Category Archives: Just War thought

Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part two)

[This is the second of two parts of the final section of the conclusion to a just completed book: The Good War That Wasn't—And Why It Matters: World War II's Moral Legacy. The first part of this section is here.]

Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2013

I believe that the critical reflection on the story of World War II that I have offered in this book might help in the needed (if impossible) work of redirecting our overwhelming spiral of militarism. I will briefly mention ways this story might help us reverse World War II’s moral legacy. Reversing this moral legacy will help us create space to be human—work that is not dependent upon the state, an institution in our current setting that seems unalterably wed to the dynamics of the National Security State.

Speak accurately about the War. We may start by naming World War II for what it actually was. It was not a necessary war, certainly not a good war, for the United States. It did not serve the roll of protecting American from invasion, of saving Jews in the midst of genocide, or of resisting tyranny and furthering actual democracy around the world. It was an exercise in extraordinary and largely out of control violence that transformed the United States into a militarized global hegemon and severely undermined American democracy.

Rigorously apply Just War principles. As we name World War II for what it was—an exercise in mass killing and unleashed militarism, we might also resolve to use the Just War philosophy that many people claim to honor in a way that has teeth. One of the assumptions of this philosophy has commonly been that we apply the philosophy in order to identify and reject unjust wars. In this book, I have attempted to apply criteria such as just cause, non-combatant immunity, and proportionality to the events of America’s involvement in World War II. I have concluded that the American war effort did not satisfactorily meet those criteria and hence that World War II was an unjust war. Continue reading

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Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part one)

[The final part of the conclusion to the book I have written about World War II, The Good War That Wasn't—And Why It Matters: World War II's Moral Legacy, reflects on how peacemakers might respond today to World War II's moral legacy. I post these reflections in two parts. You are reading part one; here is part two.

Earlier in the conclusion, I speculate a little about what choices the U.S. could have made to avoid what became (I argue in the book) a moral disaster. I posted that section in two parts the other days. Here is part I and here is part II.

Several earlier blog posts will also be incorporated into the conclusion ("Was World War II a Just War?" "Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 1" "Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 2"). Earlier, I posted rough drafts of the other ten chapters of the book.]

Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2013

We have seen that World War II and its long shadow, at least in the United States, have played a central role in the expansion and hegemony of the National Security State. The domination of the institutions of militarism and the ideology of necessary violence seem nearly irresistible. The strength of the current that moves the American nation state toward the abyss of self-destruction seems overwhelmingly powerful.

Until we actually reach the abyss, people who hope for self-determination and disarmament everywhere on earth will (must!) always hope that the current may be slowed enough that it may be redirected. Such people will (must!) devote their best energies to such a redirection.

However, to be honest, I see very little hope that the current toward the abyss will be redirected. This is our paradoxical, almost unbearable, situation: We must redirect our culture (American culture, for sure, but truly all other dominant cultures throughout the world) away from the abyss toward which institutionalized redemptive violence pushes us. But we actually have very little hope of doing so—at least on a large scale. Continue reading

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The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part II)

[This is the second of a two-part post. I am just about done with a book I have written about World War II: The Good War That Wasn't—And Why It Matters: World War II's Moral Legacy. My last step is writing a conclusion. One part of the conclusion will be to speculate a little about what choices the U.S. could have made to avoid what became (I argue in the book) a moral disaster. Yesterday I posted Part I that discusses five aspects of the lead up to World War II that could have been different—and less disastrous. This post will discuss five more aspects.

Several earlier blog posts will also be incorporated into the conclusion ("Was World War II a Just War?" "Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 1" "Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 2"). I will conclude the conclusion with some reflections on what this all means for us today. I hope to post some of those reflections within the next several days. Earlier, I posted rough drafts of the other ten chapters of the book.]

Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2013

(6) Overtly work to aid threatened Jews in Germany after the Nazis came to power. The plight of Europe’s Jews actually had little effect on the American entry into the conflict nor on the way that the War was prosecuted once the U.S. became a full participant. So more early efforts to help threatened Jews would not have themselves provided an alternative to going to war in the actual event.

However, to the extent that the War is at least after the fact justified as necessary for the sake of the Jews, we could say that earlier intervention would have made the war less necessary. One of the great ironies of the events in the lead-up to the War is that it was in fact the principled pacifists who worked the hardest to try to address the emerging crises for Europe’s Jews. Some Quakers even intervened directly, drawing on their positive reputation in Germany due to post-World War I relief efforts to lobby with Nazi leaders for openness for Jewish emigration. The hold up came not from the Nazis but from the American and British leaders who refused to make allowance for more than a tiny number of Jewish immigrants and, later, refugees.

It would seem that hundreds of thousands of Jews who perished in the Holocaust could have escaped that fate had the nations of the world been willing to allow them refuge. The tone-setters for the refusal to do so were the Americans and British.

Even more ironic, then, is that the main response America had to German tyranny was military-centered, ultimately total war. This response pushed the Nazis toward genocide rather than deportation as their means of dealing with the “Jewish problem.” Even after it became known on the outside that the genocide was happening, America’s war leaders insisted on ignoring that set of atrocities in favor of focusing on simply winning the war and achieving “unconditional surrender”—making it possible for the Nazis to come much closer to their goal of total eradication of Europe’s Jews. Continue reading

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The disaster that was World War II: Could things have been different? (Part I)

[I am just about done with a book I have written about World War II: The Good War That Wasn't—And Why It Matters: World War II's Moral Legacy. My last step is writing a conclusion. One part of the conclusion will be to speculate a little about what choices the U.S. could have made to avoid what became (I argue in the book) a moral disaster. This blog post (Part I) contains some of that speculation. Here is Part II.

Several earlier blog posts will also be incorporated into the conclusion ("Was World War II a Just War?" + "Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 1" + "Why World War II was a Moral Disaster for the United States—part 2"). I will conclude the conclusion with some reflections on what this all means for us today. I hope to post some of those reflections within the next several days. Earlier, I posted rough drafts of the other ten chapters of the book.]

Ted Grimsrud—May 29, 2013

I have tried in this book to focus on the actual events that happened in the lead up to World War II, in the War itself, and in its aftermath. I have argued that what did actually happen was a moral disaster for the United States—both the War itself and its aftermath. Here I want to spend a bit of time on a thought experiment. I will imagine various events leading up to and during World War II that could have been handled differently and possibly led to a morally better result.

I hope to make the point here that nothing was inevitable, that the disastrous events need not have happened like they did. More than make a case concerning the moral failures of decision makers, though, I want more simply to emphasize that we need not continue on the same spiral toward continuing disasters that the U.S. seems stuck in. If those decisions could have been different, so too could current and future decisions.

As well, I argue in this book against the mythology that valorizes World War II as a necessary war, a good war, that was fought in the morally most just way possible. To suggest a number of ways things could have been different might lead us even more to question the necessity, goodness, and justness of the War in ways that could lead us to reject the logic that links the “goodness” of World War II to the need today to prepare for future possible “necessary” wars.

Finally, this exercise might also stimulate we who are not directly involved in foreign policy decision-making to recognize our need to treat with suspicion  claims by the foreign policy elite. We should especially doubt the claims they make that decisions to resort to violence are necessary or even pragmatically appropriate. If we treat such claims for necessary violence with skepticism we might be freed to refuse consent and to seek both to challenge the elite to less violent policies and to seek ways outside of the governmental structures to further self-determination and disarmament.

I have chosen ten examples of how things could have been different—with less disastrous results. I tried to avoid series of hypotheticals where one is dependent upon one or more earlier hypothetical. Generally, each example accepts that earlier alternative scenarios did not happen. I focus mainly on decisions Americans made (or did not).

Almost all of these follow from just war criteria and ideals. None assume pacifism. All would have been pragmatically preferable for American interests (that is, the interests of the American people, if not the American business and political elite). Continue reading

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One problem (among many) with the just war theory

[Ted Grimsrud]

Though I am strongly committed to pacifism (hence the name of this blog!—here are links to many of my writings on pacifism), I am finding myself more and more intrigued with the just war theory. For one thing, the theory provides our language for thinking about war morally, especially for thinking about specific wars. I also think that just war thought has potential for encouraging opposition both to specific wars and to war preparation in general. However, I say “has potential” intentionally, though, because I think the potential has largely been unrealized.

I think one of the big problems most writers on just war have that makes understanding the tradition more difficult is acting as if the two basic options in the Christian tradition in relation to war have been pacifism or just war. What is left out (a huge elephant in the room) is what has been by far the majority view towards war: what I will call (following John Howard Yoder, see Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution) the “blank check.” The blank check is the basic attitude that when it comes to war a citizen should essentially simply obey one’s government (i.e., give the government a blank check in relation to responding to war).

Perhaps we could say that someone such as Augustine argued for “just war” in relation to (a precious few) governmental leaders, though not at all in a rigorous way. By the time of Machiavelli, the overt argument for “realism” mainly simply stated what governmental leaders actually did much more than suggest a change from “just war” to straight self-interest. But from the start (meaning from the time in the fourth century when Christians began thinking of their ethics in terms of being responsible for the state), for ordinary citizens the basic stance toward war was “blank check” not “just war” (Augustine himself insisted that Christians should obey their governmental leaders, leaving discernment of the justness of war to those in charge of the society).

For this reason, we find next to no emphasis throughout the history of Christianity on what people should do when being expected to fight in unjust wars. And the just war theory has mainly played the role of providing bases to evaluate the relative justness of wars after the fact in totally non-binding ways.  Continue reading

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Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part one)

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2012

World War II stands as the greatest event in the history of the United States. The country poured all its energy into an intense effort that resulted in the defeat of one of the odious embodied political philosophies ever. As the years pass and we learn more and more about Nazi Germany, the more grateful we can be for the ignominious end to the “thousand year Reich.” This war also led to an almost equally ignominious end to the extraordinarily vicious Japanese imperial regime.

World War II also proved to be the catalyst that finally brought the deprivation of the Great Depression to and end in the U.S. and ushered in an extraordinary era of economic prosperity—prosperity for once that reached down into the middle classes and beyond. The U.S. not only contributed impressively to the defeat of these terrible enemies, but the country actually came through the War relatively unscathed. At the end of the War, the U.S. stood with unprecedented economic power and unmatched international prestige as the bearer of the ideals portrayed to great effect in statements such as the Atlantic Charter and the initial declaration of the “United Nations.” These statements rallied people to defeat forces in the world that stood implacably against ideals such as self-determination and disarmament.

World War II as a moral disaster?

So, in what senses, then, was World War II after all a moral disaster for the United States? I will suggest that what World War II actually did for the United States was (1) decisively corrupt the American democratic polity, (2) decisively empower the forces of militarism in the country that have since 1945 led the U.S. into foreign policy disaster after foreign disaster and visited so much violence and destruction on major sections of the world that the term “American holocaust” (William Blum, Killing Hope) may not in actuality not be much of a hyperbole, and (3) decisively shift the economic center of gravity in the country toward the corporate sector, setting the country on a path of long-term corruption, exploitation, and—in a genuine sense—economic self-immolation. Continue reading

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Christian attitudes toward war: Rethinking the typology

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2012

The challenge for Christians (and everyone else, of course) to think morally about warfare and the preparation for warfare remains as important, if not more important, than ever. Fortunately, Christian moral theologians have brought forth a bit of a revival of such moral reflection with a number of recent books after many years of relative quiet in this area.

These are a few of the books that I am aware of: Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship (Brazos, 2009); Mark Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill? (Anselm, 2008); W. Michael Slatterly, Jesus the Warrior? (Marquette University, 2007); A. James Reimer, Christians and War (Fortress, 2010); J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity (Crossway, 2010); and Andrew Fiala, The Just War Myth (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

In general, though, writing about moral reflection on war and peace from Christian perspectives tends to repeat the general typology that was introduced by historian Roland Bainton over half a century ago in his Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton sees three categories: pacifism, the just war, and the crusade.

In a short discussion in a textbook I use in my introductory ethics course, Robert Stivers reiterates Bainton’s typology, though he somewhat confusingly uses the term “Christian realism” for the just war type (Robert Stivers, et al, Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach, 3rd edition [Orbis, 2005]). Like Bainton does, Stivers presents the “crusade” type as essentially being a thing of the past for Christians, meaning that what we have to do with mainly is pacifism and just war.

The more I think about it, though, the more problematic I see this typology to be—at least in the sense that it leaves too much out and over-simplifies what is left. One of the main problems is that only a tiny minority of Christians would hold to either pacifism or the just war (as usually defined). Continue reading

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Was World War II an Unjust War?

Ted Grimsrud—January 10, 2012

In uncountable discussions I have had over the years about the ethics of war and peace, it seems that when pacifism comes up, so too does World War II. At least for Americans, this war stands not as the “war that ended other wars” nearly so much as the “war that justified other wars.” World War II shows, in the American “good war” mythology, that sometimes going to war is the best option when it comes to dealing with the “bad guys.”

Unfortunately, seeing war as sometimes the best option leads to empowering the societal structures that are needed to prepare for those war—and such empowerment has loosed on American society forces that have transformed what in the past seemingly was an attitude that you go to war as a last resort to our present attitude where so many conflicts throughout the world seem to require a militarized response. Hence, the extraordinary American military presence around the world, the extraordinary way the United States spends about as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and the extraordinary situation facing American voters in the 2012 presidential election where their choice will surely be limited to two versions of militarism (note the remarkable dynamic in the Republican presidential race where the candidate getting attention for speaking overtly against this militarism, Ron Paul, has as his major source of contributions current military people).

Borrowing from social critic Naomi Klein’s analysis of recent American history, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, we could say that the “shock” of total war in the early 1940s led directly to the takeover of the United States by advocates of the American national security ideology. At that point of vulnerability, permanent structures such as the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons program were established. As a consequence of the transformative influence of these entities, in the United States, “all politics is a politics of war” (Walter Wink). Continue reading

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Who Can Stand Against It? The “Good” War and the Beast of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 13, 2011

[Adapted from a chapel sermon, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, October 5, 2010]

For baby-boomers such as myself (born in 1954), World War II was in the background during our formative years. It was the most destructive event, by far, in all of human history.

However, we still don’t really understand that war and its impact. We would do well to try to come to terms with what happened then, and its on-going presence in our lives. As I reflect on World War II as a Christian, I find myself struggling to find hope. This struggle, perhaps paradoxically, leads me to the book of Revelation. Let me explain why.

I personally have several reasons for trying better to understanding World War II.

I always encounter the long shadow of World War II in discussions with students. For many, the ideas of pacifism are new and foreign. Every semester I face the question, What about World War II? Doesn’t it prove that war at times is necessary—and that pacifism is unrealistic?

No wonder students raise these questions. They have grown up with images of the “Good War.” They hear our leaders, including President Obama, evoke the war against Hitler to show that the only way to pursue the right in extreme circumstances is by force. Continue reading

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Can the military do peace?

I recently took part in a panel discussion at Eastern Mennonite University that addressed the question, “what should the role of the military be in peacebuilding?” The planners did a good job pulling together the panel—we had a retired Navy captain, a retired military chaplain, a professor of peacebuilding at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), and myself. I was the only pacifist.

Our first question was about our own personal experience with peacebuilding and/or the military. I never served in the military (though, I not growing up Mennonite, I was not taught to be a conscientious objector). I just missed being drafted—the year I turned 19 was the year the draft ended in 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War. If I had been drafted at that time, I would have accepted the call. I was happy not to have to go in, but not because of my moral convictions.

Both of my parents were in the military in World War II, one of my uncles died as an Air Force pilot in Greece in the late 1940s, and my oldest sister married a career Army man. So, I grew up with a positive view of the military. But when I was 21 I became a pacifist, largely simply due to grappling with the issues of violence and warfare in light of my newly energized Christian faith. A few years later I learned about and then joined the Mennonite church near where I lived due largely to the Mennonite peace position. Eventually I became a Mennonite pastor and professor.

One of my central interests for a long time has been peace theology, working at understanding the relevance of Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies and other core convictions that lead to a rejection of violence and warfare and an embrace of a commitment to active nonviolence.

So I am very interested in question of what the role of the military should be in peacebuilding. We need to start by asking what we mean by “peacebuilding.” This term can have many meanings, from something like maintaining order (as in calling policemen and policement “officers of the peace”) to an academic discipline having to do with conflict resolution and group processing (as in EMU’s graduate CJP program and its undergraduate major in Peacebuilding and Development) to something more related to a deeper vision of human flourishing.

For my purposes in these reflections here, I would say that “peacebuilding” has to do with active participation in work to resolve conflicts, to assist people in face of major disasters, to prevent warfare and other types of violence, in general to work to cultivate the kind of social well-being that the Bible calls shalom. So, the broader more universal sense of human flourishing is at the root of authentic peacebuilding. Continue reading

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