Home Page Hebrew Arabic

About Us
What's New?
Personal Stories
Join our newsletter

Cartooning in Conflict
Chicago Nov. 4-6


The Myth of Ethics/Morality in War

Aaziz Abu Sarah

Many of us grew up in communities where we were taught how to be moral and ethical. Although every community has its own understanding of what morality means, it is something that people are normally proud to have.

 To be moral and ethical makes us feel confident. Sometimes, it even makes us feel superior to those who we view as less moral.  And when we work for humanity and contribute to the world through science, medicine, literature, charity, or by fighting evil causes, we feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.


Ethics and morals are so important that when a nation goes to war, the cause must be seen by its citizens as moral; otherwise, the public will not support the war. When a nation becomes embroiled in fighting, government leaders insist that the fighting is still moral and ethical. Even when the news reports civilian deaths and atrocities committed by soldiers, the national claim of morality never falls short. Instead, tragedies are isolated incidents or necessary for the greater good. However, many times these claims only show that we are hypocrites to ourselves and our values.


For example, most societies teach that violence is not an appropriate solution for individual conflict in our communities.  When two neighbors disagree over property, the law commands them to negotiate rather than resort to violent action. However, governments eagerly justify violence to solve external conflicts with other nations who are seen as threats. How can we tell two neighbors who disagree over land not to use violence to draw their borders, but justify it as a nation? How can we say, turn the other cheek and then be so quick to cry vengeance! when someone attacks our country? How can we teach people to think intensely before taking violent action while being hasty as a nation in deciding to destroy villages and bomb cities? How can we teach that all human beings are the same, but value the life of five national soldiers over the lives of four-hundred enemy civilians? This is the paradox we create about ethics and morality.


I have often heard people rationalize war by saying that governments have the authority and responsibility to protect their citizens from harm, whereas individual citizens do not have this authority. This argument is partly true: governments are responsible for protecting their citizens. However, this argument stops too soon. Governments are also responsible for making ethical decisions. Governments are responsible for representing the humanity of their people, as well. And governments are responsible for judging what is best for future generations in all parts of the world, not just for deciding what best fits its political interests in the short run. 


Atrocities in war are not isolated incidents. War is the enemy of basic human ethics and morals. It teaches that violence is the solution for problems and compromises our deepest-held values. Even the strongest fighters lose part of themselves through participating in violent conflicts. Knowing this, how can we expect an 18-year-old soldier at a checkpoint to behave ethically when he constantly fears that he will be shot? How can we expect depressed and angry Palestinian teenagers to care about innocent civilians when the only hope they know is to become suicide bombers? The fact that the fighter is Jewish, Muslim or Christian does not make him strong enough to retain personal morality in the face of national responsibility!


I realize there are always ways to justify war, or occupation, or revolution. I also know there are many ways to justify unethical and immoral acts in war. Most of these responses only demonstrate a lack of understanding of the sameness of humanity. I am reminded of the famous statement when we kill infants we apologize. These kinds of apologies fall short of stopping the same thing from happening the next morning, though. Another tactic I often hear is dehumanizing the enemy with statements such as We arent as bad as they are, and Our soldiers are much more moral. This is a false argument that falls as fast as the morning star that fell from the heavens. We should not compare our moral standards with our enemy, we should compare them with our original ethics! And when we make excuses and empty apologies, we lower our moral standards.


Our morals in Israel-Palestine are quickly becoming a casualty of war. In war, there are many costs: for example, there is the cost of losing your family, your friends, your home, and your peace. But in this article I want to stress one more price of war, the price of losing your values, morals and ethics.


Most nations, including the Palestinians and the Israelis, are very proud of their ethics, history, and religion. It is sad when these nations are willing to throw away their heritage to achieve political gain. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I believe many people have comprised and/or forsaken their morality. They may still speak about it in public addresses, and raise the flag of morality at rallies and speeches. Yet our actions demonstrate our true belief in ethical behavior. We have replaced coexistence, love, humanity, cooperation, dialogue and reconciliation, tolerance and compassion, truth and respect, sameness and forgiveness with justifications for war. In return, war has given us indifference, violence, hatred, revenge, lies and empty rationalizations.


Over time, I have seen the goals in this conflict change for many people. At one time, maybe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was about security, freedom and stability. But now, it is a bitter conflict that dwells in the hearts. Now, it is a consuming hatred that darkens everything and veils all hope of peace. It is a wall of ignorance and pride. It is a dehumanization of the people behind the wall. And it is a desire to kill and hurt without being hindered by guilt.


For those who still believe in ethics and morality in Israel-Palestine, we are at hard crossroads. The restoration of hope and morality to a lost people will take intense work and perseverance of heart and mind. However, the alternative is bleak. We need to stop fighting one another, and fight against the true causes of this war: the reasons why a Palestinian teenager decides to blow himself up, and the reasons why a Jewish 18-year-old mans a checkpoint instead of a desk at school.



Latest Opinions