Creating new standards of ethics for modern day warfare



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The critical need to raise ethical concerns in the heat of battle is why Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, an Israeli institution of higher education, and the Israel Defense Forces work together to teach moral values and battlefield ethics to Israeli military officers. Our “Identity and Purpose” program is a unique system of moral education for IDF soldiers that has successfully trained Israeli combatants for 10 years. Demand for the program is great among the soldiers and field commanders. Our training programs, workshops, retreats, and seminars have reached over 250,000 officers and soldiers. Identity and Purpose  as taught them to be conscious of ethical values and to respond morally under battlefield conditions.

Beit Morasha and the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) are now building on the experience of “Identity and Purpose” and invited leading professors, legal experts, and government and military officials from around the world to rethink contemporary military ethics at our October 24 Conference, “Ethics and 21st Century Military Conflicts.” This day-long non-political event will be the first time that American, Israeli and British authorities from the different fields of political theory, ethics, law and the military will come together to probe the new ethics of contemporary warfare.

What are these new forms of belligerency, when should we enter them, and how can we “fight them justly”? While the end values implicit in classic just war theory may still be valid, it is clear that the old rules for ethics in today’s theater of war need to be urgently revised.

Nowhere is this change and imperative clearer than in the turbulent Middle East. Which Gazans are combatants who are fair targets and which are civilians who deserve protection? What number of civilian casualties is “acceptable” when taking out an Afghan terrorist who has killed indiscriminately and will to do so again? What conditions would render just a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities and which insufficient? When and what kind of intervention into the Syrian chaos would be justified on humanitarian grounds? And on a practical level, once new ethical guidelines are determined, how can a country train its army to fight morally? How we answer questions like these may well spell the difference between peace and war, victory and defeat, and a reputation of national pride or one of shame.

Existential questions like these burn on a daily level among influential officials around the world. Their challenges weigh heavily on policy makers, political thinkers, ethicists, educators, military leaders and generals well experienced in war and its horrors. And the goal for the conferences is lofty. Through the focused conference discussions of experts, Beit Morasha of Jerusalem and the FIDF expect the conference to promote revised standards of ethics for contemporary warfare that will influence government policies, academic thinking, military education and the behavior of armies around the globe.

Korn is a senior research fellow in Beit Morasha of Jerusalem’s Institute for Religion and Society. He is the academic advisor for Beit Morasha and FIDF’s “Ethics and 21st Century Military Conflicts” Conference on October 24 in New York City: www.fidf.org/bmj2012.