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

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 “Christian attitudes toward war: Rethinking the typology”

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 “Was World War II an Unjust War?”

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

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 “Can the military do peace?”

What do you do with those who ask what to do with a bully?

I recently heard again a speaker raise as a central ethical question for pacifists the issue, as the speaker put it, of what do you do about a bully? This is one version of a standard question, usually asked by those who reject pacifism, of how a pacifist proposes to deal with the evil-doer (the background assumption generally being that only violence can effectively take care of the problem).

Now, I am a bit disconcerted to hear this question raised by a Mennonite who professes to be a pacifist (it is important to state right off that I am good friends with this speaker, I respect him greatly, and know that he is indeed a deeply committed pacifist Christian—but in some ways this all heightens my concern with his question).

As part of the question the speaker stated that the story of the Good Samaritan is a great story for Mennonites in that it valorizes service, picking up the pieces after violent deeds, and going the second mile in helping victims out. But, what if the Good Samaritan had come along in the midst of the mugging? If this Samaritan were a pacifist, what would he do? Again, the implication here is that the only choices would seem to be to attack the attacker violently in order to stop the mugging or to stand by helplessly. Continue reading “What do you do with those who ask what to do with a bully?”

World War II and the Limits of “Just War” Thought: Early Reflections

Ted Grimsrud—March 7, 2011

I am thinking about writing a paper offering a theological critique of the “just war theory,” using World War II as a test case. Theological reflection on this conflict has tended to start with the assumption that for the U.S. and its allies, the war was self-evidently a “just war.” Hence, few have examined the war carefully in light of the main just war criteria. The war simply stands as evidence that war is sometimes necessary and capable of serving just ends using just means.

The Christian just war tradition drew heavily on political philosophy from the Roman Empire and found its paradigmatic application during the high Middle Ages in Christian Europe. Its core affirmations emphasized limitations to the prosecution of warfare such as noncombatant immunity and a sense of proportionality where the damage done by the war did not outweigh the good it hoped to accomplish.

The emergence of modern warfare, characterized by the waging of war against entire societies profoundly challenged just war philosophy—precisely in relation to these core principles of noncombatant immunity and proportionality.

Over the course of the 20th century, the challenge of coming to terms with modern warfare pushed just war adherents in two different, even seemingly contradictory directions. One side moves toward what we could call the “blank check” approach, where Christian citizens recognize the appropriateness of their national leaders making the decisions about when and how to wage war—the citizens’ job is simply to obey. This perspective actually has strong roots in Augustine’s thought. The other side moves toward pacifism, the principled rejection of the moral acceptability of all wars and the concomitant expectation that Christians will never be willing to participate in war.

Continue reading “World War II and the Limits of “Just War” Thought: Early Reflections”

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.

Continue reading “World War II and America’s Soul: Christian Reflections”

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?”

The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (6. The Cold War)

[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.]

6. The Cold War

Ted Grimsrud—January 3, 2011


A crucial step in the American acceleration of the arms race came when the United States decided to proceed full speed ahead in building and deploying hydrogen bombs, a tremendous enhancement of our nuclear weapons arsenal. Early on in the development of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear physicists realized that they would capable of creating much more devastating types of bombs. However, priorities on speed required a focus on the less powerful bombs. After the Japanese surrendered, American leaders faced the question of whether they would proceed with further development of this new kind of bomb.

Most of the top physicists opposed such development. However, by now the momentum toward American world domination and the militarization of foreign policy moved swiftly, greatly enhanced by the demonization of the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine provided a rationale for intensifying the Cold War.

After the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear bombs in 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the federal agency charged with overseeing the American nuclear weapons program, strongly recommended that the U.S. step back from the brink of an accelerated arms race and decide not to develop the hydrogen bomb. The AEC’s General Advisory Committee, made up of several of the top physicists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project, issued a report with unanimous assent saying no to the hydrogen bomb: “There is no limit to the explosive power of the bomb except that imposed by the requirements of delivery. The weapon would have an explosive effect some hundreds of times that of present [atomic] bombs. It is clear that the use of this weapon would bring about the destruction of innumerable lives; it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations.”[1]

The AEC itself voted to affirm the recommendation of its advisory committee and passed the recommendation along to President Truman. Tragically, Truman chose to refuse to accept this decision by the AEC. He formed a new committee made up of AEC chair, David Lilienthal, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Johnson, echoing the commitments of the Pentagon now for full speed ahead on weapon development, strongly supported proceeding with the hydrogen bomb, while Lilienthal represented the AEC position. Continue reading “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (6. The Cold War)”