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Ethical Dilemmas in Counterterrorism

By Moshe Yaalon

Israel's self-image as a moral nation with a right to survive has been put to a severe test.


To this end, the IDF has a three-pronged test for evaluating prospective operations. First, we consider how the army itself—soldiers and commanders—will perceive its own actions. This is often referred to as the “mirror test”—will we be able to look ourselves in the mirror after the operation?—and is concerned primarily with morality. Second, we consider how the society we wish to defend will perceive our actions; this is where both moral and political considerations abound. And third, we consider how our actions will be perceived internationally; here, political considerations dominate.
Once the IDF has decided upon a course of action, it relies upon various operational capabilities and concepts to address terrorist threats in a way that satisfies both our moral imperatives and our strategic goals. In this vein, we educate our soldiers—and especially our commanders—to integrate ethical considerations into their military strategizing. Moreover, in working to achieve the moral standards we have set for ourselves, we have adopted technological capabilities that allow for ever more exacting surgical operations, including in the areas of intelligence-gathering, precision-guided munitions, and special operations.
It is thus no real surprise that the IDF revised—and raised—its already high standards of morality during the period of the last few years’ heaviest fighting, particularly the value of purity of arms. Our soldiers and commanders must, and do, know that the weapons placed in their hands are to be used only in accordance with the values of our society and our military’s strict rules of engagement.
Yet the process of inculcating in our military a deep sense of morality doesn’t stop with the phrasing and rephrasing of opulently worded codes or statements of principle, though these are also important. Rather, these codes and principles are translated into tangible rules of engagement and standard operating procedures; they are reflected in our choice of weapons and tactical measures; and their violation entails severe penalty and reprimand. In this way, we ensure that moral and ethical considerations form the day-to-day decision-making compass of the IDF, and that we not only win, but win and remain human beings.


Of course, the Israeli soldier’s ability to adhere to the high ethical standards of our military is severely tested—and intentionally so—by the terrorists with whom we are currently engaged in war. These tests take several forms.
First, ongoing intensive fighting can easily result in what is called the “dulled senses” effect among soldiers, in which they lose their sense of morality, discipline, and precision—and, in civilian areas, end up causing a greater number of civilian casualties. Second, Israel’s enemies deliberately blur the distinction between combatants and civilians, making the enemy harder to identify. Moreover, since we are dealing with a largely hostile civilian population, there is an understandably strong tendency among soldiers under fire to perceive everyone in their path as the enemy. This, in turn, causes them to believe that massive military strikes, guaranteed to result in widespread collateral damage, are a legitimate tactic.
Third, terrorists hope that Israeli soldiers will absorb their own standards of military engagement—or lack thereof. Since the enemy operates entirely without moral standards, the soldier will naturally wonder, why shouldn’t we? And how can we hope to win if we’re not willing to fight as ruthlessly as they do? Of all the sentiments expressed by our soldiers, this is perhaps the hardest one to respond to. Indeed, how can we explain to someone who is risking his life, someone who has lost his brothers-in-arms to an enemy that knows no boundaries, why we must constantly restrain ourselves? Thus do we try to educate our soldiers from day one, formally as well as by example, that ethical combat is no less crucial to our ultimate victory than superior technology and tactics.
Fourth, there is the constant need to combat the logic of “the ends justify the means.” Our war is legitimate, it is in self-defense, and it is about survival. Therefore, say many soldiers, any and all means should be used to win it. To counter this way of thinking, we try to instill in our soldiers the understanding that our objective is not only to win, but to win with the knowledge that we have upheld our society’s morality. We teach our soldiers that a justly fought war is the only kind of war worth winning, and that they will be evaluated for not only whether they achieved their goals, but how they achieved them.
Fifth, our regular army, which bears most of the burden of combat, is made up of young soldiers and commanders. Quite naturally, these young men and women may have a simplistic understanding of the world around them. It is no easy task for them to act with the required broad vision, creativity, and flexibility of thought. After all, who knows better than these young people the price of failure on the battlefield? This is a heavy—many would say unduly heavy—burden for such young people to carry, and it may lead soldiers to be overzealous in their pursuit of security.
Finally, our enemies have shattered every bit of trust we have ever placed in them. Examples abound: When we allowed ambulances unimpeded passage through checkpoints, they were used to transport arms and terrorists; when we eased restrictions on women and the disabled, they were used as suicide bombers; when we granted freedom of movement to local employees of international humanitarian organizations, they used their special status to transport explosive belts; when we refrained from targeting terrorists in civilian surroundings, they relocated their headquarters to civilian residences. This sad reality has forced us to trust less, doubt more, and impose stricter limitations than we would otherwise like.
In light of all of these factors, ensuring that our armed forces continue to uphold the values and principles we hold dear is, to say the least, no easy task. But it is one that we demand of them, and one they do a praiseworthy job of fulfilling.


Above all, in this age of subconventional wars, there is a crucial need for clarity among Western allies. After almost four decades of military service, most of it spent in counterterrorism, it is my belief that the West is too concerned with treating the symptoms of terrorism, rather than attacking its cause: The culture of death and destruction that pervades much of the Arab world. To do so, we undoubtedly need to harness all our military might. Yet we must not make the mistake of thinking that military power will prove the ultimate solution. Rather, alongside a concerted and creative military effort, we must confront the very means by which citizens of Arab and Muslim countries are enjoined to embrace and glorify death. This indoctrination is carried out in schools and mosques, on television broadcasts and in the pages of newspapers, and through the ubiquitous martyrdom posters that decorate the roads and alleyways of every city and village.
The greatest challenge facing democratic societies today, then, is the need to convince the Arab and Muslim nations of the world to promote for the sanctity of life. There is no doubt that this will be a long and uphill battle. We will win it, however, if we refuse to allow the barbarity of our enemies to rob us of our own honor.
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Lieutenant General (res.) Moshe Yaalon served as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2002 to 2005. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. His last contribution to Azure was “The IDF and the Israeli Spirit” (Azure 24, Spring 2006).


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