Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy

Ted Grimsrud—EMU University Colloquium—9/29/10

[During the 2010-11 school year, I am taking a sabbatical and working on a book project on the topic covered in this lecture. This is kind of a preliminary report. I hope to post drafts of the chapters of the book on this website as I get them ready. Comments are coveted!]

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into Harrisonburg and kills 40,000 people. This would be incredible news. America’s worst ever natural disaster. But then, imagine that something like this happens every single day for five years. You can’t imagine that? Well, that’s what World War II was—40,000 people killed every single day for five years.

But World War II wasn’t a natural catastrophe—it was something human beings did to each other. These 75 million people didn’t just die due to impersonal nature run amok. They were killed by other people. World War II was an intensely moral event. Human choices. Human values. Human actions.

And World War II has cast a long shadow. We’re still in its shadow. As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Just one example. In Barak Obama’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, just last December, he alluded to the necessity for America to fight our war in Afghanistan—and cited the war against Hitler as one key rationale. That war was obviously a necessary war, our nation’s “good war,” and it helps us see our current wars as necessary as well.

So, to come to terms with our moral stance concerning our present wars (and all wars require a moral stance of one kind or another), we need to come to terms with the moral legacy of the big war, World War II, the one that stands, in this country, as the paradigm for war’s necessity. This is my focus during this sabbatical year.

As I work on this project, I reflect on this war’s impact on my own life. World War II brought my parents together. My father, Carl, grew up in Minnesota. My mother, Betty, in Oregon. In early 1941, Carl enlisted in the Army and was first stationed in eastern Oregon. He met Betty, they fell in love, and promised to join together as soon as the War was over. This is their wedding picture. Carl fought with distinction for three years in the Pacific war, was promoted to captain, and actually asked by the army to stay in. But he’d had enough of guns and wanted to build a life with Betty, who had spent the war years also in the army as a recruiter.

They started having kids right away, ultimately contributing five to the baby boom generation. It took until 1954 to come up with a boy. Betty wanted to name him Carl III, but Carl said no, I want to name him Ted, after my best friend who was killed in combat.

I didn’t hear a lot about “the War” growing up; it was always in the background though, as something important and good that my parents had played their part in. The one conversation I remember came when I was 17. My dad urged me to apply to attend one of the military academies. He said his military service was a terrific experience and he thought I’d value it too. I didn’t agree, and he didn’t press the point. Continue reading