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Asa Kasher on the morality of war, etc.




The long and bloody history of organized state violence demonstrates this stubborn and ever-present necessity. The Allied landing at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, is one example. Knowing the strategic significance of that six-mile strip of waterfront in northern France, the Germans fortified it heavily. The bluffs rising from the English Channel were embedded with pillboxes and bunkers; the beachhead was studded with tank traps and barbed wire, and every inch covered by artillery fire: “Everything the Germans had learned in World War I about how to stop a frontal assault by infantry Rommel put to work at Omaha,” writes Stephen Ambrose in D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. “There was not one inch of the beach that had not been pre-sighted for both grazing and plunging fire.”
The Allied high command more or less anticipated what awaited its soldiers on Omaha Beach and was reluctant to force a landing there. But the objective had to be taken: Were the Allies to avoid Omaha, their invasion force would be split and vulnerable to Nazi counterattack. The beach was stormed and the butcher’s bill was steep, reaching proportions that even the Germans doubted the Allies would pay. Ambrose quotes the astounded reaction of one of the defenders: “‘They must be crazy,’ Sergeant Krone declared. ‘Are they going to swim ashore? Right under our muzzles?’” And indeed, the American soldiers were torn to shreds by unceasing machine gun and artillery fire as they emptied out of their landing craft. Mangled corpses floated in the surf and littered the dunes. Still, the landing continued in force, wave after wave. Robert Walker, an American commander at Omaha Beach, recalls that the scenes of carnage elicited the words of Lord Alfred Tennyson's “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Cannon to right of them/ Cannon to left of them/ Cannon in front of them/ Volley’d and thunder’d…. Theirs not to make reply/ Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do and die.”
Nearly 2,400 American soldiers gave their lives at Omaha Beach, and their sacrifice was not in vain: At day’s end, more than 30,000 Allied soldiers occupied the beachhead. Would the landing have succeeded if the American commanders had heeded Professor Kasher’s “special care” in matters of life and death and avoided knowingly sending men to their deaths? The final answer lies with God—but I can hazard an educated guess.
The brutal logic of sacrifice not only sealed the fates of the young men on Omaha Beach; it left its indelible mark on the IDF as well. Indeed, some nations owe their very existence to sacrifices on the battlefield. But political theory of the sort employed by Professor Kasher cannot recognize or accept this hard fact. While social contract theory might produce enlightened legal constructs and progressive ethical stances, it cannot give a reasonable account of what Michael Walzer calls “the obligation to die for your country.” If the political community rests on the foundation of a “fair contract” between rational partners, and if one of its main purposes is the protection of the rights of the individuals who live in it, how can the state deny its citizens the very thing for which it was established in the first place—their safety and well-being? This difficulty, which caused not inconsiderable problems for Hobbes and Locke, is one of the most glaring weaknesses in liberal theory in general and social contract theory in particular.
Soldiers “are not tools,” writes Professor Kasher, and he is entirely correct: Soldiers are human beings, and their lives are just as valuable as the lives of civilians. And yet, one should not forget the deep, fundamental, and resounding difference between the military and civilian spheres: The civilian is a free man; he benefits from basic rights that the state cannot appropriate; he may—if he so desires—devote his entire life to just one purpose: himself. The soldier, on the other hand, dedicates his life to a goal much larger than his own existence, and in pursuing this a substantial part of his freedom is taken from him. His being—physical and spiritual—is conscripted to protect the state from its enemies.
There are those who claim that conscription is a moral scandal, that there is something despicable in the very idea of harnessing human beings to the oppressive mechanism of the military. But armed service does not necessarily strip men of their humanity. One could, and indeed should, view military service as an opportunity to build character, exceed one’s implicit bounds, and maybe even participate in an important and worthwhile struggle. The soldiers who gave their lives in the storming of Omaha Beach, just like those who fought against fascism, communism, racism, and religious extremism were not masters of their own fates—but does this make their sacrifices any less noble?
 
Israel’s Electoral Complex
TO THE EDITORS:

The article “Israel’s Electoral Complex” by Amotz Asa-El (AZURE 31, Winter 2008) has two great virtues. It is theoretically correct insofar as any political theories about the political consequences of particular institutions can be correct, and it is a first- class analysis of what might be called the effects of a proportional representation (PR) system on a society whose social composition is both divided and dividing. And, while there is of course no last word in such matters (and one might criticize the author for being a little unfair to the issues and principles of PR), if there is not a consensus there is at least considerable agreement among political scientists about the negative consequences of PR’s practice.
The question, however, is whether the author’s prescription for a cure is likely to have the desired effects. In my own view, in the unlikely event that Israel adopts a “first past the post” system, it would not be as beneficial in practice as Asa-El suggests in theory. There are several reasons why I say this. In order for even the most straightforward and simple plurality systems to promote coalitional politics and positive pluralism, there are sub-institutional and social prerequisites that must be met, but which are unlikely to be found in Israel today. While the author has argued very convincingly that PR is responsible for the political mess in which Israel finds itself, I would question whether Israel would be able to appreciably improve conditions by changing to a “first past the post” system. The accomplishment of the changes sought by institutional means would require a number of prevailing conditions, the prospects of which are not very propitious at the moment.
First there is the general problem of whether democratic political institutions can reasonably be expected to cope where society is so socially and culturally divided, especially when social and cultural differences are only intensified under conditions that generate a garrison state. Whatever the reforms proposed, the most likely result will be the continuation of what might best be called a politics of negative pluralism, by which I mean a democratic process that reinforces rather than ameliorates localism, parochialism, demonization of the opposition, and extremism. Whatever the constitutional form, under such extreme social conditions, democracy provides opportunities for the mobilization of support by political leaders adept at raising interests to the level of principles, the latter infinitely more difficult to negotiate by parliamentary bargaining, no matter the structural form. 
Second, if my assumptions about the social composition of Israeli society are correct, fiddling with institutions is more likely to cause bizarre institutional combinations in practice if not in theory. While I agree that PR magnifies rather than ameliorates differences—and for the reasons that the author gives—it seems to me wishful thinking to assume that once these differences exist, shifting to a “first past the post” solution can be made to work.
My doubts are magnified by the absence of what I referred to above as sub-institutional instruments. “First past the post” systems do not work well unless there are two large coalitional parties whose membership differs mainly at the fringes, so that the pull of party competition never gets too far from the center. For that to happen, there needs to be a mobilization of the electorate into effective constituency parties able to deliver big battalions of the vote and isolate fringe parties. In turn, this requires strong party discipline within parliament and without, something which is notably absent in Israel, at least to my mind.
Finally, among the problems facing those who would reform the present system in Israel, one also might mention the decline of socialist and secular alternatives that once served to balance the kinds of social inequities which attend virtually all liberal market economies—a decline which creates a vacuum which in no small measure religious groups have been quick to fill. Although this phenomenon is by no means restricted to Israel, the monopolistic tendencies of religious authorities are perhaps more entrenched there than anywhere outside of the Muslim world. This is not exactly a condition for an effective and well-functioning “first past the post” system. For, above all, what is required is fairly broad agreement or consensus around “Enlightenment” principles that give concrete substance to “rationality” within a framework of “democracy” or “freedom,” and which take the visible form of proximate choices which define with reasonable transparency acceptable and clear policy alternatives and their likely consequences. The fact is that parliaments work best where the bulk of business is mundane if not trivial, in the sense of being non-threatening to various groups that effectively convert interests to non-negotiable principles which they then proceed to negotiate, but on their own terms.


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