A Soldier's Limit

By Meir Amor | 1993-11-01 12:00:00

Now that a peace treaty has been realized between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, this is a good time to mention the role of a small group of Israeli reserve soldiers who refused to participate in the Lebanon War of 1982, or to serve in the occupied territories, especially during the Intifada. The group's name is Yesh Gvul-which means "there is a border/limit" This has a double meaning, referring first to the actual border of Israel and second to a declaration of exasperation; "up to here, no more." These soldiers were saying, "there is a limit to our cooperation and obedience as soldiers."

In 1982, at the age of 28, I was a captain in reserve in the Israeli army. During the Lebanon War I served as a company commander (infantry). In one of the reserve periods we were in the Bakea, a small valley in the northeastern part of Lebanon, about 80 miles away from the Israeli border. We had to patrol every morning and I always had to give a short briefing to the soldiers participating in the patrol of that day. After I had explained all the hot spots and dangers to be aware of' one of the solders asked amusingly "What do we do here and why are we here?" As his commander, I didn't have an answer. I didn't know why we were there. He and I and all the rest of us were risking our necks for something we could not make sense of.

In the long list of people who died in that war I knew personally 31 soldiers and officers on the Israeli side. Some were friends, some were commanders of mine, and others were "my" soldiers during various periods in my service. Our mission in Lebanon -never explained to us in these words -was to solve the Palestinian Question by military means. We failed. Almost all of the same politicians were still running the political life in Israel in 1987.

In December 1987, the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) started. I was called again to reserve duty. This time we had to go to the occupied territories to quell the Palestinian uprising. I said no. I was court martialled for disobeying an order. They put me in military jail for 21 days. This time I had an answer for myself. I am glad that the present politicians in Israel have come to their senses and understand that for solving the conflict with Palestinians you have to talk and not shoot.

Other soldiers elsewhere have drawn their own lines. Thus some French soldiers refused to serve in Algeria; some Americans refused the Vietnam draft; some Soviet soldiers refused to fight in Hungary or Afghanistan; some South Africans refused to serve in the oppression of blacks.

Such an individual act of military nonparticipation is not a pacifist act but a democratic act- a peacemaking act and a civilian check on the war-making machine from within it. Every individual has to make a moral decision about participating, and then draw a line. Actually, there is no one else but individuals who can draw this line. This declaration by a citizen turns the military hierarchy on its head. The army claims to be only a means to an end-national security-but according to its traditions there are only "wars of no choice."

State violence is supposed to be allowed only as a last resort, to defend life. In a democracy the soldier may expect to know that all other political options have been tried first and that no nonviolent solutions exist. For an individual to refuse military service, responsibly and publicly, is an assertion that not all peaceful means have been exhausted.

Soldiers who reconsider their obedience to their democratic governments are reconsidering whether "might makes right." This action brings to the fore other potential alternative actions and helps to restrict political power. Only in totalitarian regimes is the state considered a value in itself; in a democracy, though it embodies coercive power, it is only an instrument.

A soldier's refusal to fight is neither revolutionary nor anarchistic. It is, however, a radical act that tests the basic premises on which a democratic regime is founded. It is a claim that one is morally accountable for one's actions, no less so in the military establishment than in any other state agency or bureaucratic organization (such as education and health institutions) that influences people's lives. What is unique about the army is only that the link between soldiers' actions and life or death is so apparent.

The problem of individual responsibility exists in all kinds of hierarchical structures. It is a fact of life that people spend most of their day in big organizations that control lives. In our absent-mindedness we do not notice how much control is entrusted to people in these organizations. Equally unthinking, we put our "security" into the hands of a military bureaucratic machine, the defence forces. This machine operates by procedures that enhance generals' and politicians' power in ways that do not necessarily correspond to the imperatives of democracy. Soldiers are forbidden to question orders or think about policies. The first step in exposing the domination of the state agencies is for citizens to think aloud and refuse to be excluded from the decision-making that is done in their name and for their own good. Such an act asserts that responsibility is a personal as well as a political issue.

The political is personal. After all, war is performed by soldiers. Somebody-a real person-always has to do the job, whether it be dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, shelling Beirut with Israeli cannons, or raping the "enemy's women" in Bosnia and Croatia. To participate willingly (whether quietly or in self-torment) is still an individual's act of consent. Though the private soldier does not make the decision, he or she cannot be acquitted on the argument that "we obeyed orders." Each individual makes his or her own moral decision, whether admitting or denying doing so. Personal responsibility cannot be divided, though it can be, and in the case of war crimes often is, ignored.

State violence has its price: people die. Moreover, it exacts a toll on those who win by killing or wounding others. Soldiers carry home their experiences. This means that others who did not directly participate in a military action are affected by it. War is not a "male" issue. It is a societal problem and, as such, a political issue.

As members of Yesh Gvul have shown, not only is the political personal, but the personal is political as well. If we question the view that "might is right" in all fields of our life, we keep responsibility from being diminished or lost under the umbrella of big numbers

Meir Amor is a graduate student of sociology at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1993

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1993, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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