Warfare in the 21st Century: 5 Questions with General Norton A. Schwartz

Posted On Feb 4, 2013 / 5773 | Challenges of the 21st Century | Israel Philosophy

We’ve posted a number of sources below that speak to General Schwartz’s comments on warfare in the 21st century. Please continue the conversation in the Facebook chat box below.

To begin, here are the definitions of proportionality and distinction (also known as discretion), terms General Schwartz uses in the interview:

Proportionality: Proportionality prohibits the use of any kind or degree of force that exceeds that which is needed to accomplish the military objective. Proportionality compares the military advantage gained to the harm inflicted while gaining this advantage. Proportionality requires a balancing test between the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by attacking a legitimate military target and the expected incidental civilian injury or damage. Under this balancing test, excessive incidental losses are prohibited. Proportionality seeks to prevent an attack in situations where civilian casualties would clearly outweigh military gains.

Distinction (Discretion): Distinction means discriminating between lawful combatant targets and noncombatant targets such as civilians, civilian property, POWs, and wounded personnel who are out of combat. The central idea of distinction is to only engage valid military targets. An indiscriminate attack is one that strikes military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. Distinction requires defenders to separate military objects from civilian objects to the maximum extent feasible.

Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC),” by Rod Powers

The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo describes ethics in warfare, but does not base his statement on traditional Jewish texts:

When [the Jewish nation] takes up arms, it distinguishes between those whose life is one of hostility and the reverse. For to breathe slaughter against all, even those who have done very little or nothing amiss, shows what I should call a savage and brutal soul.

Philo, Loeb Classic Library (London: Heinemann, 1940), vol. 8, “The Special Laws,” 4.225

Basing his comments on Deuteronomy 20:1, the medieval legalist Maimonides lays out parameters of fighting wars:

אין עושין מלחמה עם אדם בעולם, עד שקוראין לו לשלום–אחד מלחמת הרשות, ואחד מלחמת מצוה: שנאמר “כי תקרב אל עיר, להילחם עליה–וקראת אליה, לשלום” (דברים כ,י).  אם השלימו, וקיבלו שבע מצוות שנצטוו בני נוח עליהן–אין הורגין מהן נשמה

One does not wage war against anyone without first calling out for peace, whether in a mitzvah war or a permitted war. As it is written: When you come near a city to wage war against it, call to it for peace” (Deut. 20:1). If they surrender and accept the Seven Laws of Noah they are not killed.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Kings and War 6:1

Rashi, the 11th-century commentator, in his comment on Exodus 14:7, seems to open the door for a permissive view of killing during wartime:

מכאן היה רבי שמעון אומר כשר שבמצרים הרוג

It is from this verse that Rabbi Shimon would say, “the fit of the Egyptians were killed.”

Rashi on Exodus 14:7

The former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, in his 1983 book Mashiv Milhamah, seeks to limit the application of Rashi’s comment:

ואין הכוונה שמותר חס וחלילה להרוגם בשעה שאינם נלחמים בנו ואינם מהוים עבורנו סכנה וכל המאמר של רשב”י אנו אלא להורות על מה שאירע במצרים  

The intention of this comment is not, Heaven forbid, to kill [enemies] when they are not fighting and when they are not endangering our lives. The statement from Rabbi Shimon is only meant to elucidate what happened in Egypt.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Mashiv Milhamah, (“Haidrah Rabbah”: Jerusalem, 1983)

Finally, noted modern scholar Michael Walzer pushes back on the concept of a classic Jewish approach to fighting war:

The Rabbis themselves have no such (explicit) doctrine. Why is it that we think them committed to humanitarian restraint? Why were the modern theorists of “purity of arms” so sure that theirs was the natural, with-the-grain reading of the tradition?

In fact, the tradition is rather thin, for the usual reason: there were no Jewish soldiers who needed to know what they could and could not do in battle. The law against murder would no doubt rule out direct attacks upon civilians, but the issue does not seem to have arisen (after the biblical period) until very recent times. Indirect attacks and unintended or incidental civilian deaths figure even less in the tradition.

Walzer, Michael, “War, Peace, and Jewish Tradition,”
(Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1996), 107

Questions to Consider

  • Do you agree with General Schwartz’s assertion that the fundamental nature of war has not changed?
  • What role should Jewish values—or religious values in general—play in how and when we engage in conflict?