How Should a Pacifist View World War II?

Ted Grimsrud—January 21, 2011

In my writing project, The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy, I take an approach that might seem a bit paradoxical. I am a deeply committed pacifist. Had I been a young adult in 1941, I would have refused to participate in that war no matter how “necessary” or “justifiable” it might have seemed. Yet in The Long Shadow, I develop my argument using pragmatic reasoning, including direct use of just war criteria.

As it turns out, at the same time I have been working on this World War II project, I have put the finishing touches on a couple of essays that spell out in some detail my pacifist convictions: “Christian Pacifism in Brief” and “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism” (these both may be found here). So, I remain as committed to pacifism as ever. So, why would pacifism not play a central role in my writing on World War II? Why would I work mostly within an ethical framework (the just war tradition) that I seemingly do not affirm myself?

Problematizing easy assumptions about World War II

Partly, my decision to use just war rationality has to do with the intended audience for The Long Shadow. I do not seek to present a logically airtight argument that will persuade those who reject pacifism. But I also do not seek simply to remind pacifists of why we continue to reject warfare. Certainly, I hope those who reject pacifism will nonetheless read this book and be persuaded by it to change their mind—and I do hope to offer comfort and courage for pacifists. Most directly, though, I write to those troubled with contemporary American militarism and who wonder about World War II. I hope to problematize easy assumptions about World War II’s status as the war that shows war can be a morally appropriate choice, operating within the moral framework of a typical American. If pacifism is to enter the picture in this discussion, I intend for it to enter as a conclusion, not as a pre-requisite for being part of the conversation. Continue reading “How Should a Pacifist View World War II?”