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(Mis)Reading Niebuhr’s Ethics of War

Kevin Carnahan authors the second post in our Niebuhr symposium with a provocative essay on the 1943 article, “The Bombing of Germany.” Carnahan digs into the article’s context to argue for a new reading of Niebuhr on war and so much more.

The symposium is co-hosted by the Niebuhr Society and is occasioned by the Library of America’s recent publication of Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Elisabeth Sifton. The symposium or reading group is envisioned less as an exhaustive review of the volume than a collective exploration of its usefulness for introducing students to Niebuhr and for thinking in conversation with Niebuhr about political theology. Posts will appear on Wednesdays. Previous posts can be found here. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact Executive Editor, Dave True at dbtrue@gmail.com. Next week’s post will consider Niebuhr’s “Optimism, Pessimism and Religious Faith”—both I and II. 

(Mis)Reading Niebuhr’s Ethics of War

Perhaps more than any other subject, Reinhold Niebuhr’s work on war has led to his being lionized in some corners and vilified in others. In light of the public nature of his writings on the topic it is interesting to note that Niebuhr’s works on war have been so often misread, both in terms of understanding his aims and in terms of understanding his position on events of his day. It is frequent enough, for instance, that one will hear the false claims that Niebuhr supported the Vietnam War, that he failed to criticize the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, or more broadly that he was uncritical of America during the cold war. These misreadings are unfortunate inasmuch as they feed into a popular but unfair caricature of Niebuhr that has been deployed by those that oppose Niebuhr’s justification of the limited use of force, or who would write Niebuhr off as an insufficiently subtle theological and moral thinker.

Elizabeth Sifton’s Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Politics and Religion has done a significant service in gathering together many of the pieces of Niebuhr’s work. But it does not provide much in the way of historical/cultural or theoretical context for the particular readings. Those wishing to provide an adequate account of what Niebuhr was doing in these works will thus need to dig into the context themselves in order to avoid misreading Niebuhr.

Niebuhr’s 1943 article “The Bombing of Germany” offers a useful example. Scott Erwin in his recent book on Niebuhr, cites the article in support of the claim that Niebuhr “sanctioned degrading acts throughout the war, such as the firebombing of the German towns of Dresden and Hamburg that killed an estimated 100,000 civilians.” (85)

Such a claim fits with the popular reading of Niebuhr as a consequentialist ethicist, or even less generously as an uncritical nationalist, or an amoral political realist. This reading of Niebuhr became possible in the context of just-war debate that debate as it developed after the World War.

In July of 1944, John C. Ford’s influential article “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing” was published. In that article, Ford waded into the messy reality of the World War to draw deontic distinctions between properly targeted precision bombing and obliteration or area bombing. In 1961 Paul Ramsey’s War and the Christian Conscience drew upon Ford’s analysis and placed it in the context of an ongoing battle between reductive consequentialist rationality and more robust deontological thought in Christian ethics. For Ramsey, the root of the problem for Christian ethics was a theology that turned the atonement into an excuse for antinomianism. Emphasizing that all fall short of the glory of God, the theologian could too easily jettison distinctions between right and wrong and accept the doing of evil if it produced good conclusions.

Against this backdrop, from the perspective of the 1960s on, “The Bombing of Germany” could be read almost as a paradigmatic case of failure in moral scholarship. Niebuhr focuses unrelentingly on the moral ambiguity of war, refusing to offer clean distinctions between right and wrong. He reminds of the guilt accrued by participants in war, and yet tells us that it would be naïve to try to avoid such guilt entirely. He even suggests that the soldiers making bombing runs ought to be told to take communion beforehand, inasmuch as the sacrament “mediates the mercy of God not only to those who repent of the sins they have done perversely but also to those who repent of the sins in which they are involved inexorably by reason of their service to a ‘just cause.’” All of this to defend a position which allows “the bombing of cities.”

Thus, one can see how one might ascribe to Niebuhr an inadequate moral position in the article. But this reading of Niebuhr takes Niebuhr’s work out of context in several senses.

First, it takes him out of historical context in the midst of the World War. While Erwin is right that the firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden were clear violations of just war standards, Niebuhr could not have been addressing those cases in “The Bombing of Germany.” The article was published in the summer of 1943 and reflected upon Niebuhr’s experience during his visit to England from May to June of that year. The bombing of Hamburg took place on July 27th, likely after Niebuhr had penned his article. The bombing of Dresden didn’t occur until February 1945. In fact, Niebuhr is specific at the beginning of the article that he is writing about the “bombing of the great industrial region of the Ruhr valley” —a series of operations around 200 miles away from Hamburg.

Further, even though there was area bombing going on before the bombing of Hamburg, historical context again suggests that Niebuhr would not have been thinking of area bombing at the time that he wrote “The Bombing of Germany.” While the British had adopted a strategy of area bombing as early as 1941, American forces did not participate in area bombing until 1944. Press outlets at the time did not distinguish between the two strategies, but rather tended to elide the sheer power of British attacks with the targeted nature of American bombing runs. For instance, on May 25th, when reporting on the fourth day of RAF bombing over Dortmund in the Ruhr Valley, The Times in London reported: “Quite early in the attack there was one particularly big fire in the western part of the city, and soon all the target areas were marked by flames and spirals of smoke.” Suggestions of targeted attacks were mixed with accounts of sheer devastation brought by the bombing campaign, but this is no surprise. For precision raids in 1943, 50% of bombs fell further than a thousand feet from their targets. It was not unusual for ordinance to fall a half-mile or more from targets. (See Lackey) So, when Niebuhr writes about “the bombing of cities” there is no reason to think that he is seeking to justify area bombing.

Indeed, when it became clear that area bombing was occurring, Niebuhr had a significantly different reaction. In April of 1944, still prior to Ford’s article, Niebuhr wrote “Is the Bombing Necessary,” in which he questioned the shift in American strategy to area bombing. In that article, he notes that the government has articulated no public justification for the shift, and he raises questions about whether obliteration bombing and the policy of demanding “unconditional surrender” are not actually lengthening the war.

Nor, I think, is it wise to read Niebuhr as a consistent consequentialist in matters of war. In the fall of 1945, after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Niebuhr wrote “The Atomic Bomb” in which he suggests that “we reached the level of Nazi morality in justifying the use of the bomb on the ground that it shortened the war” and explicitly states that “the bomb was merely the culmination of our own strategy of total war, involving the use of ever more powerful obliteration bombing and incendiarism.” By 1950, while considering the use of first nuclear strikes, he could state that “even a nation can reach the point where it can purchase its life too dearly. If we had to use this kind of destruction in order to save our lives, would we find life worth living?”

In pointing out that Niebuhr was not a consequentialist, I am not suggesting that Niebuhr was really a deontologist. Niebuhr resisted absolute moral distinctions and his concrete arguments most often do take a teleological form. Indeed even as he consistently offered criticisms of the use of obliteration bombing and nuclear weapons, he usually tempered these with reminders that ultimately we are not in control of history and we must respond to the necessities of the situation we are given.

What I am suggesting is that reading Niebuhr through the lens of the consequentialist/deontological debate will inevitably lead to missing the main thrust of what Niebuhr is doing. In my judgment, Niebuhr might best be read in the context of longer tradition in Christian moral theology: virtue ethics. This is because Niebuhr’s writing is profitably interpreted as an effort to understand the world in terms of the Christian narrative and tradition in a way that shapes the dispositions of moral actors.

“The Bombing of Germany” begins by focusing on the danger of gloating over the destructive success of allied bombings. In comparison, Niebuhr lauds those who are able to “feel and express sorrow” that such acts are necessary. Here, one can hear echoes of Augustine’s claim that “everyone who reflects with sorrow upon such grievous evils [of war], in all their horror and cruelty, must acknowledge the misery of them.” War, Augustine tells us, is properly met with “heartfelt grief.”

Part of what Niebuhr is after here, similar to Augustine, is to develop what Charles Mathewes has called a properly asecetical engagement with the world—a mode of inhabiting the world which both maintains the meaningfulness of activity in the world and fully appreciates the limits of what the world is and what can be done in and with it. Niebuhr’s enthusiasm for the ambiguities of war grow from the fact that he sees war as a revelation of the limitations which sinful humans can so often otherwise hide from themselves. War is certainly not to be desired, but it is a potential crucible for the refinement of virtue.

Having treated those who are too prideful in war, Niebuhr then turns to sentimental pacifists and offers a critique of their pridefulness in renouncing war. The pacifists, Niebuhr posits, believe that they can raise themselves above the imperfections of sinful history. But Niebuhr responds that such escape is not possible.

Every political effort is tainted by antecedent, concomitant, and consequent guilt. Every movement (1) “is partly guilty of the evil against which it contends,” (2) “involves itself in the evil of causing suffering to the innocent,” and (3) “will most certainly corrupt the virtue of its victory by egoistic and vindictive passions.” This reality is made evident in war, but it is no less true for pacifistic politics.

In suggesting that our moral being is fragile to the world around us, Niebuhr was reflecting a set of ideas as old as Aristotle and as new as the works on moral luck by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel. But again, Niebuhr’s primary goal here is areteological. Niebuhr is not advocating sinning boldly. He is reminding the reader of her or his own imperfection, and the imperfections of her or his movement, so as to enable a humble and self-critical participation in the world.

Finally, Niebuhr takes up the symbol of participation in communion to drive his vision home. While he commends the conscience of those who have refused the sacrament before going on bombing runs, he also wishes that they be reminded that the body of Christ does not itself withdraw from the imperfection of the world. While the ritual reminds us of the ultimate good of the coming kingdom, the meal is also to sustain us now. Even as the perfect Christ entered into the imperfect world ultimately to transform it, so the sacrament enters into our imperfect selves ultimately to transform us and our flawed actions and achievements.

Throughout the article, then, Niebuhr was not justifying immoral activities. Rather, he was providing a context for Christian discernment in a difficult time. Niebuhr’s task here is not the only task for moralists at a time of war. But in a country that tends to swing between isolationist pacifism and imperialist militarism, developing dispositions of humility, responsibility, and self criticalness that might allow us to bear the world in which we actually live seems a necessary project. And, I would suggest, it is a project that deserves to be continually revisited in every new generation.


Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University.  A former president of the Niebuhr Society, he is the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey (Lexington Books, 2010).”


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