The Long Shadow—World War II’s Moral Legacy (09. Social Transformation)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

9. Social Transformation

Ted Grimsrud—February 25, 2011

The first phase of the 1950s Civil Rights movement

If we would capture the moral impact of World War II in just a few words, perhaps we could say it like this: as never before, the War simply obliterated the basic human belief in the preciousness of life. It simply boggles the mind to list the countries where at least one million people were killed: Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Germany, perhaps others.

Many would have said that one of the pillars of authentic human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life. That is why we put so many resources into, for example, healthcare, education, sanitation, and agriculture. We seek to make it possible for human life to thrive. Even our criminal justice systems in some sense could be seen as founded on the belief that life is precious.

Powerfully countering all this momentum toward enhancing life, the wars of the twentieth-century treated human life as shockingly expendable. The best and most creative resources of western civilization focused on killing, not on enhancing life. And, as we have seen in the present book, certainly at least in the United States, the moral legacy of World War II underscores that transforming our nation’s priorities from death toward life seems impossible.

At least some of those who have recognized this problem have tried to overcome it. For these people, in the words of historian Joseph Kip Kosek, “the problem of the twentieth century…was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness.”[1]

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