I struggle to understand why the 14 November attacks on Paris continue to impact me so deeply. I have no relationship with the victims, nor with any French citizens at all. I live about a third of the way around the globe from Paris.
I’ve only visited the city once, in late summer 2008. I had completed an Army training course, and had a few weeks of leave to burn before reporting to my next duty assignment. I chose Paris because I wouldn’t need a visa, because I somehow found an inexpensive direct flight from Denver, and because I was at the apex of one of my recurring Hemingway binges. I was at Charles de Gaulle airport 96 hours after getting my leave approved by the Army.
I stayed in The City of Lights for two weeks, intent on keeping absolutely no agenda. I was coming off more than a year of indoctrination into an organization (in)famous for its insistence on a neurotic level of planning detail. I wanted to step out of a hostel in the morning, groggy and hungover, with neither a map nor a watch and wander miles through the city, eating and drinking and imagining until, exhausted, I begrudgingly navigated my way back. I faithfully kept to this (lack of) plan.
Wandering the city, my internal conscious narrative frequently returned to the morality of armed conflict. I had recently qualified as an armor officer of the US Army, and was quite aware that I’d likely be in combat in Afghanistan within the year. That experience was one I envied, and for which I’d fiercely competed. By this point in my life, I had already seen much of the world. I had lived and worked in often chaotic, even violent parts of the world. I grasped the extent of human affliction. I appreciated that, as an American, I had been fortunate to experience a childhood as distant from the “nasty, brutish, and short” state of nature that still described the daily experience of much of our species.
Waging war, I reasoned, is the most uncivilized effort that a civilization can undertake. It is the only instance in which modern nation-states intend to create widespread human suffering, to be architects of misery. We do so as a means of destroying our enemies’ ability and means to resist our imposition of political, economic, or social objectives. While often dishonest and hypocritical, the liberal democracies of the world have concluded that we may only wage war in order to defend the natural rights enjoyed by their citizens and, by extension, the political integrity of the nation-states that guarantee those rights. Clearly, our governments vary in how successful they are at actually “secur(ing) these rights.” I was well aware that my own nation – the one I’d recently agreed to kill for – had often failed to secure the natural rights of her own citizens.
In retrospect, I think I went to Paris because I wanted to see and hear and smell the city that I most associated with the practical advance of human dignity. While I was not naive regarding human persecution in French history, I felt that this city, more so than any other I could visit, could most credibly claim to have nurtured the ideas that spawned the greatest moral accomplishments of our species.
I feel many of my fellow Americans believe something similar. This is the reason, I believe, that the invasion of Normandy is perhaps the proudest, most storied accomplishment of the US Army: Because a war to liberate the world’s most civilized nation – the nation who has contributed most to the advance of human dignity – is, almost necessarily, the most just war we could fight.
It follows that a war to destroy such a nation is, almost necessarily, the most unjust possible. Such a war is exactly what Friday’s barbarians are fighting. They have made abundantly clear that guarantees of human dignity are unforgivable affronts to their god’s will. Held in isolation, an attack against such a stirring city and such an admirable nation distills a uniquely sharp blend of grief and anger. Hearing so many otherwise wise minds refuse to acknowledge the blindingly obvious root of this misery inspires nothing short of despair.