Last week, I wrote about the military trial of Israeli Sgt. Elor Azaria, convicted of manslaughter in killing a wounded Palestinian knife wielder. The response by Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), reminded me of an experience I had fifty years ago.
Many Israelis opposed to Sgt. Azaria’s conviction pleaded that he should be exonerated as a child of Israel—“everybody’s child.” Eisenkot replied, “An 18-year-old in the Israeli Army is not ‘everybody’s child’. He is a fighter, a soldier who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”
The IDF’s code of conduct states that military personnel must respond to a high moral standard that empowers them to refuse orders by their superiors. Jews are all too familiar with “good Germans” who, during World War Two, insisted that they were only following orders when they worked at death camps and took part in or enabled atrocities.
This brings me to Lt. Colonel Bert Bishop, commanding officer of the 97th Student Battalion at the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. In May 1967, shortly before my class was to graduate, Col. Bishop informally gave us a glimpse of some of the situations we might confront in Vietnam. (The Army sent me to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and left me there.)
A combat veteran of World War Two and Korea—later a battalion commander in Vietnam, where he was promoted to full colonel—Col. Bishop covered a variety of practical matters, including relationships with our non-commissioned officers on whom we would depend. He informed the Jewish candidates—three of us in a class of 194—that we would have to assume some of the duties of a chaplain for Jewish soldiers wounded or troubled throughout the region where we served. There weren’t enough Jewish chaplains to cover all of Vietnam.
Most important, Col. Bishop told us that we should refuse to carry out immoral orders. How unexpected and extraordinary that was. Our battalion commander, who’d been on the battlefield and whose task was preparing us to close with the enemy and kill him, reminded us that as officers we were responsible to uphold the Army’s code of conduct. Regardless of risk to our careers or legal action some quarters might take, we were not to emulate the Germans who carried out the Holocaust.
We know that in Vietnam—a war we never should have fought—some American troops went awry. We remember the massacre at My Lai in 1968 that stained the Army’s reputation. But I will never forget Col. Bishop’s urging that no situation could allow us to be anything but professional and moral.
Gen. Eisenkot has made the same statement. And while some Israelis will plead that IDF troops face complex challenges—which they do—I believe the majority will agree with the chief of staff. True, we Jews are held to a higher standard. But that’s the standard we set for ourselves. Morality in combat or anti-insurgency situations does not represent weakness. By keeping the Israeli military and society grounded and disciplined in law and Torah, it creates ongoing strength.
If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And may the New Year bring a more peaceful world so that soldiers everywhere can disengage and no longer face these universal moral dilemmas.
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