Take the High Road

Over break I picked up a book at the library by my favorite author, Albert Camus, called “Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.” The first four essays in the book caught my attention. They were prefaced with an introduction explaining their purpose and grouped under the title “Letters to a German Friend.” But before I describe these letters, let me introduce you to the author: Camus was a philosopher who was born in Algeria in 1913 and moved later in his life to France. He wrote numerous essays, plays, short stories, and novels with philosophical themes. During the World War II occupation of France, he was actively involved with the resistance and became the editor of the newspaper Combat. It was during the occupation of France that these four letters were written. They are addressed to an anonymous “German friend” and were published in France after the Liberation. The combination of history and philosophy caught my attention immediately, and as I read, I found the essays surprisingly relevant to today. Let me focus on the first letter, written in July of 1943. Camus begins by recalling a conversation he has with this friend as the war was materializing. The German claims that his country is great and therefore anything that will strengthen his country is also great. Camus retorts that “[not] everything is subordinate to a single end. There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to love my country and still love justice.” The German friend responded sharply “Well, you don’t love your country.” This last remark broke their relationship and Camus spends the first letter responding to it. He explains very eloquently that though France might have been losing the military battle at the time, their victory was inevitable due to the moral differences exhibited by the respective countries. He points out that France had a regard for morality, justice, and human life that Germany lacked. And although Germany’s tactics proved more efficient on the battle field, France’s refusal to fight at the downright barbaric level of the Germans would ultimately give France the advantage in the war and allow them to be proud of their careful considerations and achievement afterwards. History is constantly lending us lessons to be used at present. After reading this letter, I immediately drew the connection to fighting terrorism. Just as Camus argues that Germany and France are fighting with a different set of rules, so the terrorists of today and the United states differ in regard to the observance of international law and respect for the spirit of justice. We are fighting on an uneven field, and from a strictly military or tactical perspective, this gives us a significant disadvantage. The United States, Israel, and the Western World not only have to fight on the battle field but must do so under the constant and critical eye of world opinion, with means that civilized society has deemed morally acceptable, and keeping close to heart the ideas of freedom, justice, and democracy that we hold so dear. It is unequal. The Israeli army is criticized a great deal as it stands, but imagine if they took on the tactics of those they are fighting. Israel simply cannot send adolescents out to intentionally murder civilians and then brag about it on the BBC. The world would explode with condemnation, and it would be morally wrong. Not only would the world explode with condemnation, but also it is simply morally wrong and the Israeli government realizes that targeting civilians is an inhumane method of expressing political frustration. But the terrorists we are currently combating have none of these seemingly burdensome considerations. Their military tactics include perpetuating the bloodiest battle they can with the maximum civilian deaths. They yield to the “cult of efficiency.” They do not have to stand up and justify their actions in front of the United Nations and are not bothered by obscure notions of justice or regard for life. Many fight in the name of religion, but, that again, is an unacceptable grounds for military action in our Western society. We suffer the costs of being morally cautious, and though we are by no means perfect in this aspiration, we are aware of it when we are not. We face internal and international criticism when we do make mistakes, which both forces us to reevaluate our position and serves to provide evidence of our general concern about doing what is right. We may not always be right but at least we know when we are wrong. My goal here is not to complain. We have nothing to complain about. Our task may be harder, may seem hopeless at times, and we may even appear to be losing, but these disparities are by no means permanent. Keeping morality on our side is never a bad thing in times when its advantages may be disguised. There is such thing as moral war. A war fought for a morally justifiable reason is done so with morally justifiable means. As Camus puts it to his friend, “We had two enemies, and a military victory was not enough for us, as it was for you who had nothing to overcome. It is a great deal to fight while despising war…to face destruction while still cherishing the idea of higher civilization. We have paid dearly, and we have not finished paying. But we have our certainties, our justifications, our justice; your defeat is inevitable.” Our regard for justice is our greatest asset and with it terrorism will fall, just as Nazi Germany did.