Giddy about killing 

Sunday, December 23, 2007

(Published in Haaretz, December 28, 2007)

"How are you?" Uri Orbach asked his co-host Irit Linor at the beginning of their public tête-à-tête on Army Radio's "The Last Word" program, one day last week. Linor, who supposedly fills the left-wing/secular slot opposite her right-wing/religious counterpart on this current events program, did not respond with a simple, "Fine, how are you?" Instead, she launched into a description of her upbeat and tranquil mood following reports that the Israel Defense Forces had killed some 10 Islamic Jihad fighters in Gaza the previous night.

"When we liquidate all sorts of Jihadists and Hamasniks, I'm better," she explained. "And when we don't liquidate all sorts of Jihadists and Hamasniks, I'm not as well." After the liquidations of the previous day, she said: "My emotional state feels more in sync with the world. I feel more synergic." In short, she cheerfully suggested, the liquidations create "an excellent atmosphere."

I don't want to pick on Linor (who publicly canceled her Haaretz subscription in 2002, claiming the paper had become anti-Zionist) or dwell on the fact that her rapture of synergy reminded me of the famous line from "Apocalypse Now": "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Instead, I'd like to consider how we relate to killing.

On this page last week, Bradley Burston justified killing the Islamic Jihad men in Gaza: "They were war criminals. More to the point, they were soldiers. Soldiers in a war in which they are declared combatants ... It was our right to kill them. It was our responsibility."

Okay, let's assume that Israeli citizens would be correct in feeling proud and grateful for such IDF operations. But should they rejoice over the killing of their enemy?

There is a well-known Talmudic story suggesting that any celebration of victory should be tempered when it comes at the cost of human life. In this story, God scolds the angels for bursting into song after the Israelites' miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, which then crashed down upon the Egyptians: "The work of my hands is drowning in the sea and you want to chant a song before me?"

The giggly banter on Army Radio about the killings in Gaza expresses the dehumanization of God's handiwork, a process that has fueled wars throughout human history. After all, it is easier to kill our enemies if we regard them as less human.

In fact, most people must be trained to disregard the humanity of others in order to be capable of killing them, argues Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former U.S. Army paratrooper. In his book, "On Killing," Grossman cites studies indicating that only 15-20 percent of American riflemen in World War II actually fired at the enemy in combat situations. His conclusion: "There is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man."

According to Grossman, the U.S. military developed sophisticated methods of training soldiers to overcome this instinctive aversion, and firing rates reached 90-95 percent among American combat soldiers in Vietnam. Part of this process, which he calls "psychological warfare conducted upon one's own troops," involved dehumanizing the enemy. This included replacing bull's-eye targets in marksmanship training with man-shaped silhouettes, and screening films that desensitized recruits to violence and indoctrinated them with contempt for the enemy.

Assuming Israel's soldiers must also dehumanize an enemy - much closer to home - in order to be effective in their role, we must also ask: Once this dehumanization process starts, where does it stop? Burston's op-ed argues that the IDF has a duty to kill those Palestinians who seek to kill Israelis at any cost. But reports in this newspaper and other media outlets suggest that the IDF frequently kills innocent Palestinians.

Perhaps it is unreasonable and unfair to expect our young soldiers to maintain a perfect balance in the way they relate to the enemy - dehumanized enough to kill when necessary, but not enough to spill over into wanton killing. This is indeed the high standard set in the IDF code of ethics, which emphasizes that "every human being is of value, regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position," but also recognizes that "the complex nature of military activity in general, and combat in particular, may generate tensions with the values and basic principles" the code expresses.

That is, our soldiers, some still teenagers, are expected to be both humane and to kill, and to know how to reconcile the tensions between these two missions in a complicated and imperfect world. It is much easier to sit in the broadcasting booth at Army Radio. Still, the hosts of "The Last Word" would do well to re-read the IDF code of ethics and swallow a dose of humility before again making giddy comments about the "excellent atmosphere" we create when killing.

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