Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Reviews

America’s Shame

Tim Weiner. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Anchor Books, 2008.

This is both an illuminating and frustrating book. Tim Weiner is a long-time reporter for the New York Times whose beat has been the American intelligence community. This book won numerous rewards, is engagingly written, and draws on a remarkable selection of sources—including direct interviews with many involved in intelligence work and wide-ranging examination of archival materials.

Weiner probably is uniquely qualified to write this book. To his credit, he names names, cites his sources, lays the materials openly on the table. I think we should, to a large extend at least, believe the tales he tells. And hair-raising tales they are. Weiner shows us that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Central Intelligence Agency has from its beginning in the aftermath of World War II been a force for incredible evil in the world.

At the same time as we learn of the CIA’s mostly uninhibited zeal for murder and mayhem, generally in the context of the denial of self-determination for innumerable peoples around the world, we also learn of the extraordinary failures of the Agency. Most notably, the CIA utterly failed to gain understanding of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. In the first couple of decades, the CIA left the American government pretty much completely in the dark concerning Soviet activities and intentions. It’s amazing and extremely distressing to realize that the entire first generation of American cold warriors, who shaped our nation in tragic ways toward domination by militarism, beat the drums of warning against the Soviet threat with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of what was actually going on with the Soviets. It truly boggles the mind.

Then, at the end of the Cold War, with the CIA continuing to feed its political masters the analyses that were desired to sustain the Cold War that had become so profitable for the American Military-Industrial Complex, our “intelligence” service complete missed the signs of the impending collapse of the Soviet system. Continue reading

Learning from the 1940 Debate about War?

Joseph Loconte, ed. The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm. Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

“Even though you meant it for evil, God intended it for good.” These words, a paraphrase of Joseph’s finals words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, came to mind as I read this book that Joseph Loconte, a scholar on the staff of the Heritage Foundation, put together. Loconte meant for this book to serve the rhetorical campaign American militarists are waging to garner and sustain support for the “war on terrorism.” Though these purposes are highly problematic, the book (excepting Loconte’s introduction) is actually fascinating and important—though not for the purposes indended.

Loconte has gathered an extensive collection of writings from prominent American Protestant leaders (plus one Jewish writer) who engaged in a passionate debate in 1939-41 about the role the United States should play in relation to the war being waged in Europe between the Nazis and British. The first half of the book includes pieces from those who opposed military intervention, generally on pacifist grounds; the second half gathers materials from those who supported taking sides with the British and offering material aid for the Allied cause (though, since the materials all were published before Pearl Harbor in December 1941, even these latter writings do not overtly advocate American direct military engagement).

So, we have an important resource here that sheds light on Christian perspectives during what was a momentous time in American history. Despite his present day agenda, to Loconte’s great credit the introductions to the various writings are models of objective description that do a nice job of putting the articles in historical perspective.

Continue reading

A Surprising Critique of World War II

Patrick J. Buchanan. Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World. Crown Publishers, 2008.

This is a surprising book, at least to me. I’ve not read much of Pat Buchanan’s stuff. I know him mainly by reputation—a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, self-labeled paleo-conservative, critic of empire, quasi-isolationist, third party presidential candidate in 2000 whose candidacy would have cost George Bush the election had the votes in Florida been accurately counted. And, now, a sharp critic of America and British involvement in World War II.

Buchanan surely is not a pacifist, but there is little here that wouldn’t give the reader the impression that he leans in that direction. He does not come across as a Nazi sympathizer. He greatly dislikes Winston Churchill (with good reason) and Joseph Stalin (also with good reason). One does sense a somewhat extreme hatred of Soviet communism, but this antipathy does not come directly to the surface very often.

Buchanan is not a professional historian—a fact that probably works more in his favor than against him. It’s just that the reader must recognize that what this book gives us is a somewhat speculative essay on what didn’t have to be with numerous historical illustrations (not an exercise in careful archival research tested with professional historian peers). However, the strength of the book is the clarity of its argument which is not overly burdened with qualifications, or with careful delineation of minute arguments, or with “on the one hand/on the other hand” summaries. Certainly, Buchanan’s points need to be viewed cautiously and should stimulate further efforts on the interested reader’s part to test them against the evidence and other opinions. But that’s all to the good.

In a nutshell, Buchanan suggests that Great Britain should not have gone to war against Nazi Germany—which would have meant that the United States would not have gone to war with Germany either. If this had happened (or, rather, not happened), Germany and the Soviets would basically have ground each other to dust, the British Empire would not have disintegrated so quickly, and—probably most important for Buchanan’s purposes—the United States would not have succumbed to the hubris of striving to be the world’s one superpower and followed its current path to self-destruction.

Buchanan’s agenda is surely different than mine. As a Christian pacifist, I am pretty suspicious of Buchanan’s style of American-first patriotism. However, I am willing to walk quite a ways down the path he articulates in this book outlining the hugely problematic dynamics of the American and British participation in World War II and the disastrous consequences (for American democracy and the well-being of millions of victims of American imperialism in the past 65 years) of the aftermath of that war.

So, I am grateful to Buchanan for this stimulating and mostly well-written book. I recommend it, only now I have to figure out if I dare cite it when I try to articulate some of my critical views about World War II and its consequences.

Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Here’s a list of books I have recently reviewed, linked to the reviews.

Harry S. Stout. Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (May 3, 2010)

Theron F. Schlabach. War, Peace, and Social Conscience: Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics (March 15, 2010)

Joseph Kip Kosek. Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (March 8, 2010)

Jeffrey Kovac, Refusing War, Affirming Peace

Jeffrey Kovac. Refusing War, Affirming Peace: A History of Civilian Public Service Camp #21 at Cascade Locks. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2009. Pp. 192.

During World War II, about 12,000 young men, in face of the military draft, availed themselves of the option to serve their country with “work of national importance” in non-military settings.

Part of the U.S. government’s purpose with what was known as the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program was to keep these conscientious objectors (COs) out of the public eye.  The government largely succeeded—and in the years since the history of this program has not received much attention.  Now that participants in the CPS program are passing from the scene, the living memory of the witness of World War II COs is fading fast.

However, those events had (and continue to have) importance beyond the small number of lives directly affected by them.  So, this book by Jeffrey Kovac, the first in-depth study to focus on just one particular CPS camp, deserves our attention and appreciation.  Kovac, an ethicist of science at the University of Tennessee, has a personal interest in this topic due to his own pacifist convictions and the role his CO father-in-law, Charles Davis, played in the story.  His research is thorough, and he tells the tale in a clear, straightforward manner.

The camp whose story Kovac tells was operated by the Church of the Brethren and located east of Portland, Oregon, in the Columbia gorge near the small town of Cascade Locks.  The main work that campers in this camp (“Camp No. 21”) performed was forestry work in the mountains south of Cascade Locks.

Kovac’s choice of this particular camp was a sound one.  This camp endured for the entirety of the war and ended up being the scene for more than its share of drama. A key step early on that greatly contributed to the success of the camp was the choice of Brethren pastor Mark Schrock as the camp director.  Kovac portrays Schrock as a crucial player in providing wise guidance for camp operations.

Kovac tells of several of the key events in the five-year history of the camp that gained outside attention.  The most famous CPSer was the actor Lew Ayres—who for the first several months of the War was stationed at Camp No. 21.  In facing the draft, Ayres had sought to serve as a non-combatant in the medical corps.  The military would not guarantee such a position, so Ayres then successfully sought CO status and joined CPS.  However, the publicity his situation gained helped persuade the government to change their policies.  When Ayres was guaranteed a position in the medical corps, he left CPS and served as a non-combatant in the military.  He remained close friends with Mark Schrock and always spoke favorably of his experience at Cascade Locks.

Camp No. 21 next made the news when a CPSer of Japanese extraction, George Yamada, was ordered to leave CPS and enter one of the concentration camps that had been established to imprison Japanese-Americans.  Yamada, with strong support from his fellow campers, refused these orders.  This actually turned out to be one of few direct acts of resistance to the relocation efforts, and ended somewhat successfully as Yamada was permitted to stay in CPS when he accepted transfer to a CPS camp away from the West Coast.

This controversy pitted Camp No. 21, including director Schrock, against the Selective Service—and exposed the ambiguous nature of the arrangement wherein the Peace Churches acted as agents of the warring government.

A third notable story that Kovac tells is of a confrontation between campers and the U.S. Forest Service when campers discerned that one of the projects the Forest Service was asking them to participate in would too directly contribute to the war effort.  The campers stood strong and ended up being excused from the project.

Kovac also tells of an ambitious, and only partly realized, effort at education for campers, called the “School of Pacifist Living.” When the program began, Brethren leader, Dan West, agreed to help it start.  While the school did cover some important ground, it was difficult to sustain.  Participants were asked to invest at least eight hours a week to intense discussion plus significant time in study on top of their 51-hour workweek.  West had to leave after the first segment of the school, and in time the program petered out.

Kovac, along with covering these various high points, also gives the reader a good sense of the challenges facing the program.  Probably the most difficult challenge stemmed simply from the interminable nature of the service.  CPSers were required to stay in CPS for the “duration of the war.”  In time, most of them sought other assignments, especially more challenging and exotic possibilities such as working in mental hospitals and fighting forest fires. Towards the end of the War, director Schrock left to return to his home and the last year or so of the life of Camp No. 21 drug by, ending more with a whimper than a bang.

Refusing War, Affirming Peace is an interesting and important book.  This close-grained look at the experience of World War II COs comes at an important time for present-day pacifists.  As we lose the living connection with those who witnessed to the ways of peace, Kovac has given us a perceptive reminder of their motivations and experiences.

It is mostly an asset that the book focuses directly on the story of Camp No. 21.  We do have a few other books that give us the broader picture of the CPS story—though most of these are long out of print and hard to find (the most thorough treatment is Mulford Q. Sibly and Philip E. Jacob, Conscription of Conscience [Cornell University Press, 1952]).  We have nothing else quite like Kovac’s treatment; it would be great if this book could stimulate some other similar studies.

I did wish for a bit more information in a few cases.  Several times Kovac gives us some tidbits about the future of some of the Camp No. 21 members (e.g., George Brown, who went on to serve 18 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives).  However, after learning a great deal about camp director Mark Schrock’s background and effective time of service at Camp No. 21, we don’t learn about his post-CPS life.

We also don’t learn much about the actual forestry work the CPSers did as part of their service.  Certainly, many (most?) campers found this work to be less than fully engaging and fulfilling, especially in comparison with their social transformative ideals.  Nonetheless, they spent most of their time and energy out in the woods performing “work of national importance.”  It would have been nice to learn a bit more about this work and what the CPSers did accomplish (or not) with it.

Jeffrey Kovac deserves our gratitude for completing this fascinating book, obviously a labor of love.  We now have an accessible portrait of one particular example of life in service of vital and costly ideals.  May it be widely read and serve as a stimulus for better understanding and applying those ideals.

Peace theology book review index (by book author)

Book review index (by date posted)

Lawrence Miller. Witness for Humanity: A Biography of Clarence Pickett

Lawrence McK. Miller. Witness for Humanity: The Biography of Clarence E. Pickett. Pendle Hill Publications, 1999.

Clarence Pickett, who died in 1964, was a giant among the great humanitarians of the 20th century.  For many years, Pickett served as the executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). He oversaw the AFSC’s wide-ranging efforts to meet human needs and witness for peace in some of the most turbulent and violent years of recent human history.

Pickett and the AFSC received the ultimate accolade when the AFSC was awared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, most especially for their work in saving millions of lives of post-World War II displaced persons.

This biography by Lawrence Miller, himself a longtime worker with the AFSC and other Quaker organizations, gives a comprehensive portrayal of the life of a man who helps us see just how important able and visionary administrators are for the concetizing of high ideals.  He tells of Pickett’s lifelong profound commitment to the Quaker expression of Christian faith and commitment to minister to human needs and to witness for peace in a warring world.

Clarence Pickett, once he was able to leave his parents’ Kansas farm and attend college, moved on a fast track toward leadership. He served as a pastor in Friends’ congregations and spent time as a Bible professor at Earlham College. In 1929, when he was in his mid-40s, Pickett was chosen to head the AFSC. He stayed in that position until his retirement in 1950.

Several of the dramatic events recounted by Miller include Pickett’s involvement with Depression-era miners and mill workers, Pickett’s rather amazing and fruitful friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and the desperate and prescient work of Pickett and other Quaker leaders to raise awareness of and bring aid to besieged Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.

This is an inspiring story—in a century of total war and rapacious ec0nomic forces, to see such a powerful witness for peace and human solidarity. Pickett’s story also fascinates in its combination of idealism and pragmatism.

Unfortunately, though this book was published ten years ago, it received little attention and is very difficult to find. Miller notes in the preface that he had a hard time finding a publisher, finally settling for the Quaker-run Pendle Hill, a publisher mostly of excellent pamphlets on peace and various other important themes, but with minimal distribution capabilities.

One reason for lack of interest on the part of publishers is probably the sense that Clarence Pickett is by now too obscure a figure to warrant the investment in a new biography. It also doesn’t help that the book is not written in a particularly engaging fashion. It doesn’t have much narrative force, ending up mainly as simply a cataloguing of one event in Pickett’s life following another.

However, Miller does tell an important story.  Since we are not likely to get another biography of Pickett, we may be thankful that we do have this record.  The writing may not be particularly dynamic, but the record is here—and the account Miller gives gets the point across. This book is recommended for all who would seek to understand more about important counter-currents to the 20th century’s tragic embrace of the myth of redemptive violence.

Peace theology book review index

Craig Carter, The Politics of the Cross

Craig Carter. The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder. Brazos Press, 2001.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud

I think The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder (Brazos Press, 2001) is quite a good book.  Craig Carter reads Yoder sympathetically and appreciatively.  As a big Yoder fan, I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to someone who wants better to understand Yoder.  Maybe most importantly, Carter’s book furthers the cause of the gospel of peace.  For that I am grateful.

However, I have to admit that some of what got my blood pumping the most in the book were points where I would want to challenge Carter’s argument.  I will discuss a few of those points here.

(1) It was courageous of Carter, as an “outsider” to write chapter one, “Yoder and the Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision,” where he tries to situate Yoder in the context of twentieth-century Mennonite thought.  This is a very important and necessary task, though.  Yoder’s Mennonite context must be taken seriously if his thought is to be understood—and not enough attention is paid to this context by most Yoder interpreters.

I agree that this topic should be the first chapter, but, even though he has worked hard at understanding Mennonite theology, Carter’s treatment is problematic for at least two reasons that I see.  I could nit-pick his threefold typology on page 48 (“Mennonite revisionists,” “peace witness advocates,” and “classically orthodox Mennonites”)—and, in fact, I do not think it’s particularly helpful.

However, more importantly, I would say (a) Carter does not ultimately take Yoder’s Mennonite context seriously enough.  I think his attempt to link Yoder with Barth is wrong-headed (more about that below), as his focus on “classical, creedal Christology” (more about this below as well).  One consequence of these two linkages is to minimize the fact that Yoder was from start to finish a Mennonite theologian.

And, I would say (b) Carter ignores Yoder’s most important Mennonite links.  Much more than Barth, to understand Yoder one should read his Mennonite teacher Guy Hershberger (especially War, Peace, and Nonresistance and The Way of the Cross in Human Relations).  I think Yoder’s two most important Mennonite students are J. Denny Weaver and Duane Friesen.  Carter ignores Friesen and barely mentions Weaver—but these are the thinkers (much more than Stanley Hauerwas) who have applied Yoder’s thinking the best.  Carter also fails to consider an almost exact contemporary of Yoder’s, Mennonite theologian C. Norman Kraus, whose extensive writings very much parallel Yoder’s.  Especially in relation to issues of christology and Yoder’s relation to classical christology, Kraus’s work provides some crucial sense of perspective.  Another important contemporary of Yoder’s who helps illustrate my point here, also ignored by Carter, is Dave Schroeder of Canadian Mennonite Bible College.

Attention to these Mennonite thinkers, none of whom was particularly influenced by Barth at all, would have made clear that in virtually every aspect of Yoder’s thought, he was not reflecting a perspective originating in Barth’s theology, but a perspective coming directly out of the Mennonite tradition.  I point this out not due to my “Mennonite pride” (which is, popular mythology notwithstanding, not an oxymoron!), but because I think the full radicalness of Yoder’s program will not be appreciated if his roots are not given full credence.

Yoder challenges mainstream theology and ethics not as a kind of mutant individual who brought unique insights to bear on key issues, but as a particularly articulate and prominent member of a community of thought, of which thinkers such as Hershberger, Kraus, Weaver, Friesen, and Schroeder are also important members.  I am sorry that Carter distorts this reality.

(2) Carter himself has drunk deeply from the Waters of Barth and then he turned to Yoder and was struck with the common themes.  Plus, he learned that Yoder studied at Basel and seemed to have some personal connections with Barth.  I am not unsympathetic with Carter’s claims about Barth’s importance to the world, though I remain to be convinced.  Even as evinced with Carter’s discussion of Barth in this book, though, I find Barth’s ethical thrust simply to be too abstract and vague to be that important for peace theology.

I was struck throughout chapter two (“Yoder and the Theology of Karl Barth”), point by every single point, that all Carter was accomplishing was to show that Yoder and Barth had some parallel perspectives.  The Yoder corpus is impressive in how little direct evidence there is of Barth’s influence as a shaper of Yoder’s thought.  Carter milks the few times Yoder refers to Barth, but even those occasions are evidence more of Yoder using Barth to help illustrate a point Yoder has arrived at from non-Barthian sources.

For an audience that has Barth on a pedestal, it may increase people’s openness to Yoder’s work to argue for a close connection.  For other audiences, this connection would provide a further basis for dismissing Yoder.  As I will argue below, to label Yoder’s work as “Christocentric” in a Barthian sense would be a pretty effective way of deflecting the true radicality of Yoder’s theology.

I will cite one sentence from Carter’s book that I think helps make my point. He writes that like Yoder, “Barth also interprets the whole Bible from its center, which is for him Jesus Christ, that is the salvific work of God in Jesus Christ as broadly conceived by classical orthodoxy” (page 65).  Assuming this is an accurate portrayal of Barth’s position, this actually emphasizes his difference with Yoder.  One of Yoder’s main concerns was to challenge the doctrinal focus on Christ as Savior, seeing as central instead Jesus as Model.  What matters for Yoder is the way of life Jesus followed, not orthodoxy’s “saving work of Christ.”  That is why Yoder’s theological ethics are so extraordinarily concrete and specific, in contrast with the vagueness and abstractness of Barth.  An interesting contrast can be seen in comparing Barth’s published sermons (e.g., Liberty to the Captives) with Yoder’s published “Bible lectures” (He Came Preaching Peace).  I love Barth’s sermons, but if you’ve read one you’ve pretty much got his message down—and it is pretty ethically vague.

Carter writes on page 79 that “Yoder’s identification of doctrine and ethics as two sides of the same coin is simply the implementation of Barth’s method.”  This statement amazed me.  Denny Weaver’s Keeping Salvation Ethical has shown how deeply embedded this identification was even in late-19th Mennonite theology.  I think most interpreters would say that the central theological distinctive of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement was its linking of theology and ethics.  I would need to be convinced that Barth did indeed link these two as closely as Carter claims, but even if he did all that would explain is why Yoder might have been drawn to Barth.  To imply that Yoder got this linking from Barth is a case of the problem of not taking Yoder’s Mennonite roots seriously enough.

(3) Carter’s argument that “Yoder’s radical social ethic is derived from a classically orthodox Christianity” (blurb on the book cover) is the element of his book that I would most want to challenge.  Carter writes on page 93, “Yoder’s approach to social ethics is rooted in the classical, orthodox Christology that the ecumenical creeds affirm as the meaning of the Scriptures.”  I believe that this statement is exactly backwards from what it should be.

To the extent that Yoder finds it useful rhetorically to express support for the creeds, he does so only insofar as they are subordinated to scripture.  Yoder does not present the creeds as the interpretive key to Scripture.  The interpretive key to scripture, for Jesus, is the way of life Jesus embodied.  The creeds are useful for Yoder primarily in that he tries to use them rhetorically to argue for the normativeness of Jesus’ way of life.  I learned from Yoder in his class, “Christology and Theological Method” (Spring 1981—this may have been the last time he taught this class at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary), to be suspicious of the creeds (though not to reject them or think of them as wrong) insofar as they tend to express a perspective on faith that increasingly distances the way of Jesus in their making abstract doctrine more and more central.

The issue for Yoder, as I understand it, is not, as Carter presents it, the centrality of “incarnation” as a doctrine about Christ the Savior, but rather the way of life that led to the conclusion that in this man God was present.  That is, the focus for Yoder is on Jesus’ way, not on doctrines about Jesus.

I believe that Carter misses the way Yoder uses his affirmations of orthodox Christology.  Mention of the creeds is rhetorical move by Yoder to make his point that Jesus’ way is True, the most authentic expression of God among human beings.  But the priority is on this way of life, not on the creeds as “ontologically true.”  In this sense, I actually think Mennonite theologian Jim Reimer reads Yoder more accurately (see pages 115ff. in Carter’s book) in seeing Yoder as not really meaning that the “gospel is ontologically true”—though, unlike Reimer, I happen to believe that Yoder was right in this view.

Near the end of chapter 4 (page 133), Carter admits that for Yoder “the authority of the creeds can never supersede the authority of the biblical texts themselves….However, to subordinate the authority of the creeds to that of Scripture is not necessarily to think the creeds are wrong.”  I think this is about right—but seems to me to be much different than earlier claims Carter has made: “protecting, declaring, and unpacking the claims classical Christology is what Yoder is about” (page 17); “Yoder…shows how…Christological orthodoxy…contains the key to the survival and flourishing of the church’s witness to Jesus Christ” (page 23); “peace [is] at the heart of the biblical gospel as it is enshrined in the creeds” (page 49); “Yoder’s approach to social ethics is rooted in the classical, orthodox Christology that the ecumenical creeds affirm as the meaning of the Scriptures” (page 93).

I think here is where Carter’s attempt to see Yoder as a Barthian/Mennonite rather simply as a Mennonite has led him to distort Yoder’s theology.  It is too bad Carter was not more attentive to thinkers such as Denny Weaver and Norman Kraus who, drinking from the same Mennonite waters as Yoder, have done significant work in trying to articulate a christology that places the priority on the way of Jesus as presented in the Gospels over the doctrinal, salvation-oriented christology of the creeds.  I actually also think that Gordon Kaufman could be helpful here as well—not as an influence on Yoder but as an independent expression of a Mennonite-rooted christology.

(4) Finally, I found chapters six through eight to be terrific, especially chapter six (“The Heresy of Constantianism”).  I think, though, the effectiveness of these three chapters actually supports my criticisms above. In these chapters were have pretty much “straight Yoder” without Carter trying to fit Yoder’s thought into the boxes of Barthianism and classical orthodoxy.

[This review was originally posted on the John Howard Yoder listserve in Fall, 2001. For a response from Craig Carter and extended dialogue from Fall, 2001, go here.] book review index

Book Review: A moral critique of World War II

Michael Bess. Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II. Knopf, 2006.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud

An extraordinarily strong cultural assumption most Americans hold—to a large extent across the political spectrum—is that World War II stands as one of the highest moral achievements in our entire history.  It’s obvious that the patriotic Right affirms the “goodness” of the War, but strong similar feelings are held by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, too (witness, for example, Leftist pundit Katha Pollitt’s scathing response to Nicholson Baker’s attempt to question the “goodness” of the War in his book, Human Smoke, in The Nation [April 21, 2008]).

One of the main virtues of Michael Bess’s Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II, is how Bess, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, complexifies the easy assumption that World War II was mostly a morally unambiguous success story for American virtue.

While Bess pays respectful attention to pacifists who question the validity of all wars (see especially his highly sympathetic treatment of French pacifist pastor André Trocmé’s work to save Jews during the war years in chapter six), he is no pacifist himself.  He even states that, of course, we have no reason to question whether this was ultimately a necessary and just war.  And in the end, in fact, he treats even the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima, Japan, as a morally justifiable (if barely) act (he’s less positive about the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki).

However, the ultimate justifiability of the war does not release its participants nor those now seeking to take account of what happened from moral analysis.  Bess works hard, and mostly with admirable success, at offering an objective moral analysis that scrutinizes “our side” as much as “their side.”  So he criticizes the bombing of civilian populations by the Allies as a case of “moral slippage.”  And in one of his more important, though frustratingly brief, chapters he examines the “moral awkwardness” of the Allies’ alliance with Stalin and totalitarian Soviet Russia.  He also critically discusses the “victors’ justice” of the post-war war crimes’ trials.

I found the positive impression Bess’s careful analyses made on me lessening as the book continues, however.  The first half of the book, showing the dynamics of racism shaping all sides of the conflict, the policies of the victorious World War I nations that surely played a major role in making Germany “safe for the Nazis,” American imperialism in the Far East, and the morally problematic war tactics the “good guys” used, indeed effectively challenges American mythology about the “goodness” of the “Good War.”

However, right in the middle of the book, Bess offers a curious chapter on the Battle of Midway that turns out simply to be a celebration of the bold American tactics that turned a likely defeat into a war-changing victory.  Admirable and interesting as those tactics and their execution may be, it was unclear what the role of this particular story played in relation to Bess’s overall argument in the book—and Bess’s account here adds a note of triumphalism that actually seems to diminish the overall objective tone of the book.

It was with his thorough and thoughtful account of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan that Bess challenges my thinking the most.  He raises important questions and makes a strong case for the complexity of the American decision to introduce the world to this most devastating of weapons.  However, since he doesn’t convince me that this decision was not an unqualified moral disaster for this country, I ended up finishing this part of the book with a bad taste in my mouth.  Any moral account of the War that leaves the door as open as Bess’s does to the moral legitimacy of nuclear weapons fails its most important test.

Bess, at the end of the day, seems to treat morality as a series of quandaries without any overarching anchor points.  With his assumption that, of course, this was a necessary and just war, he ends up mostly making the case for the inevitability of “dirty hands.”  He does give the reader a lot to appreciate in his treatment of the various elements of World War II—his rigor in raising moral questions marks this as a highly unusual work.  And this distinctiveness is certainly commendable, even if in many ways I am left with the feeling that the fact that I am as impressed as I am with this book mostly reflects the utter failure of other historians and ethicists in our country to use stable moral criteria in their evaluation of the War.

Ultimately, though, Bess gives us only a little help in our struggle to counter the American version of the myth of redemptive violence that uses World War II as one of its paradigmatic cases of how violence does indeed defeat evil and make good win out.  If indeed, as Bess helps us see at a number of places, the actual war that was fought from 1939 to 1945 did violate fundamental moral principles, perhaps we should allow those violations to push us to ask even more fundamental moral questions about World War II than Bess seems willing to ask.

Maybe the War was actually a moral failure—and as such more serves as a cautionary tale.  Is it possible that even when there is a “good cause,” even when democratic and “Christian” nations take up the sword in “justifiable” resistance to tyranny, even then war corrupts absolutely?

Peace theology book review index