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)”

Someone else who has problems with World War II…

Ted Grimsrud—April 20, 2012

As I have been working on my research and writing project that I am now calling, “The ‘Good War’ That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters,” I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from a book from several years ago that also expresses deep skepticism about the moral legitimacy of this war. I posted the following reflections on this book almost four years ago when I first started my PeaceTheology.net site. I think it’s worth a revisit as I put the finishing touches on my book.

As could be expected, Nicholson Baker’s  Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon & Schuster, 2008) has received mostly hostile reviews both in the mainstream media and among academic historians. I think it is a terrific book, though. It was one of the most absorbing 400+ page books I have ever read.

Describing the lead up to World War II

The book is made up of hundreds, probably close to 1,000, short vignettes that trace the events leading up to World War II and its prosecution until the end of 1941 (which, for the U.S., marked our country’s entry into the War).

These vignettes are mostly simple, descriptive statements; only rarely is Baker’s voice apparent. An example of an editorial comment, though, may be found on page 452: A December 10, 1941, Gallup poll had shown that two-thirds of the American population would support the U.S. firebombing Japanese cities in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. “Ten percent—representing twelve million citizens—were wholly opposed. Twelve million people still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deeds of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them.” Continue reading “Someone else who has problems with World War II…”

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?”

Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder

Ted Grimsrud—July 31, 2011

With Gordon Kaufman’s passing, an era in the Mennonite world is nearing an end. Kaufman, like his contemporaries, was decisively shaped by his personal experience with World War II and its immediate aftermath. (The era isn’t quite over given the still-productive pen of the remarkable Norman Kraus, an exact contemporary of Kaufman’s and John Howard Yoder’s—here’s Norman’s most recent book.)

In an interview given near the end of his life, Kaufman talked briefly about how as a young adult he was planning to pursue a career in mathematics. Then he was drafted in the midst of World War II and chose to be a conscientious objector. He served for several years in Civilian Public Service in lieu of entering the military. By war’s end, he had redirected his aspirations.

John Howard Yoder, the other Mennonite theological giant of the 20th century, also had his life’s aspirations redirected by World War II-based service. Yoder, who was a couple years younger than Kaufman and thus not liable to the draft during the war, went to war-devastated Western Europe on a service assignment shortly after the end of the war, an assignment that determined his educational and vocational pursuits.

With all their differences, Kaufman and Yoder shared something quite profound. They both obviously were brilliant and ambitious young men who had multiple options for career paths. Both also were deeply committed Mennonites. Contrary to the stereotype of Mennonites as withdrawn, “sectarian,” and purity-focused, both of these two extraordinarily gifted people decided to devote their lives to grappling with the world’s most complicated and relevant issue: how to live humanely in a war-devastated environment still in thrall to the myth of redemptive violence. Continue reading “Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder”

Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P.

Ted Grimsrud—July 24, 2011

Gordon Kaufman, a giant among 20th century Christian theologians, died at his home in Cambridge, MA, this past Friday. Kaufman, an emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School, was 86.

Kaufman was well known in theology circles as a theological liberal (he’s featured prominently in Gary Dorrien’s authoritative history of liberal theology in the U.S.). Not so well known, he was also a Mennonite. His father, E.G. Kaufman (also a theologian) was long-time president of Bethel College, a Mennonite school in Kansas.

Gordon was a conscientious objector during World War II, serving in Civilian Public Service. After graduating from Bethel, he went on to graduate studies at the University of Chicago and Yale Divinity School. One of his main teachers was H.Richard Niebuhr. After completing his doctorate, he taught at Pomona College in southern California for a few years. At that time he was ordained for the ministry in the General Conference Mennonite Church, an ordination he kept current the rest of his life. He moved on to Vanderbilt Divinity School and in 1963 joined the faculty at Harvard Divinity School, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Beginning in 1960, Gordon published a series of important theology books, most notably his In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Harvard University Press, 1993) which won an American Academy of Religion award of excellence in 1995. He kept writing well into his retirement years. His last book was Jesus And Creativity"" (Fortress Press, 2006). Continue reading “Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P.”

Why Pacifism?

Ted Grimsrud—June 21, 2011

In many Mennonite churches, the first Sunday in July is designated Peace Sunday. In recognition of that important upcoming “church holiday” (more important to me than about any other), I am posting some appropriate reflections.

As I think about pacifism these days, often my dad comes to mind.  At one point in his life, my dad was a warrior.  In 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, he chose to enlist in the Army.  He certainly wasn’t a warmonger, but he felt a strong sense of loyalty to his country.

My dad spent four years fighting against the Japanese.  He was wounded, contracted malaria, and saw his best friend (whose name was Ted) killed before his eyes.  And he was proud of his service.

Only one time did he speak of the war to me, when I was 17 and facing the likelihood of being drafted myself.  My dad told me his Army experience had been good; he encouraged me to attend a military academy so I could go in as an officer.  I wasn’t tempted, he didn’t push me, and we never talked about it again.

As I reflect on this now, I find it interesting that my father grew up in a good Christian home—his father and one of his grandfathers were pastors.  Apparently, my father never saw a tension between being a warrior and being a Christian.  I think it never occurred to him that God and Caesar might be competitors for his allegiance….I wish it had. Continue reading “Why Pacifism?”

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”

What do we make of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in 1945, might be the most famous theologian of the 20th century. On the surface, based strictly on his written output, this may be a bit surprising. He wrote well, and was prolific given his short and amazingly eventful life—but his writings on their own don’t explain the extent of his fame. It was also his life, or, maybe more specifically, the events surrounding his death.

Bonhoeffer was put to death by his own government, executed by the Nazis in Germany just weeks before the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer’s fame owes itself partly, for sure, to his wonderful books, especially Cost of Discipleship, to his witness to Christian faithfulness in his active resistance to the Nazi regime from the time of Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, and to his remarkable courage and witness in the years of his imprisonment leading up to his execution.

However, it could be that what puts Bonhoeffer at or near the top of the list of famous theologians may be a misunderstanding concerning why the Nazis killed him. Bonhoeffer was well known as a pacifist in the years leading up to his arrest, based in part on his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount in Discipleship. But then, the story goes, he had a change of heart given the exigencies of Nazi tyranny and joined with the conspiracy that sought to assassinate Hitler. The attempt on Hitler’s life failed, the conspirators were arrested, and most—including Bonhoeffer—put to death.

Bonhoeffer, then, has become kind of a poster boy for “Christian realism,” a recognition that pacifism is a fine ideal but at times in the real world one must, of necessity, turn to the sword and use “evil” methods to defeat a greater evil.

Now, this use of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom may be, and of course has, been vigorously debated for years. But maybe one of the premises that all sides to the debates have generally accepted—that Bonhoeffer indeed did take part in the effort to kill Hitler—is not actually true. This is the thesis argued by my Eastern Mennonite University colleague Mark Thiessen Nation in a book he co-wrote with Anthony Siegrist and Daniel Umble (Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering the Call to Peacemakingpublished by Baker Academic in 2013). Mark gave an excellent summary of his argument in a lecture at EMU on February 23, 2011 (a podcast of this highly recommended lecture may be heard here ).

Continue reading “What do we make of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?”

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]

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

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”