”Israel’s Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy” by Yagil Levy— Making the Ultimate Decision

Levy, Yagil.”Israel’s Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy”, NYU Press, 2012.

Making the Ultimate Decision

Amos Lassen

Who makes the decision of who shall live and who shall die? In Massachusetts this week we face that question on the ballot with the vote on what has been called assisted suicide. In modern Israel, that question takes a different course and we are all aware that during wartime someone must decide which troops will be sent to the front lines to fight the enemy face-to-face and which remain behind. Then there is the question—again during wartime but also during “peace”—which categories of the civilian population should be heavily protected in area where war can begin at any moment? Finally what those in power must consider is whose life should have priority—soldiers or civilians? Yagil Levy looks at these three issues and applies them to the larger world by discussing what Israel does as he considers the implications faced by security.

Levy maintains that in Israel soldiers mobilized from the “privileged classes” were chosen to be at risk but with the rise of casualty sensitivity, the government looked at the situation again and developed “the death hierarchy”. In this situation privileged soldiers are favored over soldiers that come from Israel’s lower classes and over civilians. Enemy civilians are at the bottom of the hierarchy. By this we see that the state has moved the risk away from soldiers and onto civilians and in the Gaza offensive of 2009, this new system caused Israel to be open to global criticism.

What we see here from Levy is a coming together of theory and case analysis that explores the social dynamics that underlie the way that a society answers threats and dangers. In effect, what Levy does is to bring international relations/political science and sociology together. We become aware of the changing social structure in Israel and learn about how the military assumes its strategic posture. In looking at and analyzing the social and economic characteristics of the causalities in the conflicts that Israel has had with both the Palestinians and with Lebanon, Levy shows how the military has shifted positions. Sociological and political theories of civil/military relations become united.

The new debate of casualty sensitivity has become a major issue in liberal democracies and the idea of a death hierarchy allows us to look at the lives of soldiers as being favored over the lives of enemy civilians. It seems that there is a declining motivation among the privileged to give up their lives for the military (as has certainly been the case in the United States for as long as I can remember). This idea of “casualty aversion” exists in most of the world and by using Israel as an example, we become acutely aware of this.

This is not a book that is easy to read especially because we are forced to look at the worth of lives. Levy has done extensive research and has backed up all of his statements extensively. While the book is quite expensive ($55, 225 pages), it is enlightening and a must-read for anyone interested in the relations between society and the military and in the society and politics of Israel.