Courage to Refuse > Press > Message from Above - by Hirsh Goodman
Message from Above - by Hirsh Goodman 20/10/2003

What these pilots were essentially saying, if one listens to the deeper message -- if one gets beyond the argument of whether they should have spoken out, or whether this is a stab in the back -- is that they no longer believe in the goals of the war they are being asked to fight.

On the even of Rosh Hashanah, Yediot Aharonot, the countrys largest-selling newspaper, had two messages for its readers: that 27 pilots had signed a letter to the air force commander that essentially accused the Israel Air Force of war crimes and were refusing to serve in missions over the occupied territories, and that 72 percent of Israelis do not believe that the countrys youngsters have a future here. Just the type of news one likes to read on a holiday.

That 72 percent of Israelis do not think their kids have a future here is one thing, depressing but understandable to a certain degree under the circumstances. The situation is bad. There is no inspiring leadership on either the Israeli or Palestinian horizons and, in the meantime, what used to be on the political fringe in both societies is becoming more mainstream. The short-term prognosis is not good and it is in that context that many of those who answered in the way they did see things at present. Pessimism is an allowable demeanor these days and the mood could shift with a change in circumstances.

The letter from the 27 pilots, however, is not just another poll taken on a bad day. Here the country has a problem -- the same embryonic problem that shadowed the 1982 war in Lebanon when it began to lose the support of the public consensus and, dangerously, the support of some of the military as well. These things have small beginnings and then can gain traction.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the pilots erred badly when linking their moral reservations, over the civilian casualties caused in the so-called "targeted strikes" against Hamas leaders and other intifada leaders, to the need for Israel to get out of the territories. It gave their protest a political overtone that made it difficult to deal with perhaps the more important aspect of the message, that of the moral implications of continuing with a policy of targeted killings even in a situation where there is a known risk of civilians being casualties. By linking the two, they blurred the edge between what seem to be legitimate, ethical concerns of Israel's finest that illegal orders are being given, and just another gesture from the defeatist left, this time in flight overalls.

What these pilots were essentially saying, if one listens to the deeper message -- if one gets beyond the argument of whether they should have spoken out, or whether this is a stab in the back -- is that they no longer believe in the goals of the war they are being asked to fight. They have stopped believing that it is a war against terror, but have started to see it as a war that creates terror. They no longer believe it is a war that was imposed on us, but regard it as one that is being perpetuated by us in order to avoid coming to a rational diplomatic solution. They no longer believe in the military leadership, the defense minister or the prime minister or their collective explanations as to why they are being asked to continue the killing while there is no concurrent effort to end the fighting.

They were not naïve when they became pilots and had machines capable of terrible destruction placed under their control. They also understand, as they have in all Israel's wars, that sometimes civilians do get killed. The Allies in NATO during the campaigns in the Balkans referred to the issue as "collateral damage." Even the Geneva Convention recognizes this as one of the unfortunate realities of warfare, particularly urban warfare.

In the Lebanese war the first sign of revolt came from a young commander, Eli Geva, who said he felt he could no longer carry out Ariel Sharon's orders with a clear conscience. That turned the tide: A nation that had been cautious about criticizing the government while a war was underway now felt able to question the wars goals.

And that may be the ultimate consequence of this act as well. Whether right or wrong, whether moral or not, what these 27 pilots have done is, for the first time in three years, spark a serious debate as to the wisdom of continuing unchecked along the path we are following. Until now, the left has been numbed by the post-Oslo disaster and enlightened political thinking has been impossible under the constant barrage of terror. But this war has been going on for three years, with the cycle of violence getting ever more intense, with more and more things being done in the name of the war on terror, always pushing the envelope of the permissible a little further out.

The army has a discipline problem here, and there is a good chance that unsavory political aspirants have used the pilots in a cynical way. Their letter has given the Palestinians much to crow about and Israel's enemies are delighted. The 27 have been called both traitors and heroes in Israel, but are almost universally thought to have done wrong in coming out in the way they did at a time when, politics aside, terror continues and the war against it has to go on. But the core issue raised is that somewhere in the armed forces, even if it be only nine active reserve pilots and 18 in retirement who dare speak out at present, there is the beginning of doubt as to the legitimacy of the war they are fighting. And that is something we all better take heed of, no matter what our feelings about the messenger.

October 20, 2003

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