World War II and America’s Soul: Christian Reflections

Ted Grimsrud—February 20, 2011

I try to notice positive references to World War II in the American media. One that did not surprise me (though it disappointed me) came in the July 13, 2010 Christian Century in a column from editor John M. Buchanan. In this short piece, entitled “Sacrifices” (or here), Buchanan writes of his irritation at British thinker Terry Eagleton’s “relentless cynicism” concerning the United States in his recent book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution (a book Buchanan seems otherwise to like).

In contrast to Eagleton’s “cynicism” about the U.S., “in particular its use of military power,” Buchanan poses his gratitude for the American soldiers who died during World War II (stemming partly from his concurrent reading of Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944). Two of those who died were Buchanan’s uncles, including his namesake John Calvin McCormick.

I was struck with an interesting thought as I read Buchanan’s piece. He seems to want to valorize World War II in part to make his uncles’ deaths meaningful. I also was named after an American soldier who died in the war (a close friend of my soldier father). As well, I had an uncle die in combat. In contrast to Buchanan, though, as I have learned more about my uncle, an Air Force pilot who died in combat in Greece in the late 1940s, I have become increasingly angry about the government that sent him into harm’s way and took away his future when he was in his early 20s. I am struck more with the meaninglessness of American military actions, including “the war in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.”

One move Buchanan makes here, extraordinarily common and devastating in our society’s history over the past 65 years, is to start with the obvious evils of the Nazis, then move to the U.S. involvement in the war against the Nazis, and then (the breathtaking step) to imply that “sarcasm and cynicism” about American “use of military power” since World War II is out of line.

It is one issue (a complicated one, as I will try to illustrate in a moment) to see meaning in the American role in the war against the Nazis. But it is an altogether different issue to use that war as evidence against sharp, even unrelenting, criticism of American military practices since that war. Those practices need to be evaluated on their own terms, not in the shadow of the (allegedly) “Good War.” I think any person of good will who is capable to viewing the evidence on its own terms would have an extremely difficult time making the case that post-1945 military actions by the U.S. deserve anything other than “relentless cynicism.”

So, it is morally irresponsible, even if altogether too common, for a Christian thinker to use American fighting versus the Nazis as a basis for implying even a nuanced approval of American military practices since then. Buchanan ends his piece by granting that Eagleton appropriately offers criticism, since “the U.S. has often acted out of a morally flawed sense of power, entitlement and empire.” This “often,” of course, implies that we surely can find many cases where the U.S. acted in morally good ways. This is a powerful and questionable qualification. Regardless, though, Buchanan takes away the weight of even this affirmation of Eagleton’s argument with his final sentences: “The constant, however, is the death of soldiers. I think about them a lot, and with gratitude.”

To the contrary, the “constant” has been the dealing of death. During World War II, the U.S. avenged the ca. 3,000 deaths of American soldiers in the Japanese attack on the American Hawaiian colony with massive bombings that left at least 300 times that number of Japanese noncombatants dead. Who knows what the ratio of American military war dead to non-American noncombatants killed by the American military in the past 65 years has been? Surely it was much more than 300 to 1.

In relation to World War II itself, even there Buchanan’s assumption of a morally exemplary role played by the United States deserves to be questioned—especially by Christian thinkers who presumably affirm some kind of transcendent ethic based on the gospel instead of simply the acceptance of national self-interest as defined by its ruling class. These are some questions I have.

(1) Is there a direct connection between Nazi atrocities and American participation in World War II? Buchanan mentioning that when the Allies fought the Germans in northern Italy, the Germans were sending Jews out of Italy to death camps, implies that the purpose of this fighting was to save those Jews. In fact, it has been pretty clearly established that the Allies simply were not motivated by the plight of the Jews in their decisions to fight and in their decisions about how to fight.

In a recent book, Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust, historian Theodore S. Hamerow presents a (not very persuasive, to me) sympathetic case for seeing the Allies as fatally constrained by domestic politics and logistical issues from more effectively hindering the the prosecution of the Holocaust. However, even this argument for lack of ill will on the part of the Allies toward the fate of Europe’s Jews nonetheless makes it clear that the Allies did do very little—and never intended to try—to rescue large numbers of Jews. This simply was not why the war was fought. This simply was not why American soldiers died. Whatever case we want to make for World War II as “necessary” or even “good,” it was not these things in relation to challenging the atrocities of the Nazis toward the Jews.

(2) What was the impact of participating in World War II on the United States? In the years leading up to World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt felt sorely constrained by what were in reality the dynamics of representative democracy. Roosevelt desired for the U.S. to enter the war after it began in Europe in September 1939, but such a step required Congress to declare war. Roosevelt did manage to take steps dramatically to increase military spending. Before the buildup began, the American military was quite small, roughly the same size as Turkey’s. The national experience in prior wars, most notably the Civil War and World War I, was to undertake a quick build-up, to go to war after a congressional declaration, and then drastically to demobilize following the war. World War II effected a major transformation in these dynamics.

As a part of the war effort, three major institutions were created by the federal government that became permanent powers in shaping postwar American society: the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons program. The power of these institutions manifested itself in successful resistance to the demobilization process, leading the U.S. into a permanent war-preparation footing. In the years after World War II, the U.S. has participated openly in several wars with tens of thousands of soldiers dying and participated hiddenly in numerous other military actions—all without a constitutionally mandated declaration of war (see Garry Wills, Bomb Power, for a recent concise account of this transformation).

What World War II did, in effect, was make it impossible for the United States again to play the kind of role it played during that war. Because of the transformations effected by World War II, the U.S. lost its potential to be a morally helpful agent in world affairs. Instead, time after time, American practices have been determined by an imperialistic militaristic, force-first mindset. This transformation renders especially problematic the kinds of moves Buchanan makes in evoking World War II as a counter to Terry Eagleton’s criticism of American militarism.

In fact, something has dramatically changed about the United States, and this something has created a moral gulf between World War II and the years afterward. World War II, for Americans, had the kind of moral ambiguity (we were on the side of resistance to Nazi evil and Japanese imperialism even as we used deeply problematic tactics and empowered Soviet evil and our own imperialism) virtually none of our military have had since. U.S. military actions have not even achieved the level of moral ambiguity. We have been strictly imperialist ever since, caught in the web of militarism fueled by World War II created institutions such as the Pentagon, CIA, and nuclear weapons program that solidified America’s transformation from the democracy to a national security state.

(3) If we fought the war in order to oppose totalitarianism, what does that say about our alliance with the Soviet Union? Buchanan, of course, was not attempting to make a thorough assessment of World War II. However, he does seem to share common American assumptions about the decisive role the U.S. played in the war against Germany. In fact, the Americans and British were a side show to the main event of the Germans’ war against the Soviet Union. As one way to measure this, we may note that about 80% of German war deaths came at the hands of the Soviets.

The main role the Americans played in the European war was as a supplement to the Soviet war effort. The main victors in this part of the war were the Soviets. If there has been a society that has come close to matching Nazi Germany in shear totalitarian terror and mass violence in the history of the world it is the Soviet Union. It would be difficult to find a measure that would show the Soviets to be less evil than the Nazis. Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, makes it clear just how extreme the destructiveness of both regimes was.

So, in a genuine sense, America’s role in the European war was to enable the victory of Soviet totalitarianism. We helped defeat one form of tyranny only to empower another. Probably the most troubling and dramatic example of this consequence of the war effort of the western Allies may be seen in the fate of Poland. In the 1930s, the Polish state, like Germany and the Soviet Union, was a non-democratic, militaristic dictatorship. The British and French allied with the Poles versus the Germans in 1939 not for the sake of democracy but for their own, somewhat mysterious, realpolitick concerns. This alliance emboldened the Polish rulers to defy Germany, leading to war in September 1939. Poland found itself the locale for extraordinary violence during the course of the war, losing fully 20% of its population as war dead. Then, with the Allied victory, Poland found itself a client state to the totalitarian Soviets.

As is likely, we maybe should not think of the acquiescence of Britain and the U.S. in the Soviet takeover of Poland as an overt act of betrayal—literally there was little or nothing we could have done to prevent it. However, the inevitability of that outcome does not change the fact that we simply were not fighting this war for the sake of democracy and the self-determination of the world’s peoples. The war led directly to the spread of totalitarian tyrannies over virtually all of central and eastern Europe as well as much of eastern Asia.

(4) And it’s not like the western powers were, in actuality, paragons of democratic self-determination. In the run-up to American entry into the war, the strongest advocates for American involvement in the war, including several prominent theologians (most notably Reinhold Niebuhr), based their case most centrally on the need to support this war in order to save “civilization.” They spoke forcefully and often about the values that were under threat by Nazi tyranny and would be lost should the “civilized” nations of western Europe and, ultimately, the United States, fall under Nazi domination.

There certainly was a lot to be concerned about with the spread of Nazism, but does it matter that these advocates of war to protect the “civilized West” virtually ignored the colonial tyrannies characteristic of “civilized” countries such as Great Britain, Holland, and France? And that in the years immediately after the Allied victory, each of these colonial powers engaged in major wars to hold on to their colonies (e.g., Holland in Indonesia, France in Indochina, and Britain in Kenya)?

(5) Did the war actually help? If the big problems, as Buchanan implies, were actions by the Nazis that terribly devalued life, how did the war impact these problems—how did the war affect how people valued life (or not)? Is it not possible, even in the case of Italy, that prosecuting the war increased the likelihood that Europe’s Jews and gypsies would be killed?

Consider also the evolution of American bombing practices. At first, in 1942, American air warriors made serious attempts to discriminate between military and non-military targets. Then, after several years, they purposefully firebombed Tokyo and killed well over 100,000 Japanese noncombatants in one night. Finally, they unleashed the most destructive weapon ever used utterly to obliterate all human life in the hearts of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then, consider how crossing these thresholds of the utter devaluing of human life continued to shape American military practices in, most obviously, the Korean and Vietnamese wars (on this, see Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young, eds., Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History).

The biggest question for Christians, I believe, is one of loyalties. Shouldn’t we care more about human life created in God’s image than we do about human nations (biblically generally portrayed as entities in rebellion against God)? Shouldn’t we, of all people, see the deaths of World War II not as something to be “grateful for” nearly so much as calls to strive with all our energy to find alternative ways to resist the devaluing of life that all war embodies?

Sure, what the Nazis did needed to be resisted; it needed to be overcome. But such could only truly happen in ways that continued to affirm life. Philosopher Philip Hallie, himself a soldier in World War II, in his book, Less Innocent Blood Be Shed, brought to our awareness the inspiring story of people in southern France who did successfully resist the Nazis in ways that did not devalue life. He articulates what he calls a “life and death” ethics that has at its center a conviction about the preciousness of life. The strongest critique of war possible charges that war, by definition, treats life as less than precious. The only resistance that matters, ultimately, is resistance that refuses to give up on the preciousness of life.

2 thoughts on “World War II and America’s Soul: Christian Reflections

  1. A great irony for me is that the antisemitism of Germany during WWII was, at the start of the war, little different than in the U.S. and England. Hitler’s ‘final solution’ allowed others to skate on this issue, even with strong evidence that British and American inaction cost Jewish lives. Then with the support of the State of Israel, British and American interests neglected the property rights of another devalued race, the Palestinians, directly leading to the conflicts that we have now.

    Secondly, had the reparations from WWI been less onerous for Germany, the economic conditions that gave rise to Hitler might not have occurred. So treating WWII as if it is a singular historical event that can be treated separately from the rest of the history of the rise of militaristic nationalism is a big mistake. It has to be treated as part of a continuous flow of events, each violent or oppressive act supporting the next.

    A third note: the glorification of war on the basis of the sacrifices of one’s ancestors. This has a long history in a multitude of cultures and has been examined in the past, though, sadly, I can’t give you references. But it is worth noting that such identifications are used by politicians to appeal to nationalism when promoting the use of force, as we have seen.

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