“A man has got to do what a man has got to do” is a popular dictum I have heard invoked in defense of the Israeli government’s way of waging war in Gaza. Disregarding the difficulty of going from “a man” to “a government,” I don’t disagree with the dictum if a caveat is added: “within certain moral constraints.”

If strong moral constraints are not clearly proclaimed, bad consequences are bound to follow. Political economy suggests that some moral rules are not only required for the preservation of a free society but that they are also part of a good strategy. The killing of three hostages who had been waiving a white flag by the army supposed to deliver them was one such consequence. (In a previous post, I raised the question of the moral requirements of just wars, specifically in the case of the war against Hamas.)

It is easy to imagine the fear and stress of an Israeli soldier fighting the Hamas thugs. However ethical he may be, his first goal is likely to go back home alive with all his body parts after the war. We have learned from Geoffrey Brennan and Gordon Tullock that to understand an army at war like any other social phenomenon, we must start from the individuals’ motivations, perceptions, and actions (see my post “Methodological Individualism and the Hamas Ruler”). Executions for desertion, as the Wagner group apparently practiced regularly, is a way for an army to cope with the problem; propaganda, esprit de corps, and tribalism are probably poor substitutes. I suspect that waving a false white flag is a trick that Hamas terrorists could use. All that provides more reasons for a civilized government to proclaim its moral principles. It is praiseworthy but not sufficient for the Israeli army to declare after the fact that the soldiers who fired at the hostages violated their rules of engagement (“Israel Says Its Soldiers Killed Israeli Hostages as They Held Up White Flag,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2023):

Standing rules in the Israeli military prohibit soldiers from shooting people who no longer pose a danger, said retired Israeli general and former Mossad chief Danny Yatom.

“Whoever raises hands or waives a white flag, it’s prohibited to shoot them. Even if it’s a terrorist,” he said. But “everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.”

A man has got to do what a man has got to do, within certain moral constraints. After October 7, the Israeli government should have proclaimed the principle as loud as the calls for revenge were heard, and should have endeavored to lead by example. The political rulers, I would say, bear more responsibility than the stressed soldiers. Will the lesson be learned?