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.

Creating space to be human

The movement in Central Europe that in the 1970s and 1980s resisted Soviet totalitarianism gives us a crucial image. Activists recognized that large-scale, top-down reform seemed impossible. Violent resistance against the systemic violence of the Communist regimes tended strictly actually to empower the sword-wielding state. So thoughtful resisters, recognizing that acquiescing to the System was intolerable while overthrowing it through direct resistance was impossible, articulated their hopes is exceedingly modest terms.

They spoke simply of creating spaces to be human.[1] In doing so, they self-consciously rejected the story of reality told by the System, but they did not devote their energies to reforming it or even to overthrowing it through direct action. Rather, they focused on creating relatively small spaces where they could build communities, where they could express creativity, where they could patiently chip away at the portrayal of reality that filled the official presentation of reality.

As it turned out, these small acts of resistance and counter-culture formation coincided with large-scale crises of legitimacy at the top of the Soviet empire. The System crumbled and major changes happened—though sadly the changes did not go as far as many hoped for in enabling self-determination and disarmament (for example, the U.S.-led militarization of Western alliances through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization attracted several of the former Soviet-bloc nations who provided wonderful markets for military hardware).

However, this emphasis on creating spaces to be human remains instructive and inspirational. If it is the case that a top-down transformation for peace is impossible in our current militarized national milieu, the possibilities for small-scale spaces for “being human” in peaceable ways do exist. And we never know what impact cultivating those spaces might have on the bigger picture.

We should also notice that the ways of creating spaces to be human practiced in the Central European freedom movement were not at all separated from an awareness of issues on national, social policy levels. The activists did not require “seats at the table of power” to embark on their transformative practices—but they were ready and willing to participate in the larger arena when opportunities arose. And in many instances, at least, they participated in ways that remained faithful to their core convictions.[2]

Likewise for peace workers today. Our ways of making peace, our practices of resistance, and our creating of alternatives, do not depend upon getting “seats at the table.” To be effective over the long term we likely need self-consciously to resist extensive compromise in order to gain approval of political and corporate power elites. And yet, what the world needs are large solutions and alternatives. So peacemakers need to be thinking in ways that allow for exercise of effective influence on as wide a scale as possible (while remaining faithful to their core values).

Resistance, transformation, service

In part three of the book (“Alternatives”), I discuss three broad elements of peacemaking that each plays an essential role in our imaging a healthy future. The first is resistance, the second is transformation, and the third is service.

Resistance. With regard to resistance, activists recognized, for example, the evils of the nuclear arms race and the U.S. war on Vietnam. In both cases, mass movements arose that sought to turn the nation back from these misguided and terribly destructive policies. In both cases, they fell far short of their goals. The arms race continued until finally one side (the Soviet Union) surrendered leaving the U.S. the unchallenged victor—a victor that nonetheless continues the race. The Vietnam War did finally grind to a close, with the American withdrawal and the victory of the anti-imperialist forces. But it was in many ways a pyrrhic victory by the time it came given the extraordinary level of destruction the American forces visited on that small nation.

However, these movements of resistance did create restraints that slowed the policies of death down a bit. They also energized masses of activists and stimulated peacemaking activities that ripple down to the present. Other resistance movements (e.g., opposition to wars on Central American and Iraq and the current effort against policies that exacerbate climate change) have arisen in the years since Vietnam, inspired and guided by the experiences of that pioneering effort to slow down and even stop a way that is in progress through mass resistance.

In all of these resistance movements, education has played a major role. Partly, to learn more about the various archaeologies of the social ills strengthens the attraction to and the ability to act in resistance. Partly, the process of education has unveiled many of the undemocratic, authoritarian ways that the American power elite has pursued such destructive policies.

So resistance remains essential—even if one of the main lessons from these past mass efforts to resist has been just how intransigent the System actually has been.

Transformation. The most instructive movement to effect social transformation in the U.S. since World War II surely has been the Civil Rights movement. I believe we have a great deal to learn from the effectiveness and limitations of that movement. One of our main lessons, that we still need to grapple with, is the power of coherent, organized, self-consciously nonviolent mass action.

The accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement were enormous. It is hard to imagine that someone who lived in the American South during the early part of the 1950s could have imagined how widespread the changes that were about to come would be—and how little violence would actually be required to effect these changes.

However, we all know that the U.S. still falls terribly short of the required eradication of dehumanizing racism and discrimination. Perhaps part of the reason the transformation sought by the Civil Rights movement did not fully happen was the movement away from nonviolence.

Regardless, strategies and organized movements to effect social transformation remain a necessary part of peacemaking work, along with widespread resistance. Peacemakers learn about the systemic violence of the status quo and about strategies and policies that power elite follow to prevent that systemic violence being rooted out. This learning leads to saying no, to disillusionment, to acts of resistance. And, peacemakers come together to organize movements that seek positive transformation away from the systems of violence toward what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “beloved community.”

Service. We have also seen a third component in the needed work of social healing—service. This aspect is often left out of discussions of social change. However, the efforts directly to meet the needs of the needy, to provide food and water to the hungry and thirsty, to aid in enhancing the power for self-determination for vulnerable people around the world are part of the work of peacemaking along with resistance the National Security State and direct action for social transformation.

Works of service to help meet immediate human needs and, by doing so, provide possibilities for better futures. They also provide the possibilities for constructive work even in face of severe limitations and even hostile reactions that hinder efforts of resistance and transformation. The work of American conscientious objectors who served in Civilian Public Service illustrates this possibility. The state essentially stifled and even crushed dissent and repressed efforts at constructive intervention that provided alternatives to war making in addressing international problems.

The one avenue that remained open for peacemakers was doing works of service, such as caring for America’s forests and farmlands and providing much-needed assistance for people institutionalized with mental illnesses. These acts were of value in themselves, but the performing of alternative service also provided contexts for future more interventionist peacemaking work, including leadership in Civil Rights and anti-nuclear efforts and a great expansion of humanitarian aid offered throughout the world after the War by organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee.

[Part two to this post is here.]


[1] Vaclav Havel, Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990; George Konrad, Anti-Politics; Adam Michnik, Letters from Prison and Other Essays.

[2] For example, see the story of the Polish Solidarity movement in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duval, Force More Powerful, 113-74.

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