Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View on War and Morality, by Shlomo Brody (Maggid, 412 pp., $32.95)

It’s impossible to read Rabbi Shlomo Brody’s new book, Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View on War and Morality, without thinking, of course, of the massacre in Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza. While the book was written before October 7, its reflections on warfare’s inherent moral dilemmas took on added significance after Hamas’s attack.

Brody’s Ethics, its title a play on the Rabbinic Jewish ethical tome “Ethics of the Fathers,” poses several challenging questions. How can a military maintain its humanity against an enemy that aims to maximize civilian casualties on its own side? How can a country fight with moral standards against an enemy that has none? What, exactly, does “proportionality” mean in war? Should a country’s public image influence its conduct in war? Should a country show mercy, even after showing mercy has backfired again and again? How much, if any, humanitarian aid should a country provide to its enemy’s civilian population?

The book provides no quick and simple solutions. Instead, Ethics serves as a compass in the bewildering world of wartime morality. Brody provides multiple doctrines for leaders to consider when pondering whether and how to wage war.  He calls his most innovative concept the “Jewish Multivalue Framework” (JMF), which consists of nine moral principles relevant to the execution of any military operation:

The Dignity of Mankind: Every person, regardless of his status as friend or enemy, is made in the likeness of God, and therefore should be treated with a basic level of respect.

Inherent Wrong of Illicit Bloodshed: Every life is sacred, and unnecessary bloodshed should be avoided.

Individual Responsibility: Each person is primarily responsible for his actions, and ideally, should fully bear the consequences of his actions alone.

Vision of World Peace: Humanity should strive toward the biblical ideal of an end to all wars.

Warfare in Pursuit of Justice: Warfare should be conducted only in self-defense, to settle one’s homeland, or to rid the world of evil.

Warfare, by its Nature, is a Collective Affair: War involves both citizens and soldiers risking their lives for their country and requires preparedness to combat the enemy.

National Partiality: Political leaders and citizens have a duty to safeguard their own people, as an extension of the broader moral responsibility to prioritize commitments to family, comrades, community, and nation.

Bravery and Courage: In conflict, one must be courageous and not fearful. While it is noble to be concerned about wrongful killing, one must also fight with valor.

National Honor: No action should be taken that would undermine God or disgrace His people.

Some of these principles are easier to grasp than others. As Brody notes, some come into conflict with one another in practice. But they provide a coherent framework for a country at war, an area of public morality often muddled by uncertainty.

Brody describes how each of these nine principles would apply to real-world scenarios. For example, in the book’s third part, “Preemptive and Preventative Wars,” he discusses whether a country, acting legitimately in self-defense, would have to wait for an adversary to fire the first shot, or if it can licitly launch preemptive or preventative strikes to protect itself from future carnage. To illustrate the application of this principle, Brody analyzes critical decisions by Israeli leaders in wars between 1956 and 1982, and the United States’s choices during the War on Terror and invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the book’s final section, “The Ethics of Fighting in War,” Brody considers how militaries should conduct themselves after war has erupted. He addresses the complexities of waging war with nonstate actors who embed themselves among civilians, using Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza as an example. He provides a detailed and much-needed exposition of the widely misunderstood principle of “proportionality.”

While the book is grounded in Jewish thought, the principles it proposes apply as well to the United States, particularly as the country considers its response to increasingly brazen adversaries like China and Iran. As these tensions risk boiling over into full-scale conflict, American decision-makers would greatly benefit by reading Ethics of Our Fighters and internalizing its lessons.

Photo by OREN ZIV/AFP via Getty Images


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