Friday, February 13, 2015

"Nie wieder Krieg!"

February 13 was a special day when I was growing up, for it was my mother’s birthday. I wrote about that last year at this time, for it was the 100th anniversary of her birth. She was born on Friday the 13th and this year the 13th (today) fell on Friday again.
Little did I know as a boy that February 13 was also the beginning of one of the great tragedies in modern history. It wasn’t a Friday, but February 13, 1945, was an incredibly “unlucky” day for the people of Dresden, Germany. The firebombing of Dresden began on that day 70 years ago.
That catastrophe has been called “the worst war crime of WWII,” even worse than the atomic devastation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. While that is a very questionable claim, there is no doubt that the bombing of Dresden was a terribly tragic event.
In the 1950s I learned at least something of the horrors of the bombings in Japan, long before I went to Japan to live and work—and to visit the sites of those bombings. But it was not until the early 1970s when I first became aware of the horrible devastation of Dresden.

My introduction to the bombing of Dresden came via the book “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut, who was actually a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time. He survived the firebombing by being held in Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse 5).
Vonnegut’s book is a satirical novel about the experiences of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who experienced, and survived, the firebombing of Dresden. But it is clearly semi-autobiographical, for Vonnegut was there as a 22-year-old U.S. army private who had been a POW since December 1944.
I was much impressed by Vonnegut’s book, in spite of (or because of?) all its eccentricities. Later when composing a list of my “top ten” novels, “Slaughterhouse-Five” made that list.
Last fall after reading it again, I made this notation: “Very much enjoyed reading this book again; it was as engaging as I had remembered from the first time & still on my top ten.” That is largely because in its own surreal way, Vonnegut’s masterful book carries a powerful anti-war message.
But Vonnegut’s work is a work of fiction and perhaps includes, and has led to, some exaggerations, both as regards the total number of causalities and the sinister motives behind the bombing.
Recent books, such as “Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945” (2004) by British historian Frederick Taylor, give more historically accurate information.
In the concluding paragraph of the preface of his tome of more than 500 pages, Taylor writes,
Perhaps if there is a moral conclusion it can only be found in the German phrase that I heard again and again from the lips of Dresdeners, spoken with a passion born of terrible experience: Nie wieder Krieg. Never again war. With the terrible weapons of mass destruction at its disposal, humanity can no longer afford intolerance and war, and that is the ultimate lesson of the bombing of Dresden.
I think Vonnegut, who died in 2007, would have agreed with Taylor’s powerful statement.
But now with the ruthlessness and barbarity of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), which is neither truly Islamic nor a real state, there seems to be growing clamor for the U.S. to use greater military force to crush that evil terrorist organization.
But is that wise? And might that possibly lead to another Dresden, or even to another Hiroshima?
Nie wieder Krieg! That is my deep hope and fervent prayer.


  1. Leroy, you have raised a most difficult question for us. All I know about ISIL at this time is what I've heard and read in the news. And from that sensationalized and spotty record, my impression is that the Mideast and the world cannot tolerate or co-exist with ISIS. The role of the U.S. is a secondary question. If the U.S. will take on ISIL, I suppose the rest of the world would be glad to let it do so. If the U.S. refused, my guess is that others (particularly countries of the Mideast and perhaps Europe) would. What would Reinhold Niebuhr say?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Anton.

      I am pretty sure that Reinhold Niebuhr would support the Authorization for the Use of Military Force bill that the President has just sent Congress--and in attempting to be "realistic," he might even join with some of the "hawks" who advocate even stronger language and action. But I always want to balance his ideas with those of John Howard Yoder.

      While I have reservations about the President's proposal of the new AUMF, I think it is far better than what is being called for by many on the right. It seems clear to me that all along the President has sought to keep the U.S. from being the major opponent of the Islamic State, and I hope he will continue to hold to that position--as well as to the position of not sending ground troops to fight.

      And it seems to me that "military force" ( would the Germans say "militärischer Gewalt"?) is different from war ("Krieg")--and necessary sometimes, just as police force is also necessary.

  2. I share your yearning for no more war, Leroy. May I wonder aloud in your blog what we both would be willing to give up to achieve it, though? I ask in light of two things: First, an article I have my students read in which Mark Green (Jewish religion scholar) argues that religion is important to study because it has created "otherness" just about better than any other social reality (his phrase is "otherness by exclusion); Second, the recent interview with E. O. Wilson who is convinced that religion, through its tribalism, creates divisions that prevent humanity from moving in a concerted fashion on the great moral issues they face (e.g. the environment). You, I think, would be willing to give up religion, because, if I recall your arguments, you do not approve of that term anyway to describe Christian spirituality. But, would you give up that aspect of your spirituality that divides people into insiders and outsiders? or into groups that are better or worse (e.g., your books on Liberalism and Fundamentalism) in order to have peace in the world? Or are you convinced that the only way to have real peace is through your practice of religious faith (and, as you recall, I do approve of the term religious faith as it is used to described human perception of the ultimate)?

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Milton. It is always good to hear from you. But you ask such hard questions, it is hard to respond adequately!

      Your first question is a very important one. Waging war always involves considerable sacrifice or deprivation by those who go into battle. We who love peace may talk about waging peace--but we are usually not willing or able to make the sacrifices or endure the deprivations of those who fight militarily. And that may well be one of the reasons there are so many wars.

      I am unconvinced and rather negative toward the arguments of Green and Wilson. By contrast I would recommend Karen Armstrong's new book "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence" (2014), which to this point I have read only a small part of.

      Armstrong says that in the West "we see 'religion' as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs institutions, and rituals, centering on a supernatural God" (p. 4). And, yes, I am willing to give up that. My emphasis is upon faith, not religion. (You recalled my position correctly.)

      I have faith in God, who is the ultimate Creator of all persons, Who loves and seeks to redeem all persons, and Who extends grace and acceptance to all persons. There are no outsiders as such, except for those who reject God and God's all-encompassing love and who, rather, follow various "idols," which results in people being separated, dehumanized, manipulated, and caused to suffer in various ways. But those "idols" cannot be fought by means that partake of the same characteristics.

      And while I don't want to oppose people directly, there are ideas that are more or less conducive for a world aligned with the will of the Creator God (a realm characterized by "shalom,"). Thus, while my books were not intended to revile either fundamentalists or liberals, they did seek to call into questions what I consider to be the weakness or the faults of fundamentalism and liberalism. True peace ("shalom") cannot be built on unreflective acceptance of every philosophical and/or religion idea--although widespread acceptance of, and dialogue with, people with varying ideas is good and important.

      I think that the only way to have real peace is for people above all to seek what has traditionally been called God's Kingdom and God's justice, which produces "shalom," the primary characteristic of that Eternal Realm.

      Well, maybe this "off the top of my head" reply begins to respond to the significant questions you raised. Thanks again for the challenge.

  3. Your challenging wonderings and questions, Milton, are profoundly important. I've been confronting anti-abotion folk for their argument that maintaining a lifestyle is no excuse for an abortion with the argument that most wars, in fact, are about preserving a way of life. It's extremely rare in history that a nation's self-defense actually means defense of their lives, but rather advantage, territory, culture, and political structures.

    We don't often "see" the realities of our own reasoning in realms typically taken for granted. The ways in which we create otherness have been and are being called to our attention by numerous cultural critics, and they have an important point. And insofar as creating "others" is a necessary implication of stands we take on worldviews but also, then, contribute to hostility, how do we overcome that? (I'm not asking you to answer that question. I'm just raising it because I think it's implied in your questions to Leroy and, by implication also, to all of us.)

    1. P.S.: Where would I find Mark Green's article?

  4. Hey, Anton. Thanks for your, as always, thoughtful comments. Here is the reference: William S. Green (not Mark), "The Difference Religion Makes," (Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62/4, Wint 1994) 1191-1207. Let me know if you don't find it.

  5. WWII is a good illustration of both the necessity of just wars, and the horrors of most wars. Before enlisting (our present, non-mandatory method of joining the military service), our young men should read or see a real depiction of war. My favorite movie in this genre is "Galipoli". Others also depict the horrors, which must be understood. The classic you mention, "Slaughterhouse-Five" is also good. The poems "Gunga Din" and "Charge of the Light Brigade" are also classic, and should be read aloud. The horrors of war "saints" also need to be more readily emphasized.
    (Ken Burns only had one short sentence of Lincoln's atrocities against the Indians in his "Civil War" - one of many forgotten horror stories of Lincoln's war.)

  6. "Just war" is a term that has long been used in support of war, and it is certainly preferable to other forms of war. But there are problems.

    Just war is always used to justify the wars of one's own country against the enemy. The enemy's war is never seen as being just in the least. Moreover, now every war is thought to be a just war, at least by the POTUS and the heads of other Western countries.

    But is hard to see how the bombing of Dresden--or of Hiroshima or Nagasaki--can be justified as acts done in accordance with just war theory. Most of the causalities were non-combatants (children, women, and the aged).

    However much WWII might be seen as a necessary just war, I cannot understand how the bombing of Dresden (and other German cities such as Hamburg), Hiroshima, and Nagasaki can be justified, especially by people of faith--or even from the standpoint of secular humanism, which was Vonnegut's worldview.

    1. Point well taken. Certainly not every war the US has entered or initiated has been just - even those within our own borders. I do like your term "necessary", as justice as a term is very difficult to nail down. Certain battles within wars, throughout history, were wrong (and numerous). Unjust wars is one of primary ways I rate the worst of our Presidents - a list littered pretty evenly across party lines. Four Presidents made the list this way.

  7. Here is the link to an nicely-done WaPo article (with many photos of 70 years ago and now) of Dresden:

  8. Just wars are rare, and very hard to identify going in, or even during the wars. Only much later can a careful evaluation be made. There is so much hidden about modern wars that such evaluations are very difficult. Well, except maybe for the last Iraq War, but that fiasco is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Even there, who knows, there may yet be a still-classified rationale that will eventually explain the bizarre invasion, though I doubt it.

    Finding just wars is something like assigning blame for some weather disaster to either chance or global warming, probably not possible most of the time. I think a more useful approach is to use just war as a learning tool to help us understand how to stop and prevent war.

    I happen to have just read an article in the Washington Post, "Why science is so hard to believe" that hints at the problems we face when we try to sort out really sticky policy questions. We are all so strongly inclined to believe what we want to believe that it takes a very strong scientific ethic to overcome it. Perhaps with that very strong scientific ethic we could make a little progress on limiting warfare. Otherwise it is just too easy for politicians to stir up public sentiment for whatever they want to do. For link to WP article check here: