that attacked America out of concern for potential collateral damage.
When we in the West begin heaping on conditions resulting in a moral bar of combat so high we can’t adequately defend ourselves, we have turned morality upside down. When we lower the jihadist bar to the ground while we raise our own to unheard-of heights, it becomes a form of suicide.
For some, this continual raising of the morality bar fulfills a need to impress others and feel morally superior. However, it is not moral acuity; rather, it is vanity.
Our young people, sent to protect us, should not become human sacrifices on the altar of this preposterous moral inversion.
The IDF doctrine of “purity of arms” purports to be a formula whereby we show the value we place on life. But in the process we dare not devalue and diminish the lives of our own soldiers and loved ones. The life of an enemy intent on harming us cannot be treated as more precious than the lives of our own youngsters we send to defend us.
There is something disrespectful of one’s self, a collective self-sacrifice, Hermann Cohen-like, about making secondary the lives of your own nation and family, relegating Jewish peoplehood into service for entities outside itself.
Sacrificing our youngsters out of self-inflicted guilt or a concocted sense of higher morality is not purity but vanity.
We are worshiping “our goodness.”
It is but self-worship, a type of idolatry, resulting in child sacrifice.
It is morally repugnant and obscene when Muslim societies sacrifice their children in suicide missions dedicated to killing Jews and others, and it is immoral in the extreme to ask our soldiers to sacrifice their lives so as to spare the enemy. Taken too far, purity of arms is extremism, meshugah morality; actually feel-good immorality. A nation like Israel that daily strives to live by a moral code far above that of almost all other nations has no need to invent foolish and self-destructive standards to prove its goodness and inherent morality.
Fighting and eradicating evil is as important in its moment of necessity as visiting the sick and the bereaved. It is an act of compassion on the part of those we have entrusted to defend us from the march of evil. Indeed, God expects us to fight evil and not be beguiled by its trickeries.
What the world needs today is the moral courage to fight evil and call evil by its name. Instead, we see the opposite, the elevation of Islamism across the world by appeasers, multiculturalists and cynics, painting it as an elevated doctrine. Being a light unto the nations, today’s noble battle, is found in fighting this marching force of evil, not in a suicide and sacrifice to it, that will lead only to darkness.
The culture of death is cynically exploiting the goodwill and morality of those invested in our Judeo-Christian culture of life. If we fail to defend ourselves now, the question that will be asked of this generation is not whether we cared about the enemy’s life, but rather why didn’t we care enough about the lives of our own children and civilians.
After all, saving those for whom you are personally responsible is the foundation of morality. That is true purity of arms.
The author, a pulpit rabbi for 40 years, is author of Push Back (Evergreen Press, 2012) and president of Caucus for America. His articles have appeared in numerous well known publications.