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THE MORALITY, POLITICS, AND IRONY OF WAR: Recovering Reinhold Niebuhr's Ethical Realism

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The American experience of war is ironic. That is, there is often an intimate and unexamined relationship between seemingly contrary elements in war such as morality and politics. This article argues that without understanding such irony, we are unlikely to reflect in morally comprehensive ways on past, present, or future wars. Traditional schools of thought, however, such as moralism and political realism, reinforce these apparent contradictions. I propose, then, an alternative—“ethical realism” as informed by Reinhold Niebuhr—that better explains the irony of war. Through an ethical realist examination of the U.S. Civil War, World War II, and the Iraq War, I consider how American political interests have been inextricably linked with deep moral concerns. Ethical realism charts a middle path that ennobles traditional realpolitik while eschewing certain perfectionist tendencies of moralism. Ethical realism provides a conceptual framework for evaluating these other frameworks—a distinct form of moral-political deliberation about war.

Keywords: Iraq War; Reinhold Niebuhr; U.S. Civil War; World War II; ethical realism; just war; moralism

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Religious StudiesArizona State UniversityP.O. Box 873104Tempe, AZ 85287-3104480.727.0694, Email:

Publication date: December 1, 2008

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