What does Judaism say about war (or, is there such a thing as kosher casualties)? This was the topic of the talk given to our group by Matthew Wagner, the religion reporter for the Jerusalem Post. Matthew discussed with our group the morality and ethics of war from the perspective of interpretation of Jewish law (Halacha). He began with the following anecdote:
A man sitting on a hill in southern Lebanon observes, through binoculars, a peaceful scene at a farmhouse below, with a group of children playing near the house. A truck drives in and parks, and the driver goes inside the house. Soon after, a rocket is launched from the area of the farmhouse. The man on the hill is a miliary observer in the Israeli Defense Force whose job is to direct IDF fire to missle launch sites. But the man hesitates - if he calls for an artillary strike, the children will certainly be killed. After a few moments of deliberation, he decides not to call for the artillery strike in order not to harm the children.
This story was told to Matthew by an IDF soldier he was interviewing during the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah; the man telling the story was the observer on the hill. The story illustrates an ethical dilemma of war - should military personnel do everything they can to not harm non-combatants? What if such action puts one's own life at risk? This was a heated topic of discussion during the recent war, including opinions expressed by various rabbis in Israel. Some rabbis justified killing based on biblical content such as "he who stands to kill, kill him first" and "there is no guilt if you are following God's will." Civilian casualties are, after all, secondary to winning the war.
The issue of ethics in war, and the "purity of arms," was heightened during the recent war in Lebanon. The IDF knew that Hezbollah fighters and missles were hidden throughout civilian areas, essentially using the civilian population as "human shields." Was killing civilians necessary and acceptable (morally and ethically) in order to protect Israeli civilians who were the targets of Hezbollah missles?
Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish scholastic philosopher and rabbi, one of the major theologians of Judaism, wrote rules for war, including these: when laying siege, only array your forces on three sides of the target city; those who want can escape, those who want can make peace, and those who want to fight will be defeated. The IDF used a tactic similar to the rules of Maimonides in southern Lebanon by warning the civilian populations in specific areas, using radio, leaflets dropped from aircraft, and even phone calls, to evacuate because the areas would be bombed. Three major questions need to be asked prior to an action in which non-combatants could be harmed: 1) is the purpose of the action to protect Israeli civilians, 2) is there intelligence and proof that the action will save lives in Israel, and 3) is there an alternative that will cost fewer civilian lives?
War is not something to be taken lightly, and the killing of civilians raises moral and ethical questions that can be looked at from many angles. Jewish morality and ethics require the asking of these questions.