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 (08. No to the 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.]

8. No to the War

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2011

The roots of war resistance

From colonial times, the population of North American has always included significant numbers of people who by conviction believed they could not participate in war. These pacifists varied in how they believed those convictions should be applied to public policy, some actively engaged in seeking for governments to repudiate warfare, others focusing their energies primarily on encouraging those within their own faith communities refusing to participate.

Pacifism established itself in the North American colonies when the British government granted William Penn, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a charter to establish the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682. The Friends emerged as a distinct movement in Britain in the mid-1650s under the leadership of George Fox. Fox combined a close adherence to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a mystical sense of the presence of God’s Spirit in the believer’s heart, in the hearts of all other human beings, and in the broader creation.

The combination of placing the highest priority on the message of Jesus with the belief in the active work of the Spirit throughout the world, inspired many Friends to affirm at the core of their faith the belief that all human relationships should be characterized by compassion, respect, and mutuality. This belief led them to repudiate warfare as a legitimate way for human beings to settle their differences.

In its early years, the colony of Pennsylvania operated under the leadership of people who were part of the Society of Friends. The colony sought to establish peaceable relationships with the Natives who were living within its borders. The colony also saw itself as a haven for other religious dissenters who shared similar values as the Friends, thereby becoming a pioneering political community that practiced genuine religious freedom and did not center its policies around the sword. Continue reading “The Long Shadow—World War II’s Moral Legacy (08. No to the War)”

The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (07. Full Spectrum Dominance)

[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.]

7. Full Spectrum Dominance

Ted Grimsrud—January 4, 2011

The Cold War ends

On a sunny spring day, April 1992, I biked to work as usual. Along the bike path in west Eugene, Oregon, I suddenly stopped and paid attention to what I was feeling. I realized a weight of anxiety I had lived with going back to the civil defense drills of my early childhood, was gone. At times I had been quite self-conscious about this anxiety, but mostly it was simply a part of life, something always there but usually in the background.

This new sense of relief almost overwhelmed me. As I stopped my bike and simply reveled in it, I reflected how I never actually thought this day would come. All through the 1980s, with the Reagan arms buildup and rhetoric about the Soviet Union as the evil empire, the Contra War in Nicaragua, talk of an impending bloodbath in South Africa that could turn nuclear, the squashing of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, to imagine that in the early months of 1992 we’d see the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid—essentially achieved nonviolently—seemed like pure fantasy.

Of course, as events proved over time, the commitment of American policymakers to “full spectrum dominance” throughout the world, militarily and economically, managed to transform this moment of relief and hope into deepened anxiety and insecurity. For that brief moment in 1992, though, the basic story I have recounted that began with American entry into World War II, an extraordinarily discouraging story, came to an unexpected (and largely undeserved, on the American side) moment of possibility, where the ideals of the Atlantic Charter actually seemed achievable. Continue reading “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (07. Full Spectrum Dominance)”

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

Korea

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)”

The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (4. What the War cost)

[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.]

4. What the War cost

Ted Grimsrud —12/31/10

Death and destruction

In the popular story in the United States about World War II, we hear almost exclusively about the positive elements of the War—how we totally defeated the Nazi and Japanese threats, how the United States finally became a committed member of the international community, how the American economy kicked into full gear and lead the way to this decisive victory for democracy and the American way of life.

We may question this story on three levels. First, directly in relation to the popular story—did the War actually accomplish these positive things in such an unambiguous way? Simply to mention one issue—we tend not to realize just how small a role the United States and Britain actually played in defeating Nazi Germany. At least three-quarters of all German casualties came at the hands of the Soviet Union. The Nazi defeat was, if anything, a victory for totalitarian Communism not democracy.

On a different level, what about the aftermath of the War? Have the fruits of the American victory in World War II been as positive as the popular story would have us think? Part Two of this book will provide evidence for questioning just how unambiguously positive the longer-term outcome of the War has been for the United States. Our victory pushed us in the direction of embracing a role of the world’s greatest superpower. That embrace has pretty clearly contradicted the stated purposes of our involvement in World War II—self-determination and disarmament everywhere in the world.

We also would do well to consider a kind of cost/benefit analysis. Certainly, World War II accomplished many positive outcomes. It was beneficial—both in terms of the negative task of defeating these powerful aggressor states, Japan and Germany, and in terms of the positive task of expanding the role of the world’s pioneer democratic society, the United States. And, for Americans themselves, the War was mostly a fairly positive experience. Our economy expanded tremendously, decisively bringing the Great Depression to an end. Masses of people were put to work, many of whom were able to enhance their social and economic status immensely. The war effort fed directly into the tremendous expansion of higher education, of membership in labor unions, and of church membership. Continue reading “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (4. What the War cost)”

The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (3. Jus in bello)

[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.]

3. Jus in bello: The conduct of the war

Ted Grimsrud —12/30/10

Jus in bello criteria

In moral reflection on warfare in the western tradition, generally analysis is broken into two general categories. Political philosopher Michael Walzer describes these categories as follows: “War is always judged twice, first with reference to the reasons states have for fighting, secondly with reference to the means they adopt. The first kind of judgment is adjectival in character: we say that a particular war is just or unjust. The second is adverbial: we say that the war is being fought justly or unjustly. Medieval writers made the difference a matter of prepositions, distinguishing jus ad bellum, the justice of war, from jus in bello, justice in war….Jus ad bellum requires us to make judgments about aggression and self-defense; jus in bello about the observance or violation of the customary and positive rules of engagement.”[1]

In chapter two, I looked at the rationale for the U. S. entering the War, the jus ad bellum. I concluded that the basic criteria of “just cause” may arguably be seen as having been met. In the European War, the violence of Nazi Germany provided several bases for warfare being the appropriate response: “an injustice demanding reparation,” “offense committed against innocent third parties,” and “moral guilt demanding punishment,” among others.[2] In the Asian War, Japan provided the key basis for the response of war, “an aggression demanding reparation.”

I did suggest that the American mythology of World War II, established at the very beginning of the U.S. formal entry in the War with Franklin Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” speech, masks numerous complicating factors that made the “just cause” bases for America joining the War a bit more complicated than the mythology of the “good war” would admit.

The mythology asserts (not inaccurately) that the U. S. had more legitimate causes for going to war in World War II than probably any other war. However, this assertion may actually be making more a statement about the lack of justifiability in going to war in the other cases than the clear justness of entering this particular war. That being said, though, I am willing to accept that as far as the just war tradition goes, even though America’s entry into World War II does not match up perfectly with the traditional criteria—the most obvious tension lies with the crucial criterion of “war must be a last resort”—we do not do violence to just war thought to accept that United States entry into World War II was “just.” Continue reading “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (3. Jus in bello)”

The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (2. Jus ad bellum)

[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.]

2. Jus ad bellum: The reasons for war

Ted Grimsrud —12/29/10

The storm clouds gather

My father, Carl Grimsrud, graduated from high school in the tiny western Minnesota town of Hitterdahl in 1934. Those were challenging times. On a personal level, just days before high school graduation, Carl’s mother Dora died of cancer. The mid-1930s were the height of the Great Depression. Carl’s father, Carl, Sr., had served for years as a Lutheran pastor in rural congregations mainly made up of farmers whose economic depression actually dated back to the early 1920s and had only gotten worse and worse. Western Minnesota was at the northeastern edge of the Dust Bowl, environmental devastation that gave dramatic visual expression to the economic devastation shaking the Great Plains.

Lurking in the background, but surely in the consciousness of a socially aware person such as young Carl, deeply problematic global political dynamics were foreshadowing profound crises to come. In 1934, Adolf Hitler was in his second year of power in Germany, consolidating his National Socialist dictatorship. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was in the midst of government-imposed famine meant to consolidate its power over the Ukraine. Japan’s effort to expand its power in China was building into a full-scale attempt at military conquest. Continue reading “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (2. Jus ad bellum)”

The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (1. Introduction)

[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.]

1. Introduction

Ted Grimsrud—12/28/10

Why I have written this book

World War II was big, maybe the biggest thing ever.

Within the six years of what truly became a global conflict (or, maybe more accurately, a series of conflicts that encompassed the globe), as many as eighty million people were killed. That’s more than the entire population of most of the countries of the world. Many times more people had their lives profoundly traumatized. Countless millions were displaced. We simply have no way to measure or even to comprehend the scale of suffering and destruction the nations of the world unleashed not only onto each other as human beings but also on nature.

Yet, we have not even begun to take the measure of this extraordinary trauma. It’s impact remains present and alive throughout the world. It has shaped the morality of all subsequent generations. For many, especially in the world’s “one superpower,” the United States of America, World War II remains the moral touchstone for understanding the necessity and even moral “goodness” of military force.[1]

My own life, I imagine in typical ways for Americans of my generation, has been shaped by the War—though surely in ways that are fairly minimal in comparison with people from the parts of the world much more directly impacted by the War’s destructiveness. For me, for my generation of Americans, the War’s impact was more subtle—on one level fairly benign, on a deeper level quite morally problematic.

Both of my parents enlisted in the U.S. Army in order to contribute to the war effort. My father, Carl Grimsrud, enlisted in the National Guard in 1941. After Pearl Harbor, he was pressed into active duty. He was stationed in eastern Oregon to guard against a possible Japanese invasion and he met my mother, Betty Wagner. In time, Carl was shipped to the South Pacific where he spent three intense years—he was wounded, he killed, he suffered malaria, but he managed to survive, even to thrive. He received a battlefield commission and reached the rank of captain. As the Army demobilized, he was asked to stay in and make a career of the military, with the promise of further advancement. He said no, not because of any negative feelings about “the Service,” but because he had made a commitment to Betty to return to Oregon and establish a life together. While Carl served in combat, Betty worked as a military recruiter, gaining the rank of Sergeant prior to her discharge. Continue reading “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (1. Introduction)”

Our fathers’ war

Several months ago, I embarked upon a big project of trying to make some sense of the moral impact of World War II on the United States. I have done quite a bit of reading, speaking, and writing so far—aided by the blessing of a sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities at Eastern Mennonite University. This lecture especially summarizes some of what I have been thinking about. Here is the link to the rough drafts of the chapters to this book.

One theme has arisen for me that I did not anticipate when I started. That is thinking a lot more about my own father’s involvement in this war and how that involvement might have had an impact on our relationship. I was the fourth of my parents’ five children, but the first and only son. On the surface, I can think of several ways the war shaped my life—I was named after a friend of my dad’s who died in combat during the war, my parents met each other because of the war, and the new medical technology that saved my life when I was born (blood transfusions) would likely not have been available had it not been for the war.

Something I had not really thought about until I started on my project, though, was the trauma the war inflicted on those who fought in it. It makes a lot of sense to imagine the terrible trauma on the people in the many parts of the world who endured the fighting first hand, and the trauma for those societies that poured heart and soul into the fight and lost, and the trauma for the loved ones of the millions upon millions who lost their lives in the war (including about 400,000 American soldiers).

But what about the soldiers who fought on the winning side, who returned home physically whole to a country largely unscathed by the conflict, and who went on to live successful lives? That is, what about people like my father? Continue reading “Our fathers’ war”