Cannibal Doctrine

From Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker I learn about the “Hannibal Doctrine,” a long-confidential directive in the Israeli army to let no soldier be taken captive. But not in the sense you might think (protect the troops at any cost, save Private Ryan, leave no man behind). Rather, an all-out attack is permitted, nay mandated, on any hostage-takers and their hostage, at the discretion of commanders in the field. This means, from the point of view of the average grunt, that you are quite likely to be killed by your own platoon if it looks as if you might be taken prisoner.

The doctrine was kept a secret because of its obvious bad effects on morale. Why go to war if the guys at your back are as ready to kill you, under certain circumstances, as the guys opposing you? But I want to think for a moment about its further effects on the army and its place in society. (In case you don’t know me, I’ve never been a soldier and have no credentials as a military historian. I just read history and think about how different societies are organized.)

Effect number one: the Masada complex. For a small number of soldiers, I guess, this doctrine– “better dead than a POW”– motivates them to all-out fighting and unconditional destruction of the enemy. Think about a high level of armament backed up by a suicide pact. To be affected by the Masada complex, though, you have to be powerfully indoctrinated: I am nothing, you have to think, except insofar as my life serves the State of Israel.

Effect number two: buyer’s remorse. For what is the problem about Israeli soldiers being taken captive? No one supposes they are treated like visiting dignitaries while being held, but the thing mentioned in the article is the public-relations problem that is caused for the army by the names and faces of captive soldiers being broadcast every night on the evening news. A source interviewed for the article acknowledges that the Hannibal Doctrine

sounds terrible, but you have to consider it within the framework of the [Gilad] Shalit deal. That was five years of torment for this country, where every newscast would end with how many days Shalit had been in captivity. It’s like a wound that just never heals.

So a moral calculus begins to come into focus. The death of an individual soldier, say Gilad Shalit, is weighed in the balance against the discomfort provoked in Israeli living rooms by five years of newscasts and found wanting. Perversely, sadistically, Hamas kept him alive. It would have been better, says this logic, for him to be killed right away. Better his family receive a terse telegram beginning “Greetings:” than that the army and the cabinet be pestered by citizens wanting to see Gilad Shalit released. Better that an Israeli life be snuffed out than that the government be seen engaging in negotiations with the enemy. If I were a young man in uniform, this would give me a very sour feeling at the pit of my stomach. A feeling that says, You stupid grunt, you’re worth nothing outside the purposes of the State of Israel.

Third effect: the corrosion of civil society. The Geneva Conventions and the history of custom leading up to them were meant to make war less hard on the fighting man. The founder of the Red Cross was led to his mission by seeing the wanton destruction of life and limb on a small European battlefield. For a long time there had been respect of the life and exchange value of officers; Geneva extended such protection to the enlisted man, a step consistent with the spread of democratic norms. Where there is a recognized status of prisoner-of-war, and a hope of decent treatment and return home (conditioned on acceptance of prisoner status), civilization wins a point even in the midst of war. Refusing to let the machinery of civilization operate even in this way, refusing to let one’s men be taken prisoner and to treat the prisoners one takes with the legal proprieties, enlarges the empire of barbarism. We all then move (as the US did in the 2000s) a step closer to the apocalyptic utterance of Conrad’s villain: “Exterminate the brutes!”

It’s been a long time since I was in Sunday School, but I seem to remember a certain monstrous idol named Moloch to whom the Hebrews were forced to sacrifice their children. Was Moloch’s only crime, in the end, to be identified with the wrong side?


9 thoughts on “Cannibal Doctrine

  1. Not a substantive comment on the Hannibal Doctrine, but in terms of the Doctrine, Lt. Goldin was a marked man in another way, He was the second cousin once removed of Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli defense minister. His capture and his family status would have meant extra negotiating leverage on the part of Hamas. If Shalit was worth 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, how many would Goldin have been worth? So, presumably, from the military’s standpoint, Goldin’s death precluded not just his captivity but his use by Hamas as an extremely potent pawn. (In case “second cousin once removed” sounds like a rather distant relation to us, Goldin and Ya’alon were close personally. As the Jerusalem Post reported, “‘Hadar Goldin, may his memory be blessed, was a member of my family. I’ve known him since he was born,’ the defense minister stated.”)

    • It is also worth noting that in the Shalit affair, Hamas stymied the Israeli intelligence services and internal security apparatus for five years, until Israel gave up and started negotiating. (Arguably, this makes Hamas the most skilled gang of kidnappers in the world.) Mossad and Shin Bet simply could not find, let alone rescue, Shalit. So I think it is common knowledge in the IDF that if you are captured by Hamas, you are not coming home alive. You may spend years getting shuttled from safe house to safe house, but at some point you will be killed. Death from friendly fire may seem like a better way to go.

      • But Shalit did come home alive, unless you think Hamas replaced him with an extraordinarily lifelike cyborg.

        • Shalit came home alive, after Israel had exhausted all its other options, as the result of a humiliating, disastrous negotiation where Hamas held all the cards, with huge Palestinian prisoner releases as the outcome. I do not believe Israel will engage in such a negotiation again; it will search just as intensively for its missing, but it will not pay that kind of price again. It’s rather as if the Mexican Mafia had kidnapped a DEA agent and the ransom was the release of all the violent gang members and mass murderers from Pelican Bay and Florence ADX. In the United States, would the government do such a deal, if all its other efforts had failed? I’d say it’s fifty-fifty. In Israel? Not anymore.

        • I should say that the Israelis are walking a vertiginous tightrope between a citizen-soldier’s being worth infinitely much and being expendable. With Shalit, they operated on the “infinitely much” principle; imagine, in the US’s case, 15% of the budget and staffing of the FBI and CIA being used to do nothing but save Private Ryan, and then throw on top of that the eventual give-away-the-store deal to get him back. But “infinitely much” has an enormous reach! Suppose Hamas kidnaps another soldier. The whole world is at their disposal! They could ask for the total evacuation of settlers from the West Bank, the sole and undisputed possession of Jerusalem, the special taxation of all Jewish Israelis to build Palestinian infrastructure, and so on. This is what one gets when one has recourse to the infinite. But if one steps back from the infinite, one defines a value for the citizen soldier past which one will not go. It may be large or small, but it is finite. And, in the end, its finitude means death for the captured soldier. This is the other end of the scale; there is a point at which the soldier is dispensable. Kidnapping will happen; for Hamas, it is easy, it is cheap, and it is a well-honed skill. The only way to blunt its effect is to take away its rewards. Otherwise, one is back in the sphere of the infinite, in which no price is too great to pay, and in which a price larger than even that will be exacted.

  2. You mean you aren’t in fact Fangbane, Soldier of Fortune and notorious warlord, undefeated in the history of the World? Dang!

    Seriously. And I hope this won’t be taken as trolling. Might some of this not be questionable precisely because you are not a military man? Might it not be possible that an infantryman becomes an infantryman because s/he feels quite differently than you suggest: they understand (‘believe’ is probably better) that, in certain circumstances, it is necessary for them to negate their individual lives for the sake of some greater cause. Theirs isn’t the grand sweep of conflict so often used to document wars, they are the nameless ones in the Iliad. I suppose I mean that a good soldier must be prepared to “become nothing” if the Fates should so decide. I can certainly envisage such fighters and can see some value in having them in an effective army. That’s the Masada effect self-nullification.

    The second self-nullification, I think, would be far more difficult to endure for the hypothetical soldier, though. And that difficulty would surely be transmitted up the ranks, as it is based upon an abominable impossibility, a lie broadcast to the TV rooms of all who have them.

    (Here this comment seeps outside the domain of war and into many others: medicine, quality of life, distribution of goods, distribution of information, inequality of all kinds, because the idea that such a moral calculus is possible has somehow oozed into all these spaces to the point where some ‘democratic’ governments now treat it as axiomatic, leaving only details of implementation open for debate. And what debate there is is always moderated and the moderator is always biased, as the facts are always skewed.)

    Of course, the lie is that any such moral calculus is possible. It isn’t. Or, more precisely, such moral arithmetic is possible only when comparing similar with similar, and then it should only be used additively (it’s better to save ten lives than one) but never subtractively (subtracting a human life – and I suspect any life – is always wrong). And the lie is told, again and again, through the televisual media, amongst which I’d personally number the current incarnations of “digital social media,” though it’s probably not fashionable to admit to such skepticism. The population is kept in a curious stasis halfway between abject terror and distracted comfort with no end of ameliorants readily available should sustaining this grim balance get too much.

    But a moral calculus is necessary. Because we’re dangerously close to self-extinction and self-extinction is an act of completely different moral ‘order’ than the death of any number of individuals. If no one survives, it renders completely meaningless every claim we make for any collective ‘good’ within every corner, every path, every hiding place, every art object, etc., we have ever produced.

    As regards Gaza, I do not know even a fraction of what would be needed to sensibly comment. Every piece of information coming from pretty much everywhere seems to subtract from the sum of good in the world and it feels increasingly hard to hold to hope, yet holding to hope is necessary.

  3. The “Post Comment” button is a bane on all our lives! (And email still needs an “delete-if-unread” option.).

    I also intended to note that this ‘self-nullification’ process, or something remarkably similar to it, seems to permeate most – if not all – religions. The ideal state to reach is one in which the conscious individual self is – not negated, nullified neither, but ‘fused’ into the collective. I do not have words to describe this; perhaps such words cannot exist: I have heard tell of those who have achieved these reified planes and who claim that such matters are intrinsically outside the set of the expressible. I haven’t heard their attempts with music, or seen their art, though. So to speak.

    That war (or ‘soldiering’) might share something as significant as acceptance of self-nullification, if it not pure accident, is very interesting.

    Yes, but what I think I thought I wanted to note was the sadness with which I think of the similarities between Islam and Judaism, which seem to have been preserved better therein than in Christianity (in particular, the proscription against images). To think of two such rich, interlinked, traditions locked in this seemingly perpetual circle of enmity, I suppose, not really having a “TV-room,” seems, from that imagined perspective, particularly saddening.

    Right. Got to press it sometime. Post comment.

    • The ticklish thing about self-sacrifice, in this case, is that Israel has conscription. In countries that have gone to a volunteer (or mercenary) system, the incentives and self-selection are different. But where you have conscription, you have– or should have– an army that is conscious of responsibilities to the citizenry.

      What you say about fusion sounds like the “collective effervescence” that Durkheim described in great assemblies of people. (He wrote before the invention of Alka-Seltzer.) It’s a transitory state, attainable in certain intense moments, but you can’t build a way of life on it. (Apparently.)

      • Agreed, regarding the conscription. (And with the constancy of the televisual goading to remember the prisoner’s ordeal.)

        The fusion/nullification needed far more words than I had, and far more thought. Off the top of my head, it may be a transitory state, but that does not mean it need be a transient state or even one that can be reversed, does it? The physical analogy might be the sublimation of dry ice, or the crystallization of a supersaturated solution.

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