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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Teaching Morality in Armed Conflict: The Israel Defense Forces Model

Filed under: Israel, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli Security
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)



Teaching morality and ethics during armed conflict to combat units presents unique challenges to both military educators and commanders. Aspects of this complex issue include the prevailing military culture, the character of the military training, and the nontraditional combat zone. Armies regard the video as the most developed model for training soldiers about morality in armed conflict. The Israel Defense Forces created a video program by using two- to three-minute clips from relevant Hollywood movies that would be familiar to most of the target audience and presenting eleven”codes of conduct.” Following each simulation with its attendant dilemmas, the soldier is given a battery of questions involving legal and moral issues. Although the video was prepared by the IDF School of Military Law, the issue of morality in armed conflict is ultimately the responsibility of the commander.



Teaching morality and ethics during armed conflict to combat units presents unique challenges to both military educators and commanders. However, it must be understood from the outset that the ultimate responsibility for morality and ethics is the commander’s, in terms of both words and action. If the commander is unwilling to go beyond “talking the talk,” or if his actions contradict what he has instructed his forces regarding issues of morality, the potential for violations by his forces is great. The military educator, who comes from outside the unit and therefore is not a member of the immediate “family” though he serves in the same army, leaves after speaking to a unit on matters of morality. The commander must be both the role model and the teacher of morality and ethics; an absolute commitment on his part is the single most critical component of the teaching of morality in armed conflict.


The Military Culture

The military culture, like any other professional culture, has its own sets of rules and codes. What makes the military culture different, however, is that it teaches, trains, encourages, and rewards the killing of other human beings. The soldier who is drafted or volunteers to “serve his country” will be indoctrinated immediately into a culture where the self is largely irrelevant – an often-cited example is the crew-cuts given to all new recruits – as commanders emphasize the greater good at every opportunity. It is driven into the new recruit as an absolute truth.

The concept of the greater good is no mere abstraction; soldiers must be able to blindly – literally – trust their comrades-in-arms just as the latter must trust them. Otherwise, a combat unit will be unable to effectively perform its mission. Esprit de corps is not a mere phrase; it is the absolute guideline. Combat soldiers must be closer than brothers; they are brothers-in-arms ready, willing, and able to kill and be killed in order to protect each other so as to guarantee mission accomplishment. It is truly a concept of the “greater good.”

That greater good, implicitly and explicitly, includes the killing of the enemy, defined by the state as threatening the welfare and safety of that particular nation. A soldier must be prepared to make what is called the “ultimate sacrifice” – his own life. To reach this psychological state, whereby young men and women are indeed ready to die for what someone else has defined as the “greater good,” the enculturation process must be thorough, rapid, and overwhelming. The commander cannot allow himself the luxury of combat soldiers unwilling to pay this price; otherwise he will lead mutiny-ridden units on the verge of desertion. Accordingly, the military demands total commitment to unit and mission.

There are, however, at least two overriding principles that must be addressed: the soldier must be taught how to identify the enemy and simultaneously distinguish combatants from noncombatants. In addition, the soldier must understand that issues of morality are not less significant than what action must be taken when the gun jams. Morality in armed conflict needs to be one of the tools in the commander’s toolbox. Without internalizing these fundamental concepts, the soldier is sent into today’s battle unprepared. A soldier who goes into battle unprepared is a disaster waiting to happen.


Morality in Armed Conflict

Some argue that a soldier’s primary – if not only – task is the killing of the enemy. If so, what explains the increasing centrality of teaching morality in contemporary armed conflict? The answers lies in the unique nature of today’s combat.

Traditional warfare, as in World Wars I and II, involved large armies matched against each other on large battlefields. The machinery available to the commander included, among other things, tanks, planes, missiles, and ships. Soldiers were taught to operate these increasingly sophisticated weapons for the single purpose of killing the enemy soldier; the enemy soldier was given similar instructions. On the other hand, soldiers who were expected to defeat the enemy were also taught that a captured enemy soldier was to be considered a prisoner of war according to conventions signed and ratified by nations as part of the laws of war. Nevertheless, history is replete with examples of wrongful treatment, including torture and killing, of captured enemy soldiers. This could result from the very nature of battle, insufficient training, or willful violation of international law.


Contemporary Military Training

How does the contemporary army prepares itself for today’s war, which is fundamentally different from yesterday’s war? That difference relates to the core question of whom the soldier is fighting; who is the enemy? Contemporary armed conflict does not and will not take place on the vast battlefields of the past; rather, it will occur in the back alleys of Groznyy, Nablus, and Mosul. The soldier will not be facing another soldier wearing a uniform with insignia, carrying his weapon openly, and serving in a unit with a clear chain of command. In the contemporary combat arena, the fighting is far more complex and ambiguous than in traditional warfare for two primary reasons: increasingly, combat will occur in urban centers and not on a battlefield; and civilians will be very much present.

The Geneva Convention stipulates that for a combatant to be designated a soldier he must wear a uniform with insignia while carrying his weapon openly and be part of a chain of command. 1 Does this mean the Geneva Convention is irrelevant to contemporary warfare? Not necessarily, but it does suggest that changes may be required to ensure continued relevance. What is critical in the present context is that the Convention demands that an army educate its forces on issues of international law.2

In contemporary armed conflict, the soldier placed in the combat zone – the parameters of which are ill-defined – will often encounter an individual wearing civilian clothes – jeans and a T-shirt are standard – without knowing for sure if that person is friend, foe, or perhaps neither. The attire of the foe in contemporary armed conflict is in many ways an apt metaphor for the fundamental change from the traditional to the modern. In today’s combat, the soldier’s world is much more ambiguous and complicated precisely because the combatant standing opposite is at best wearing faded blue jeans – as are all those around him.


The Modern Combat Zone

The equation, then, has been turned on its head: if in traditional warfare noncombatants were the minority in the combat arena, today combatants are the minority. Yet the omnipresent civilians are generally nonparticipants, meaning noncombatants. In many cases they are women and children – generally definable as innocent civilians and therefore as protected individuals according to the Geneva Convention.3

The person standing next to an innocent civilian, however, may be a terrorist, albeit similarly dressed and looking the same. Moreover, as the soldier glances left and right he will see an “arena” fundamentally different than he would have twenty years ago: there are no uniforms, yet he knows that somewhere in that crowd of people – who speak a language he does not understand and have cultural mores alien to his – are those intent on immediately killing him. These individuals, however, may well be unseen until it is too late. And when the soldier finally does confront them in a dark alley, it will still probably be very difficult to make certain if they are friend or foe.

The effect of this reality on the soldier is critical: he is in doubt as to who is the enemy. A soldier in doubt is a scared soldier, albeit heavily armed and trained to kill. The training of today’s soldier must, then, be fundamentally different than in the past. Commanders who do not understand this transformation and its attendant responsibilities will not only fail in their obligations to their soldiers, they will also place their nation and its leaders in situations of potentially great political damage, internally and externally.


Preparation for the Modern Combat Zone

Whereas in contemporary combat the soldier usually will not know if those confronting him are friend or foe, a soldier’s training is in many ways the teaching of instinctive reactions – better to kill than be killed. “Reaction time,” “better to be the initiator,” “take the fight to the enemy” are all phrases associated with traditional warfare when the soldier instinctively and clearly knew who was the enemy. The challenge facing commanders and military educators today is how, on the one hand, to teach a soldier to respond instinctively and immediately, and yet to ascertain that the civilian is a foe and not a friend.

In the split second that the soldier must make that distinction – one of the critical requirements of international law – the civilian clearly enjoys the advantage. If the soldier has been properly trained, not only operationally but also regarding issues of morality, he will know how to run through a mental checklist that, while far more complicated than in the past, is critical to contemporary armed conflict. The civilian – or at least the person dressed like one – may actually be a terrorist, or may truly be an innocent civilian. The dilemma facing the soldier is overwhelming. A wrong decision has potentially dramatic ramifications, which may reach far beyond those immediately involved.


The Education of the Soldier

Interactive software developed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to prepare soldiers for such dilemmas has been called the best and most advanced of its kind by senior officers from many foreign armies.5 The IDF has received numerous requests for the video from other armies. The research for this article involved conversations with senior American, Canadian, and British officers whose comments reinforced those reactions. As more and more nations encounter the new form of armed conflict, they too will have to develop models relevant to their particular needs, rules of engagement, and standard operating procedures. Meanwhile, this author’s research clearly indicates that the IDF has “defined the field.”

However, this does not mean that in the future IDF soldiers will not commit acts that violate both morality and law. Mistakes will occur because eighteen-year-olds, no matter how well trained and sensitized, remain eighteen-year-olds. Over the past few years, the question of how IDF soldiers should conduct themselves toward the Palestinian civilian population has become a major issue among commanders, actively addressed at all levels. This is not to suggest that previously the IDF was immoral, but to note that morality in armed conflict is now a pressing concern.

A case in point was the pronouncement by then chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon that the true battle facing the IDF today is the fight for its moral soul. This “battle,” he asserted, must be joined immediately and thoroughly.6


How to Educate and Train Soldiers

Upon appointment as commander of the IDF School of Military Law in March 2002, the overriding issue faced by this author was how best to help the soldier confronting two almost untenable situations: (1) fighting terrorists in what the media calls urban warfare, and (2) manning checkpoints and having to determine who proceeds and who does not. In both cases the soldier must act quickly, or may pay with his life.

Over many years, IDF soldiers had regularly received lectures about international law and the law of war. Whether this was effective is not clear, but it was evident that the educational effort had to be expanded beyond legal issues only. The dilemma faced was how to teach soldiers – aged eighteen to twenty-one – not only the law, but also morality without losing the audience in the process. Morality can be considered an abstract and “soft” subject, requiring nothing more than “common sense.” If the topic is not presented creatively, it may well elicit a dismissive response.

Conversations with a broad range of commanders – junior, including noncommissioned officers (NCO), and senior grades from both the standing army and reservists serving in the ground forces, air force, and navy – revealed a willingness to try a different approach. Commanders were prepared to cooperate in creating a new mechanism to teach morality to junior commanders and soldiers. The question was what technique would be most effective.

The preferred solution was to avoid – unless field and operational circumstances dictated otherwise – “standup” lectures to units whose soldiers were either in training or preparing for deployment, and instead to develop an interactive software, based on Hollywood movies and state-of-the-art graphics, to teach an eleven-point code of conduct. This code is based on international law and was formulated after careful analysis of other armies’ practice.

Although other armies had indeed developed training material on this issue, means of effectively reaching the soldier were lacking. The client has to be “hooked” to ensure – as much as possible – that a genuine learning process will take place. A training video with role-playing actors, as used in other armies, was found to be “unnatural” and “staged.” The goal was to devise an educational tool that the audience could relate to, not only in the context of present experience from before their military service. That tool had to be entertaining at least in its approach; it had to have a “marketing edge” to it, or the soldier might disregard it.


The Israeli Model

It was decided to teach the codes by using two- to three-minute clips from relevant Hollywood movies that would be familiar to most of our “clients.” The use of the word client is intentional, since an educational mission that is not client oriented is a guaranteed failure.

The eleven codes that were developed and the attendant movies are:

1. Military Objectives/Targets – Apocalypse Now
2. Necessary Force and Collateral Damage – Rules of Engagement
3. Weapons and Ammunition – Three Kings
4. Human Dignity – Platoon
5. Religious and Cultural Property – The Eagle Has Landed
6. Pillage – Kelly’s Heroes
7. POWs, Detainees, Surrendered and Arrested Persons – The Siege
8. The Wounded and the Sick – Apocalypse Now
9. Foreign Representatives and International Workers – The English Patient
10. Persons with Unique Status – The Year of Living Dangerously
11. Reporting Violations – Casualties of War

The overriding motif is the absolute requirement that the soldier treat the Palestinian civilian population with the utmost dignity and respect. In a number of documented cases, IDF soldiers have not met that obligation. It is critical that commanders and military educators be resolute in addressing the issue.

The segment shown from the movie Platoon, which depicts a My Lai-like incident, is powerful in its images and sounds. Soldiers are seen burning huts and throwing grenades into dug holes that may well be hiding places. Children cling to their parents and beg that they not be taken from them. Against this harsh background, the camera focuses on the commander walking away deep in thought.

The graphic that complements this clip emphasizes the imperative of maintaining the dignity of the Palestinian population. Using voice-over, it addresses the issues of: Palestinians at checkpoints; house demolitions and who may authorize them; the absolute illegality of sexual assaults and the absolute requirement of protecting innocent civilians.



Checkpoints are where the frictions between the occupied and the occupier come to a head. In many ways, the checkpoints are the most difficult issue. The IDF has created the position of checkpoint commander and established an intensive two-day course – in which local representatives of the International Red Cross participate – to provide these commanders with an operational toolbox. They are also instructed on basic words in Arabic and on the various identity cards seen at checkpoints, and receive a lecture from the IDF School of Military Law.

The abovementioned graphic includes a picture (still) of a soldier checking a group of men at a checkpoint, with a small boy nearby. When units are asked who is the most important person in the picture, most reply that the boy is: if a soldier humiliates – or worse – the father, the end result may well be the birth of a new terrorist. On several occasions, Palestinians arrested on the way to suicide-bombing missions told interrogators that their impetus, or one of them, was having witnessed a family member, particularly a parent, mistreated at a checkpoint.

From an educational perspective, then, what the soldier is intended to learn from the clip and the graphic is: the issue of human dignity, the concept of innocent civilians, and the price to be paid should he err.


The Use of Simulations

In creating the software the main aim was to educate the soldier in the eleven codes using the movies and graphics. It was decided that simulations based on actual events that transpired in the IDF’s Central Command, which has control over the West Bank, would be most effective. Confronting the soldier with real-life dilemmas that either his unit or similar units have experienced was seen as the most realistic and potentially effective approach.

Six scenarios with their attendant dilemmas were chosen:

1. Two soldiers driving in a jeep in the West Bank (topographically identifiable) come across a pile of rocks that may well be booby- trapped; may they order a local inhabitant to remove the pile?

2. The commander has just been informed that a wanted terrorist is in the area and the only vehicle available is an ambulance; may such a vehicle be used for operational purposes?

3. A combat unit active near a hospital hears gunfire coming from it; may the commander order his soldiers to enter the hospital to end the shooting?

4. A force deep in enemy territory after completing its operation comes upon a shepherd who may endanger the unit should he run away; may the commander order his troops to kill the shepherd?

5. After completing an operation, a unit comes upon a destroyed factory; may the commander allow his soldiers to take with them a small souvenir from it?

6. A unit is based in a family’s house and someone in the family is injured by gunfire; must the commander allow an ambulance to approach the house at all costs?

After viewing each simulation, the soldier is asked a series of questions to test his understanding of the legal and moral issues entailed. In other words, the soldier who so far has been passively watching clips, graphics, and simulations must now attempt to integrate all the material.

An interesting phenomenon was that when control groups from NCO school and officers training school were shown the video, before its distribution for general use, there was much chatter among the soldiers during the “passive” period and then absolute quiet when they became “active.”


Scenarios and Codes

Although there are eleven codes, there are only six simulations; it is often asked whether there should not be a scenario for each code. It was felt, however, that the six scenarios and their subsequent questions, which address issues with legal and moral implications, are broad enough to relate to all eleven codes. On the other hand, it was thought that too many simulations would not be educationally beneficial.

The operational reality of armed conflict short of war is that a soldier must make multiple decisions involving various factors, all of which have endless ramifications. No decision is linear; all lead to additional dilemmas and require further decision-making.



Following each simulation and its attendant dilemma, the soldier is given a battery of questions involving legal and moral issues. For example, the questions for the first scenario are:

Is it forbidden to force a local resident to help move an obstacle?
THE ANSWER: It is forbidden to use a local resident or an enemy soldier to clear an obstacle when there is suspicion that it is booby-trapped.

If there is suspicion that the obstacle is booby-trapped, is it permissible to have a local resident help out so that the unit won’t be endangered?
THE ANSWER: Use of civilians as hostages or as human shields is strictly forbidden.

Should the unit not wait for the bomb squad since time is of the essence and the force is in danger?
THE ANSWER: Clearing an obstacle that is suspected of being booby-trapped shall be performed as circumstances permit and pursuant to existing combat doctrines.

If you witnessed a local resident placing the stones in the road, may that same resident be used to remove the stones? < br> THE ANSWER: An individual who has been seen placing the stones may be used to removed the stones.

After the soldier has finished answering the questions, which are in the form of a true-false exam, the correct response appears on the screen, and the accompanying voice-over explains the rationale behind it. There is no final score and passing the exam has not been a criterion for course completion.


Pedagogical Considerations

In many though not all cases, the use of the video was accompanied by a discussion led by an officer from the IDF School of Military Law in the presence, and with the contribution, of the particular unit’s commander. It was seen as imperative to make the commander a full participant in the educational process. If he is not present, the message is that the issue is not very important. In addition, morality in armed conflict is ultimately a command issue and not a matter for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG); the JAG can be a significant contributor but cannot instruct the soldier how to conduct himself as he does not give orders. Hence, the phrase adopted to explain the relationship between the video, the JAG, and the commander was “another tool in the commander’s toolbox.”



The dilemmas facing soldiers, junior commanders, and senior commanders are literally overwhelming. The IDF School of Military Law is now making a conscious effort to assist commanders in teaching perhaps the most important issue in the contemporary battlefield. Although, in developing the interactive video, the IDF learned from other armies, the final product represents a creative and unusual educational effort. There is no guarantee that this video will in itself prevent tragic mistakes. However, other armies’ praise for it indicated its potential effectiveness. If, as a result of the video, a single Palestinian is spared humiliation, then it can be defined as an effective military educational tool.

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1. Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, opened for signature 12 August 1949, art. 4(2).

2. Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), opened for signature 8 June 1977, art. 83.

3. Ibid., art. 50.

4. Ibid., art. 48.

5. This author, on a number of occasions, demonstrated the software to senior officers from foreign armies.

6. As reported to the author by a senior IDF officer present when the chief of staff made these comments.

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PROF. AMOS N. GUIORA is professor of law and director of the Institute for Global Security, Law and Policy, Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He served for nineteen years in the Israel Defense Forces, holding senior command positions in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps including legal adviser for the Gaza Strip, judge advocate for the navy and Home Front commands, and commander of the IDF School of Military Law. In this last capacity he had command responsibility for developing an eleven-point interactive video teaching IDF soldiers and commanders a code of conduct based on international law, Israeli law, and the IDF ethical code.