Asa Kasher on the morality of war, etc.

Under these circumstances, the moral priorities are clear: Preference is given to protecting the lives of citizens under attack. From among the various options for effective military action to protect citizens under attack, the one that ensures the fewest casualties among soldiers is preferable.
Third, the state has a responsibility to make appropriate preparations for the protection of its citizens by various means—including military action—when the danger of an attack exists. As long as citizens are not attacked, it stands to reason that extra-military ways to diminish the danger exist. Therefore, it also stands to reason that it is inappropriate to undertake military action before citizens are attacked or, at any rate, are about to be attacked (the second principle).
Fourth, as long as there was a constant and serious threat to the lives of the citizens in the northern part of Israel, there was a justification for undertaking military action to protect them, even if it endangered the lives of soldiers (the first principle)—so long as the action was crucial for the protection of the citizens (the second principle). Abdication of responsibility for undertaking this sort of action, under these conditions, is intolerable from both a moral and an ethical perspective.
If a commander justifies his failure to take such actions by invoking his responsibility to protect the lives of his soldiers, he has erred in employing these principles. And yet, it would be an even greater mistake to claim that such a commander “exaggerates the value of human life” (an assertion that I heard not infrequently in connection to the Second Lebanon War). In a democratic state, the value of human life does not change and cannot be exaggerated—it perseveres in all circumstances. What can change along with circumstances is the importance of the mission assigned to the soldiers and the extent to which jeopardizing them is justified.
With respect to the crisis in Sderot and its environs: First, Gaza-based terrorism endangers those residing in Sderot and its environs and is therefore within the definition of an attack against the state. Yet the truth must be spoken: The danger to the well-being of the residents of Sderot and its environs is extreme, but the danger to their lives is not as serious as that faced by the citizens of northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War.
Second, the state has a responsibility to protect citizens of Sderot and its environs—their lives and their well-being (the first principle). According to the moral principles of a democratic state, it would be outrageous for the state to claim—as it did in its response to the Supreme Court on the matter—that it must fortify the inhabitants without explicitly recognizing the state’s responsibility to protect their lives.
Third, the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens effectively, according to its capabilities and in accordance with the entirety of the obligations mandated by the principles we have seen. What does “effectively” mean? This is a complex professional question, and it is unthinkable that those bearing responsibility for defending the citizenry will be asked to act on the basis of popular opinion.
What is a “capability” is also a complicated professional question. Today, there is a consensus that no “capability” is available that can entirely stop the firing of rockets at Israel, since the means required for firing them are extremely basic. Even the occupation of Gaza cannot ensure an end to the rockets, once and for all.
“The entirety of the obligations” also includes the obligations imposed by the second and third principles. If potential military operations cannot significantly improve the defense of the citizens and their safety, but will certainly cause military casualties, then they do not meet the demands of the state’s obligations.
On the matter of the kidnapped soldiers: First, regarding Assaf Sagiv’s comments on the return of the kidnapped soldiers in which he quoted my own words, I want to say explicitly “the obligations with respect to each endangered citizen are heavy and profound”: I said this with respect to the argument about the state’s involvement in winning the release of an Israeli citizen who, as a result of his own actions, was imprisoned in an enemy state. I said that it was incumbent upon the state to secure his release from a dangerous prison, even if it meant engaging in a prisoner swap. (An important aspect of such prisoner exchanges is the degree of danger posed to the lives of Israeli citizens by those who have been freed. Although the danger to the released Israeli person is present and certain, while the danger to the rest of the citizens is only potential and in the future, it is best not to create a serious future threat. It stands to reason that over the past years, the state has learned to take this delicate balance into consideration.)
Second, the obligation of full responsibility for the well-being of the soldier (the fourth principle) demands that the state endeavor to bring home every soldier, whether kidnapped, missing, captive, or even deceased. This special obligation does not exist with respect to civilians, since, after all, the suffering of a soldier is attributable mainly or entirely to the state (or its military representatives), while the private citizen’s suffering is not. And even then, the special responsibility with respect to the kidnapped soldier does not reduce the state’s obligation to return every citizen of the state from enemy captivity.
And I will add, without further elaboration, that an understanding of the obligation to respect human dignity, and in this, life itself—even when speaking of the lives of soldiers—is based in Israel’s existence as a democratic state and as the state of the Jewish people.
Asa Kasher
Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary, and the IDF College of National Defense
There are many points of agreement between Professor Asa Kasher and myself: I too believe that the discussion of life-and-death questions requires “special care;” I am also interested in living in a truly democratic state characterized by the rule of law and governed by principles of decency and justice; we agree that it is incumbent upon the IDF to conduct itself in a humane and principled manner—not as a senseless war machine indifferent to human life and dignity. And yet, while Professor Kasher’s arguments deserve praise for their moral probity, in my view they are riddled with weaknesses, and I would like to offer my opinion on some of them.
The main thrust of Professor Kasher’s criticism is leveled against my claim that soldiers are “servants” of the state. “This is a flawed depiction,” he writes. “The citizen in uniform is not a servant to anyone. In a democratic state, there are no masters and no servants, only citizens who benefit from communal life conducted according to the spirit of ‘the rule of fairness.’” This serves as the basis of Professor Kasher’s view that military service and its implicit obligations derive from an assumed “social contract” between citizens, soldiers, and the state. According to him, “Through their service in both the regular military and the reserves, men and women in uniform fulfill their responsibilities in accordance with this fair ‘contract,’” and therefore, “soldiers are not ‘servants,’ they are not tools, and it is not permissible to make use of them, let alone to ‘knowingly send them to their deaths.’” Professor Kasher emphasizes that soldiers are called upon to act courageously “to the point of mortal danger,” and yet, under no circumstances may they be compelled to sacrifice themselves.
All this is well and good: Soldiers should see themselves as active members of the democratic community and not as mindless automatons; the sense of solidarity might imbue them with a fighting spirit lacking in soldiers who act out of fear or material need. In principle, I even accept the distinction between obligating a soldier to display courage and asking him to knowingly march to his death. But Professor Kasher’s contract theory of military service cannot explain how a truly democratic state justifies placing its soldiers in situations of extraordinary danger, situations which blur the line between endangerment and sacrifice.
Alas, war is replete with these situations. In the fury of battle, commanders are not infrequently compelled to command their soldiers to fight “to the last man.” Sometimes they must order their men to storm enemy lines even if many will certainly die. A commander’s orders may appear to turn the soldier into, “cannon fodder,” but his directives, purpose is to save the greater whole. In certain situations, commanders realize they are sending troops to their deaths, and indeed, sometimes soldiers know they are unlikely to survive an engagement. And yet, in the extreme circumstances of war, the state is compelled to ask its soldiers to die in its service—or at least to act as if they were unafraid to do so.

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