by Eric Silver Jerusalem Correspondent


If there is one thing Israelis have learned — from the twoand a half years of the present intifada and from all the battles that precededit over 54 years — it is that there are no surgical wars.

You can’t wage war without killing and maiming people, soldiersand civilians, whether by accident or design. Some die from friendly fire. Someare taken prisoner. And in the Middle East, the enemy fights dirty.

As United States and British forces suffered their firsttelevised setbacks this week, Israeli military commentators pointed thelessons. Not with glee but with a discernible whiff of “We could have toldyou.” And they did not flinch from saying the unsayable.

The American people, Avraham Tirosh wrote in Ma’ariv,learned about the horrible face of war.

“It got several awful examples of what awaits it,” Tiroshexplained. “Not a deluxe war, which it was perhaps mistakenly led to expect,not an easy drive to Baghdad, with the main adversary being the dust and thesand. But dead, wounded, missing, helpless captives and victims of murder.”

The mob, trampling the banks of the Tigris River on Sundayin search of American pilots, shooting into the reeds and setting them alight,Tirosh added, had never heard of the Geneva Convention.

“Nor did those who fired at the heads of captive Americansoldiers,” he wrote.  “And even if they had heard, the Geneva Convention wouldhave interested them as much as last year’s desert storm. Woe is he who fallsinto their hands.”

Writing in the same daily paper, Amir Rappaport warned:”From now on, the captives will serve as Saddam Hussein’s human shield. It iseasy to imagine a situation toward the end of the war with the Americansclosing in, when Saddam will make it clear that the moment he is attacked, thecaptives will die with him. It is very difficult to imagine what George Bushand his generals will decide if they face this terrible dilemma.”

Precisely because of situations like that, Rappaportexplained, Israel decided years ago to do everything to prevent the kidnappingof its soldiers. That was the reason, he said, why in 1994, an elite commandounit tried to rescue Nahshon Wachsman (the son of U.S. immigrants) fromcaptivity, even though the chances of success were known to be low. That was alsowhy Israel declared dead three soldiers captured by Hezbollah two and a halfyears ago, even though the Lebanese militia was still holding their bodies.

From bitter experience of what happens to POWs in Arabhands, Israel also questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s rush todenounce the Iraqis as war criminals for parading prisoners before the TVcameras. Their exposure to the media, argued Yoav Ben-David, who was held andtortured by Syria for a year after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, constituted a kindof insurance policy, however limited.

“The Americans,” he suggested, “still don’t realize that theIraqis will be careful not to hurt soldiers taken prisoner, photographed andseen by the whole world. Precisely because of that, it is important that theydo not hide themselves and look away, but rather be seen as much as possible bythe camera lens and even to smile and try to look good.”

Taking a longer view, Amir Oren argued in the liberalHa’aretz that TV shots of GIs, dead, wounded and taken prisoner, the image ofbloodthirsty Iraqis, would only intensify Bush’s determination to “Shock andAwe” them — and intensify the popular support for the war.

“This will be a turning point in the campaign for bothdomestic and international legitimacy for the war,” Oren predicted. “It willnot drive Bush out of Iraq the way Syria’s capture of navigator John Goodmandrove Ronald Reagan out of Lebanon or the downed Black Hawk helicopter droveBill Clinton out of Mogadishu.”

Similarly, Alex Fishman contended in Yediot Aharonot,Israel’s biggest-selling Hebrew daily, that Uncle Sam would have to take offthe gloves.

 “The Americans want to show humanitarian warfare that iscareful about human life,” he wrote. “But they have no intention of losing thewar either. To win it, from now on, they are going to need to destroy en massethe members of the Republican Guard and anyone near them.”

As Israelis know all too well, there are no benign wars.  

Ethics and Warfare


This week’s Torah portion opens with a fascinating topic: the psyche of a soldier at war, and the ethical boundaries that even a soldier must observe.

KiTetze la’milchama: "When you go out to war … and you take captives and see among the captives a beautiful woman…."

The Torah is so keenly aware of the soldier’s necessary aggression. It recognizes that the soldier is fighting for his life, that any moment could be his last and that he is naturally experiencing many powerful emotions and desires. The results of what soldiers do to captive women is evident in all kinds of military conflicts — from the pervasive and horrific reports of rape during the conflict in Yugoslavia, to all of the fatherless children left behind by American soldiers in war zones like Korea and Vietnam.

The Torah not only acknowledges, but confronts this difficult reality of war. It allows the soldier to take this eishet yefat toar (captive, desired woman) as a wife, but only after a month’s time. She is to spend that month in his home, removing the trappings of beauty that initially enticed him, mourning her separation from her own family. If, at the end of that time, he still desires her and she is willing to convert, he is allowed to marry her. If his passion abated during that time, he is strictly forbidden to sell her or keep her as a servant and must set her free.

In other words, the Torah allows the warrior his aggressions, but denies him the right to act without keeping his morals, his very humanity, in check.

"Ethics of warfare" sounds like an oxymoron, but in fact it has been a relevant and significant issue since the creation of the State of Israel. It is not only a recurring subject discussed in military forums, but tohar haneshek (purity of arms) is studied by young men and women as part of their high school curriculum. Israel’s bravest and finest are prepared at the outset for the moral challenges they will inevitably face as soldiers actively engaged in mortal combat.

Countless stories are told, and documented, that show how this "antiquated" rule of war is very much alive and well in our generation. During the summer months of the war in Lebanon, when Israeli troops were putting their lives on the line protecting Northern Israel from Katyusha rocket attacks, they came across fertile fields blooming with cherries. One battalion unit in particular refrained from eating any of the enticing fruit. Never mind that they were hungry, exhausted and fearful. Never mind that the produce belonged to a nameless, faceless enemy. They simply felt that they had no legal or moral right to take what wasn’t theirs. They acted according to their moral compass, overcoming the natural emotions of a soldier at war.

When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered the Palestinian Authority-controlled towns in the West Bank after suicide attacks in April, their mission was to root out terrorists and destroy terror factories. This could have been accomplished with air strikes, and the soldiers involved would have been safe from snipers and booby traps. But the army chose instead to send in ground troops, despite the greater risks and inevitable loss of soldiers. Never mind that the terrorists hid among the civilians. Never mind that even the children on the other side could carry out deadly attacks. They made the moral calculation that it was better to put themselves in greater danger if it meant that they could minimize the danger to the civilian population on the other side. The IDF acted according to their moral compass, overcoming the natural instincts of soldiers at war.

An unbelievable report surfaced a short time ago telling of the Palestinians’ refusal to accept donations of blood — Jewish blood — that the army had provided for their wounded. Instead of leaving the "enemy" to suffer the consequences of their refusal, the army used their own money and manpower to acquire blood from Jordan. Never mind that an army is going above and beyond its obligations to provide any blood at all, let alone an alternate source. Never mind that the enemy was stubbornly and stupidly risking the lives of its own people. IDF soldiers value life, no matter whose life it is. The army acted according to its moral compass, overcoming the natural instincts and emotions of soldiers at war.

The Torah teaches us that we must protect our integrity, even in the midst of a brutal war. These and countless other examples of the high moral standards that are standard for the IDF give me one more important reason to take pride in the work of our young men and women who bravely defend our homeland and act as "a light unto the nations." If soldiers can maintain their values and ethics in the heat of the battle, then I am hopeful that peace has a chance, and that the battle can be won.