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Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition
Michael J. Broyde

IV. Fighting on the Same Team: Ethics within the Army

Judaism not only mandated a particular type of ethical behavior towards one's enemies, but compelled one to adopt certain rules of conduct towards one's own soldiers as well. The Bible explicitly addresses the question of who shall be compelled to fight in a war. It states:

And when you approach the time for battle, the priest shall approach and speak to the people. He should say to them, "Listen Israel, today you are approaching war with your enemies; do not be faint in heart; do not be fearful and do not be alarmed; do not be frightened of them. Because God, your God, is going with you to battle your enemies and to save you". And the officers shall say to the people "Who is the person who has built a house and not yet dedicated it? He should return to his house less he die in battle and another dedicate it. Who is the person who has planted a vineyard and never used the fruit; he should leave and return lest he die in battle and another use the fruit. Who is the person who is engaged to a woman and has not married her? he should leave and return home lest he die in battle and another marry her." And the officers should add to this saying "Who is the person who is scared and frightened in his heart? He should leave and return lest his neighbor's heart grow weak as his has."60

Two distinctly different exemptions are present in the Bible. The first is that of a person who is in a situation where his death will cause a clear incompleteness in an impending life cycle event. The second is a person whose conduct it is felt is deleterious to the morale of the army as a whole. While the position of Maimonides is unclear, Ravad immediately notes that these two categories of exemptions are different in purpose and application.61 Ravad states that the exemptions which relate to impending life cycle events apply only to an authorized war; in an obligatory war all must fight. However, he states that it is possible that the exemption for one who is fearful would apply even to an obligatory war.62

The Talmud (Sotah 44a) explains this exemption in two different ways. Rabbi Akiva states that this refers to a person who is lacking the moral courage to do battle and to see combat and watch people perish. Rabbi Yosi asserts that it relates to a person whose personal actions have been sinful (and who is thus afraid that in war time he will be punished for his sins).63 Most authorities maintain that one who is fearful of the war to such a degree that he classifies for such an exemption is compelled to take this deferral -- it is not optional;64 Jewish law prohibits one who is of such character from fighting.65 While one could claim that this type of an exemption is a form of selective conscientious objection, such an understanding of the law would be in error. A person who "objects" is not given an exemption; certainly a person who is physically and psychologically capable -- but who merely objects to this particular war -- can be compelled to fight. It is only a form of psychological unfitness that earns one this type of exemption.

In addition to the question of who serves, Jewish law mandated certain ethical norms on the battlefield so as to insure certain moral behavior. For example, the Bible requires, and it is quoted in the Talmud and codes that basic sanitary rules be observed while in military encampment.66

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