If you’ve heard of George Bell, it’s probably because the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed his last words to Bell just before Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis, on April 9, 1945. What is less well known is that Bell was the public voice of conscience against inhumane tactics used by British Bomber Command against Germany during World War II.
Bell was such an impressive and persistent voice against the “carpet bombing” of German towns — think Dresden — that I wish he were alive today to question America’s use of unmanned drones, piloted from thousands of miles away, to attack targets that are by nature uncertain and sometimes involve targeted assassination from the air. If George Bell were working for the State Department, I think he would have to resign!
George K.A. Bell was Bishop of Chichester in the Church of England from 1928 to 1957. He was regarded as the best-qualified candidate to succeed William Temple as Archbishop of Canterbury following Temple’s death, in October 1944. But his appointment was blocked, it is believed, because of a speech Bell had delivered in the House of Lords on Feb. 9, 1944. It is worthy of being read by every American.
Bishop Bell’s address was widely anticipated. His friend Lord Woolton said to the bishop just before the debate: “George, there isn’t a soul in this house who doesn’t wish you wouldn’t make the speech you are going to make. You must know that. But I also want to tell you that there isn’t a soul who doesn’t know that the only reason why you make it, is because you believe it is your duty as a Christian priest.”
Bell began by pointing to his public opposition to the Nazis since l933. Bell said this to counter any accusation that he might be soft on Nazism. Everyone knew that George Bell had been one of the first public figures in England to denounce the anti-Semitic laws enacted in Hitler’s first year in power.
Bell then said, “It is a common experience in the history of warfare that actions taken in war as military necessities are often supported at the time by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, people find are arguments to which they never should have listened.”
He offered statistics on the number of civilian casualties, mostly women and children, that were being caused by the Allied bombings. He stated that an attempt to justify Britain’s inhumane carpet bombing smacked of the enemy’s philosophy — that Might is Right.
“Why is there this inability to reckon with the moral and spiritual facts? Why is there this forgetfulness of the ideals by which our cause is inspired? How can the War Cabinet be blind to the harvest of even fiercer warring and desolation to which the present destruction will inevitably lead when the members of the War Cabinet have long passed to their rest? How can they fail to realize that this [i.e., the tactics of Bomber Command] is not the way to curb military aggression and end war? This is an extraordinarily solemn moment.
“The sufferings of Europe are not to be healed by the use of power only. The Allies stand for something greater than power.”
After Bishop Bell sat down, his speech was immediately attacked by a colleague on the bench; an attack that was then seconded, unhelpfully, by Cosmo Lang, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, whose character appears so unctuous in the recent film “The King’s Speech”.
Following the anti-climactic coda from Lang, the secretary of state for dominion affairs responded to Bell’s speech on behalf of the government. To Bell, the secretary of state’s response was “unsatisfactory and disappointing.”
George Bell’s protest showed a humane conscience at work in the very heat of war. Bell questioned his government’s policy when almost no one else did.
What would Bishop Bell have thought of America’s use of unmanned drones to bomb targets seen only on computer screens thousands of miles away — i.e., at Creech Air Force Base, in Nevada? For unmanned drone aircraft are an extreme case of mediated warfare, in which the combatant — the distant operator of the drone — is so far removed from the action that he or she can only have a highly detached sense of responsibility for the action.
The enemy on the ground is disembodied almost entirely because the combatant is sitting in front of a screen far from the physical site of conflict. Charles Lindbergh warned of this long ago — that bombing from the air could remove the human element from combat.
Bell’s point, in his context, was that aerial bombing was taking human responsibility out of the equation. The bishop kept pulling photos out of his pocket, which his anti-Nazi contacts had gotten to him, that told their story of the human torches, mostly women and children, that the British raids were creating. Bell felt that if he could just show people in England what was actually happening on the ground in Germany, they would be repelled and question the bombing. He lamented that the Royal Air Force pilots could not possibly see the results of their work and were thereby detached from the human cost of what they were doing.
What I wonder at today is not so much the existence of un-manned drones that kill “anonymously” but that there is so little opposition in this country to their use.
Making war often includes actions that would not be approved of in peacetime, under the conditions of “normal” life. But are Americans now expected to concur with the idea that anything goes in the interest of security?
Bishop Bell made his speech and his career never recovered. The finest character in the Church of England, Bell was not appointed to the See of Canterbury. He lived out the rest of his episcopate in Chichester; he was put out to pasture. This was the price he paid for being the voice of conscience in time of war.
I do not understand why voices such as Bell’s are so few today. I cannot understand why recent administrations have decided to regard as normal tactics that would have been thought unjust and unfair 20 years ago.
Is there is any pattern of justice to history, what our great grand-parents sometimes called the Providence of God, and will America be judged for its failure to question the use of unmanned drones?
Paul F.M. Zahl is an Episcopal minister, theologian and author. His last job was as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Md.
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