In our modern age, things no longer exist to perform their function. Washing machines aren’t designed to clean clothes, but to save water and energy. Food isn’t there to be eaten, but not eaten. And armies aren’t there to win wars, but to be moral. And the truly moral army never fights a war. When it must fight a war, then it fights it as proportionately as possible, slowing down when it’s winning so that the enemy has a chance to catch up and inflict a completely proportional number of casualties on them.
Forget charging up a hill. Armies charge up the slippery slope of the moral high ground and they don’t try to capture it from the enemy, because that would be the surest way to lose the moral high ground, instead they claim the moral high ground by refusing to try and capture it, to establish their moral claim to the moral high ground, which they can’t have because they refuse to fight for it.
Israel has been engaged in a long drawn out struggle for the moral high ground. The moral high ground is to the modern Israeli what the land of Israel was to their pioneer ancestors who drained swamps, built roads and shot bandits. Then some of the bandits were discovered to be the oppressed peoples of the region, fresh from Syria or Jordan, who then got busy retroactively protesting the settlements built on that stretch of swamp that had been set aside in their revisionist history as belonging to their great-grandparents while dangling oversized house keys to the swamp.
Sadly the only way to win the moral high ground is by losing. Just look at the massive Arab armies who repeatedly invaded Israel, did their best to overwhelm it with the best Soviet iron that the frozen factories of the Ural could turn out, and lost the bid to drive the Jews into the sea, but won the moral high ground. Then their terrorist catspaws spent decades winning the moral high ground by hijacking airplanes full of civilians, murdering Olympic athletes and pushing old men in wheelchairs from the decks of cruise ships.
All these killing sprees accomplished absolutely nothing useful, aside from the killing of Jews, which to a certain sort of mind is a useful thing in and of itself, but that failure won the terrorist catspaws the moral high ground. Their failure to win a war by hijacking buses full of women and taking the children of a school hostage conclusively established their moral superiority and nobility of spirit.
The world was deeply moved when Arafat waddled up to the UN podium, with his gun, wearing a mismatched cotton rag on his head that would decades hence become the modish apparel of every third hipster standing in line with a can of 20 dollar fair trade Lima beans at Whole Foods, because his commitment to killing people in a failed cause that even he didn’t believe in, in exchange for money from his backers in the Muslim world showed his deep commitment to the moral high ground.
In the seventies, after Israel had won a few too many wars, Henry “Woodcutter” Kissinger, suggested that it lose a war to gain the sympathy of the world. Golda wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea, but with the old woodcutter in charge of handing out the axes, there wasn’t much choice about it. Israel came close to being destroyed in ’73, but just when it might have won the sympathy of the world, its armies of young men dashing from synagogues into overcrowded taxis to get to the front lines, turned the tide. Israel won. The woodcutter of Washington lost and Israeli scrapyards filled up with piles of Soviet steel, which was good news for the big sweaty guys who ran them, but bad news for those pining for the lofty fjords of the moral high ground.
In ’91 the Israelis went nuclear and decided to beat Arafat at his own game. Rabin and Peres talked the old terrorist out of retirement and down to Washington D.C. where they surrendered to him in an official ceremony at the Rose Garden overseen by a beaming Bill Clinton. Finally Israel had won the moral high ground. And the United States had carved off a chunk of that delicious moral high ground, even though Clinton was forced to fidget in his chair at Oslo when his Nobel Peace Prize went to the greasy terrorist, though perhaps he should have considered that defeat to be another victory of the moral high ground.
But the moral high ground proved notoriously elusive for the Jewish State. There was a brief lull when it seemed that the original sin of kicking ass had been atoned for in the Rose Garden, but then the terrorists started killing Israelis again and the Israelis insisted on fighting back. In no time at all the moral high ground was roped off with a special reserved section for terrorists and a sign reading, “No Israelis Will Be Admitted Unless They Renounce Their Government, Zionism and the Right of Self-Defense.”
Peace was the last best hope of the new Israeli Hatikvah, not to be a free people in their own land, but to be a moral people in a land that didn’t really belong to anyone in particular, but that they were optimistic everyone could live in harmony in.
But peace with terrorists meant not fighting back and there was a limit to what the 70 percent of the country that didn’t go to sleep fantasizing about peace would accept in the name of peace.
And so, terrorists killed Israelis, Israelis killed terrorists, that part of the world located in an ugly modernist building overlooking Turtle Bay, which the turtles would like to have back, condemned Israel and demanded that it resolve things peacefully by surrendering more land to the terrorists in order to build up their confidence in Israel’s commitment to a peaceful solution.
The terrorists were not expected to reciprocate and build up Israel’s confidence in their commitment to a peaceful solution because they already had the moral high ground by way of losing the last thirty engagements with the IDF, including the battle of the school they set up snipers in, the church they took over and the hospital that they used as an ammo dump.
The great quandary for Israeli leaders is how to win a war without losing the moral high ground. This is a tricky matter because it requires winning the war and winning the peace. And you can’t do both at the same time.
Israel’s solution has been to fight limited wars while remaining absolutely committed to peace. No sooner does a war begin, then it is pressed to accept a ceasefire. To show its commitment to peace, Israel is expected to accept the ceasefire. At which point Hamas will begin shooting rockets again and the whole dance will begin all over again. But Israel has trouble refusing a ceasefire because its leaders still believe that they can get at the moral high ground by showing that they are more committed to peace than the other side.
The peace is however unwinnable. It’s not even survivable in the long term. Peace either exists as a given condition or it is maintained by strong armies and ready deterrence. Peace cannot be found on the moral high ground, only the mountains of the graves of the dead.
Seeking the moral high ground is a fool’s quest. Wars cannot be fought without hurting someone and trumpeting your morality makes it all too easy for your enemies to charge you with hypocrisy. The man who spends the most time vociferously protesting that he isn’t a thief, that he has never touched a penny that belonged to anyone else and that he will swear on a floor-to-ceiling stack of bibles to that effect, looks far guiltier than the man who scowls and tells his accusers to mind their own business. The more Israel defends its own morality, the more it winds the chains of the accusers around its own neck.
Refining its warfighting with the object of fighting a truly moral war leads to refined techniques that kill terrorists but still cause some collateral damage, and to soldiers that are more afraid of shooting than of being shot at. And all this painstaking effort goes for naught since it really makes very little difference to Israel’s enemies whether they have one photo of a dead Muslim civilian to brandish or a thousand. Either one makes for the same manner of indictment. In aiming to win the peace, Israel instead, like all modern states, loses the war.
The father of an Israeli soldier told his son after he was called up for duty that he would rather visit him in prison than visit him in the cemetery. “If you are fired on, fire back.” That is good advice not just for that young man, but for his entire country, and for the civilized world. It is better to fire than be fired upon. It is better to be thought a criminal, than mourned in Holocaust museums. It is better to leave the moral high ground to those who worship the romance of endless bloodshed and defeat. It is better to lose the peace and win the war.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish.