Linn, R., Conscience at War: The Israeli Soldier as a Moral Critic

R. Linn, Conscience at War: The Israeli Soldier as a Moral Critic (Albany, NY, SUNY Press: 1996) 245 pp. *
 

Ruth Linn’s study of Israeli soldiers who objected to the war in Lebanon or to service on the West Bank duing the Intifada deals with an important moral dilemma in modern Israeli society. The phenomenon is very complex and Linn divides the 60 men she worked with in several ways. First, Linn divides them into those who refused to serve, called selective conscientious objectors (SCOs) or refusers, and those who served but protested outside their military service, called activists. Thus, Yesh Gevul was the organization of Israeli soldiers, all with combat records, who refused to serve while Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) was the organization of those who served and protested as civilians, not as members of the military (45, 123-28). Linn also divides her subjects into those who protested directly and those who “shoot and cry” or “shoot and defecate,” that is, those who protested indirectly (148-49). Another categorization contrasts the “white protestors,” that is, those who protested publicly, with the “gray protestors,” that is, those who lowered their medical profile or went abroad so as not to serve (80).

Linn’s study also contains several diverse but important observations: The symbolism and metaphor of the shoah was pervasive with fully 65% of those interviewed using the shoah as a frame of reference for their actions, although only 25% were children of survivors (137, 151-58). The refusers often had the sympathy of their commanders who, after trying to persuade them not to refuse, did not mete out the full punishment, as well as the tacit support of their employers and others (96, 187, 199). Linn should have developed a category called “vicarious protest” to label this support. Education and rank were the only significant factors which could predict likely protest (44). Strangely, there are no religious refusers and, it seems, few religious activists. Also, there are no women refusers, there being no clear data on women activists except a list of women’s organizations. Is it possible that no dati soldier ever refused to serve on moral-religious grounds, or that no woman soldier ever refused to serve on feminist ethical grounds? Finally, readers interested in Tohar Haneshek, the doctrine of the purity of arms, with which every Israeli soldier is educated, will find Linn’s description very informative (142-48)

Linn’s book is not only an engaging report on a little-studied phenomenon in modern Israeli life, it is also a contribution to the larger debate on moral decision-making. That debate, familiar to many readers of JS, centers around Larry Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan, both professors at Harvard, though Kohlberg is now dead. Kohlberg developed a series of tests designed to examine the reasons for making moral decisions and, after administering these tests widely, Kohlberg outlined his seven stages of moral development. Gilligan noticed two things: that all of Kohlberg’s subjects were male and that females who were tested with Kohlberg’s method always scored lower than males. She concluded that the tests had a male bias, designed tests for women, and discovered that women think differently about moral problems than men. This, in turn, led Gilligan to posit that moral decision-making is not accomplished by the isolated individual and is not oriented only around justice issues but that moral decision-making is usually context-sensitive, that is, made when considering the whole web of human relationships in a given situation, and is usually oriented around caring issues (Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice , Harvard University Press: 1982).

Ruth Linn’s book adds five points to this wider debate. First, Linn adds to the evidence that the Kohlberg method is inadequate. “Their moral [the refusers’] reasoning could not break through stage four moral logic” (46)! “Activism was found to be associated with stage 5 moral competence” (39)! This means that men who risked a great deal to refuse to serve in the armed forces and / or to protest publicly the war and its injustice were morally inferior, stage 7 being the highest. In plain simple English, Kohlberg is just wrong on his stages of moral development, even for men, a conclusion I have long suspected myself.

Second, Linn proposes a new criterion for moral decision-making: “The data does not suggest that the level of moral competence of the refusers was higher than that of objecting soldiers who decided not to refuse. Yet the refusers seem to be unique in their ability to maintain moral consistency in their action, due mainly to some nonmoral intervening factors such as the `courage to be alone’ or `personal strength'” (47). Linn goes on to list three major factors that determine this “lonely courage”: a personal disposition of isolation in the resolution of the dilemma, lack of formal attachment to a military unit, and previous experience of successful solitary action (47-48). She concludes: “The data suggest that the refusers’ moral decision-making process, which involved breaking the law, was more closely related to their loner tendencies, or their conviction in standing alone, rather than their moral reasoning” (48, 87).

Third, Linn divides the refusers and activists into three motivational groups: those who acted out of political motivation, those who acted out of moral conviction, and those who acted out of personal motives. The politically motivated group saw military action in its larger context, organized themselves into groups, and tried to persuade others to resist. The morally motivated group saw military action in its larger context but did not organize and try to persuade others. The personally motivated group saw the immediate (or probable) specific military action and refrained from participating in order to keep their consciences clear; they made no effort to persuade others and often did not even formally protest (chap. 8). This typology, though not as clear as it should be because of the overlapping of the categories, allows Linn to note that politically motivated objectors were more “dangerous” to the military and societal establishment precisely because of their message; hence, they were viewed and punished more severely (188). The converse is also true, the gray refusers who just withdrew from the scene without any formal protest were the easiest to tolerate (188).

Fourth, basing herself on two “heroes” of the My Lai conflict, Linn develops another typology of motivation (chap. 3): that of the activist, the person who actively intervenes on the battlefield, as did Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson who intervened and saved Vietnamese, and that of the passive nonactive person, the one who refuses to follow orders but does not act to protect others or even protest to the higher authorities, as did Bernhardt who refused to shoot when ordered to do so but did nothing else (56-58). Linn draws parallels to Bernhardt and points out that none of the Israeli refusers and activists “behave[d] in a Thompsonian way” (62-68). This typology, however, evolved together with Gilligan, has set off quite a debate because it privileges the activist response. In effect, Linn and Gilligan have judged the refuser who does not intervene as somehow “less” of a moral hero than the activist (see New Ideas in Psychology , 8:2 [1990] for their article, several critiques, and their response). I personally do not see the merit in labeling, directly or implicitly, one form of resistance as more courageous, or more heroic, or more moral than any other.

Fifth, in her final chapter, Linn returns to the debate between Kohlberg and Gilligan about moral decision-making and suggests that moral decision-making, judged especially from the personal narratives of the subjects, is not so much a matter of deciding what is either just or caring. Rather, it is a “negotiating [of] their moral identities” (202). “Their moral language was emotional and contextual. Their personal feelings seemed to reflect their care about justice…. reflected a connected position — a way of participating in the world, a way of being with other people, a set of feelings, of affections and affiliations that linked them to other people … family … political party … community at large … those who died in other wars or the survivors of the Holocaust” (208). Here more than elsewhere, Linn lets the reader feel the inadequacy of all the categories and typologies. It is not justice or care. It is not the lonely individual or the connected person. It is justice and care. It is loneliness and connectedness.

I have never quite understood why moral decision-making theorists like Kohlberg, Gilligan, and Linn who, after all, are also social and developmental psychologists, do not enrich their work by studying the data generated by their own colleagues who have studied the rescuers or various altruistic behaviors (see, for instance, the works of Pearl and Sam Oliner, Nehama Tec, and Eva Fogelman). From these studies we know that childhood disciplinary patterns, prosocial role-modeling, early prosocial praxis, the use of the language of caring, the overwhelming place of role and hierarchy, and many other factors are active ingredients in determining what moral decision will be made. They are the “nonmoral intervening factors” in moral decision-making (see my forthcoming book, The Banality of Good and Evil , Georgetown University Press and the preliminary articles of the same title on my website: http://www.emory.edu/UDR/ BLUMENTHAL). Linn really needs to go back to her subjects and carefully examine the presence of these factors in their personalities. After doing that, we will know better what nonmoral factors facilitated the decision of these brave men to refuse, resist, object, and protest military and political injustice. After research into such facilitating factors, we will be able to do more than bemoan the fact that there are no Israeli Hugh Thompsons. We should be able to develop coherent syllabi and curricula which will teach prosocial attitudes and behaviors, even in the face of substantial social authority.

Moral decision-making can be taught — not through moral dilemmas and analysis of motivation, but through careful use of the data that is available on the socialization of adults and children to the various communities to which we all belong.

 

* Appeared in Jewish Spectator, Summer 1998, 52-3.

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