Monday, January 12, 2009

The ethics of war, part I

While the majority of my recent comments/posts have been in support of Israel's actions in Gaza, it's mainly a protest against the double-standards applied to Israel when compared to the rest of the world, in the media, at the UN, and around the world. If one is a pacifist, and anti-war at all times, while I disagree with you, I can respect your current criticisms of Israel. You are consistently applying ethical principles to Israel as you do every other country in the world.

However, for those of us who believe that war is sometimes necessary, yet do not like the conditions of war, there are much harder questions to answer about the morality of war. How do we decide what is moral in war? When is it moral to enter into war, and what defines ethical behavior during it?

Let me be entirely clear, by international law regarding war, Israel has every right to defend its citizens as it is currently doing. There is no definition of proportionality in war, a country keeps a strong army as both a deterrent and to defend itself to its utmost ability if necessary. Yet the violence and harm to civilians in Gaza currently is deeply unsettling for me. This blog is therefore not about legality and justification, but how a military in general should handle morality. The very nature of a war means that you value the lives of your soldiers and citizens more than the lives of your enemy. But what is the exchange rate?

From a sheer numbers game, you risk the lives of your soldiers less when you have an air attack, bombing the crap out of anywhere the enemy combatants may lie. Yet in doing so, the risk of injury to their civilians increases dramatically, particularly when armed militants use human shields. If you truly value life in general, do you send your troops in on the ground, where their lives are more at risk but the damage to the opposition's civilians will be decreased? How do you balance the two?

With guerilla warfare, one has to decide in a split second whether the woman running toward you needs medical attention, or has a bomb strapped to her chest. For an individual soldier, the mere definition of war is bound to have psychological impact, so I find it hard to imagine not being trigger happy in such a scenario, and in most encounters. How does a country advise/instruct ethical behavior of its soldiers with such a scenario?

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