The Disciplinary Gaze of the Camera’s Eye: Soldiers’ Conscience and Moral Responsibility

Erella Grassiani, Desiree Verweij


Even though the concept of conscience is complex and multi-interpretable , it is still widely seen as the prime source of morally responsible behavior and often referred to as the ‘internal witness’ and as such the moral guide of our actions. However, what happens to conscience in the practice of violent conflict in the post-modern era? In such an era where it seems that nothing we do stays unseen it is interesting to look at what happens to soldiers’ conscience and their moral responsibility when they are being watched ; when their actions are ‘witnessed’ by outsiders armed with cameras. In this article we will explore these questions by a further discussion of the concept of conscience in military practice and relate it to the disciplinary gaze, introduced by Foucault. We will subsequently use ethnographic research, the case of Israeli soldiers serving in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), to discuss the actual practice of the disciplinary gaze and its counter gaze in military practice. In order to do this we will outline three different kinds of gazes that Israeli combat soldiers are subjected to in the OPT. We will argue that in some situations an outside gaze, such as the camera of a reporter or the presence of human rights organizations can indeed influence or trigger the conscience of soldiers and their behavior. However, in other situations such gazes are ineffective. We believe that the answer to this difference lies in the normalization of violence by the soldiers and the ways in which their conscience is ‘numbed’ by their routine work in today’s conflicts.

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JMSS is a publication of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

JMSS gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.