Rhodes scholar + New Republic + “Were We Wrong?” + $600,000 = big target, and when The Good Fight was published, the supposedly conflict-averse American left piled on. Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect was especially aggressive. He was all for a recovery of the “Niebuhrian doctrine of self-restraint.” But would Niebuhr have seen a parallel between the Cold War and the Iraq War? The answer, Tomasky was sure, was “a reverberating, ear-splitting ‘no.’” Explaining why in an exchange with Beinart on Slate, he predicted that the war in Iraq “renders the grand visions for liberal internationalism that you and I share useless nullities, for a generation, maybe more.”
The exchange had the sense of history that The Good Fight lacked, but it showed the perils of finding one’s antecedents in the recent American past rather than in the much longer, broader history that Niebuhr claimed as his and ours. And its retrospective tone suggested how fully the left had already left the war behind.
The Voice of Experience
Now the antiwar voice was one of experience, the voice for military power one of credulity and naïveté. The Niebuhr who called for the triumph of force over inaction was being supplanted by the Niebuhr who ruefully described “the triumph of experience over dogma.” Enter Andrew Bacevich: retired Army colonel, Roman Catholic, contributor to The American Conservative. With his crewneck sweaters and helmet of white hair, Bacevich is a right-of-center Howard Dean—an establishment figure who’s made his mark by opposing established positions. In a review of The Good Fight for The Nation, he accused Beinart of casting “hawkish liberals as heroes, doves as fools and conservatives as knaves” in a “largely spurious” allegory—and of “channeling” Niebuhr in a way that amounted to “ritual abuse.” “He uses Niebuhr,” Bacevich wrote, “much as Jerry Falwell uses Jesus Christ, and just as shamelessly: citing him as an unimpeachable authority and claiming his endorsement, thereby preempting any further discussion.
“The real Niebuhr,” Bacevich confidently went on, didn’t worry “about Americans demonstrating their moral superiority”; he worried that they would succumb to temptation and do the wrong thing:
The real Niebuhr did not conceive of history as a narrative of national greatness. Rather than bend the past to suit a particular agenda, liberal or otherwise, he viewed it as beyond our understanding and fraught with paradox.
Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University, characterized Niebuhr as a man like himself: a thinker beyond category who “would likely align himself with those dissidents on the left and the right … who view as profoundly dangerous the claims of both neoliberals and neoconservatives to understand history’s purposes and destination.” The emergence of such a figure as a hero in the unequivocally left-of-center, antiwar Nation seemed itself paradoxical. But a graver paradox was yet to come. In May, Bacevich’s son, Andrew Jr., serving as a first lieuenant in Iraq, was killed by a suicide bomber while on patrol. “I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose,” the elder Bacevich wrote in The Washington Post over Memorial Day weekend; but the headline went on to say, “We Were Both Doing Our Duty”—at once refuting the arguments of the people who claimed his opposition to the war had helped the enemy kill his son and acknowledging that for every family with a member in Iraq, death in battle is the cruelest of unintended consequences.
The Sage of Nonviolence
“The beginning of wisdom,” Niebuhr wrote, “lies in recognizing that history cannot be coerced.” But history can be changed by the force of righteousness; of this Niebuhr was sure, and of this Martin Luther King Jr. is modern proof. When King read Moral Man and Immoral Society in divinity school in 1950, he was struck both by Niebuhr’s frank appraisal of the role of power in society and by his application of it to race relations in the South. Having rejected pacifism, Niebuhr made his case for Christian participation in war by distinguishing between “non-resistance” and “non-violent resistance.” He argued that because Jesus counseled nonresistance (urging his followers to turn the other cheek), nonviolent resistance was no more faithful to the Gospel than violence—after all, it did resist. Nor was it practical, for it ceded all force to people who would use it without scruple. But Niebuhr, with characteristic subtlety, saw some merit in nonviolence even so. In peacetime, he allowed, nonviolent resistance could be an effective way to close the gap between the powerful and the powerless—as Gandhi had recently shown with his campaign of strikes and boycotts against the British in India. He added:
The emancipation of the Negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy … The white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so. Upon that point one may speak with a dogmatism which all history justifies.
In jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, King drew on the passage from memory in his open letter to eight of the city’s white clergymen, recalling:
As Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
In a striking paradox, King had identified the philosopher of armed conflict with the cause of nonviolence.