The Military Industrial Complex and the Moral Legacy of World War II

Ted Grimsrud—1/14/11

[Presented at the Military Industrial Complex at 50 Conference—Guilford College, Greensboro, NC—adapted from earlier lectures at Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College]

Dwight Eisenhower was, I think, an unlikely, and not altogether believable, prophet against militarism. Nonetheless, if we pay attention to a few of his words (in contrast to a long career of actions), we will find some powerful insights.

Most notably, almost exactly fifty years ago, on his way out of the presidency, Eisenhower critiqued what he so incisively called the “military-industrial complex.” Tragically, the past fifty years only underscore both the prescience of Eisenhower’s warning and regret that he did not do more to curb militarism when he had a chance.

In a typically perceptive article called “The Tyranny of Defense, Inc.,” in The Atlantic’s January 2011 issue, Andrew Bacevich writes in appreciation of Eisenhower’s speech. But Bacevich also points out that Eisenhower’s farewell speech came as a kind of bookend, paired with a speech from near the beginning of his presidency in 1953.

That first speech reflected on the dangers of militarism in the United States. Eisenhower stressed the problems of high military spending with these forceful words: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. [When a nation spends so much on warfare] it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

Yet, when we look at Eisenhower’s actual policies as president, we see he turned out to do what precisely he warned against. The MIC was way more entrenched in 1961 than in 1953. For example, the American nuclear stockpile grew from about 1,000 warheads in 1953 to over 24,000 by 1961. The overthrow of democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala, the attempted overthrow of the Indonesian government, and the beginning of the American assault on Vietnam all happened on Eisenhower’s watch.

The contradiction between Eisenhower’s words and his actions could be explained as proof of the limited power any anti-militarist president has available. Or, maybe instead, as evidence of the cynicism of politicians such as Eisenhower in trying to assure of his good intentions with his words even as his actions point in a different direction. Bacevich leans in the first direction—I lean in the second.

My concern today, though, is to reflect on the question of why this country has remained so in thrall to such self-destructive policies. Bacevich writes about a “military metaphysics”—“the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military.” Peace is not possible for this mindset; the best we can hope for are lulls between wars.

Now, we certainly may trace expressions of “military metaphysics” to the very beginning of European colonization of North America. However, we may see in the U.S. up until 1941 a continual struggle, the democracy story vs. the empire story. The empire story from the start has dominated—but it was constrained by the democracy story. Until, that is, the Second World War. The so-called good war may have defeated terrible tyrannical forces—Germany, Japan—but it also led to the virtual end of the democracy story and set the stage for the overwhelming domination of the MIC.

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into Greensboro and kills 40,000 people. This would be incredible, America’s worst ever natural disaster. But then, imagine that something like this happens every single day for five years. That’s World War II—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.

And World War II has cast a long shadow. We’re still in its shadow. Just one example. In Barak Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, he affirmed America’s war in Afghanistan—and cited the war against Hitler as a rationale. That war, obviously necessary, our “good war,” helps us see our current wars as necessary as well. World War II stands, in this country, as the paradigm for war’s necessity—and the need to prepare for war by pouring money into the MIC.

I have five questions that I want to ask concerning World War II:

(1) Was our involvement in World War II necessary? Were there just causes? (2) Were the means we used to fight this war just? (3) What were our costs in fighting this war? (4)What was the aftermath of the War? How did it impact our nation, especially our foreign policy and attitudes toward war and peace? (5) Were and are there alternative stories, alternatives to seeing this war as necessary and as justifying wars since 1945?

In traditional moral reasoning concerning warfare, two central categories shape the discussion. Were the causes just (in Latin, the jus ad bellum—just entry into war)? And were the means just (the jus in bello—just actions in war). When we ask, was this war necessary, we ask the first question, about just cause.

I know of three main reasons Americans give for this war’s necessity. (1) To maintain our national autonomy. “If it wasn’t for this war, we’d all be speaking German now!” (2) To protect democracy in the face of global tyranny and totalitarianism. (3) To save the Jews from the Nazis. But were these reasons borne out by our actions? I am not convinced they were.

Neither Germany nor Japan appear actually to have intended to invade and conquer the U. S. Crazy both nations may have been, but their leaders all knew such an invasion would be impossible. The incredible logistical challenge faced by the Allies in invading France in 1944 where they had to negotiate only across the English Channel showed that invading the U. S. across vast oceans simply couldn’t have been done.

Plus, neither Germany nor Japan seem to have wanted to conquer the U. S., in any case. Both wanted to dominate their own regions, not the entire world. They desired some sort of coexistence with the U.S.—and decided war was necessary when we had no interest in that kind of coexistence and actively opposed their actions.

But weren’t we then mostly wanting to back democracy against totalitarianism? Wasn’t that why we aided the British against the Germans and the Chinese against the Japanese? This is a complicated question. Certainly, most Americans supported global democracy. But in terms of U.S. foreign policy, the picture is ambiguous. China under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek was an authoritarian dictatorship. Britain was a democracy—internally, but also ruthlessly ruled over a global empire that, at least for its non-white subjects, utterly resisted ideals of genuine self-determination.

And, during the war, we made common cause with the Soviet Union. Stalin’s empire was about as far from democracy as any major nation has ever been. Our fight against Germany actually furthered the reach of Soviet totalitarianism. As well, in defeating the Japanese we helped open the path for a Communist takeover in China.

Then there is the fate of Poland. In the 1930s, Poland was a military dictatorship. Britain allied with Poland against Germany for reasons of realpolitik, not out of a quest for democracy. Germany invading Poland trip-wired World War II and caused Britain to declare war on Germany. This war utterly devastated Poland. It led directly to 20% of the Polish population being killed. When the war ended, the Western Allies acquiesced to the annexation of Poland into the Soviet Empire and the imposition of a totalitarian Communist government. Poland was on the “winning side”—and was crushed.

What about saving the Jews? This is also complicated. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander in Europe said, on the site of a newly liberated concentration camp at the end of the war, “This is why we were fighting.” But in fact, Eisenhower’s own policies during the War ignored the fate of the Jews in the Nazi death camps, even though the Allies’ leaders knew from early on at least some of what was happening. Nothing was done to stop the holocaust as it was happening.

The Allies’ position was that the best hope for the Jews was to end the war in decisive victory as soon as possible—and only then turn to liberating the camps. In fact, though, by insisting on “unconditional surrender,” the Allies prolonged the war for many months, during which time the Nazis desperately accelerated the killing of Jews.

So, if our involvement in World War II was not about protecting ourselves from invasion, not about furthering democracy in face of totalitarianism, not about rescuing Jews—why did we fight? This is the big question I’m not prepared to answer yet—but I think it was due to (1) U.S. desire for global economic power and (2) simply the spiraling dynamics of trust in military power to solve conflicts. I hope we can talk about this.

Now to my second question. Were the means just? Is a “necessary war” just regardless of the tactics? In the moral tradition of thinking about warfare, two key criteria in particular measure the justifiability of tactics in warfare: the criterion of proportionality (that the damage done by the tactics does not outweigh the good accomplished by their implementation) and the criterion of noncombatant immunity (wars should not be waged on civilian populations).

American leaders knew of these criteria. At the start of Europe’s war, President Roosevelt called for the belligerents not to target civilians. He feared “hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities” would be killed. Let the belligerents “determine that [their] armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.”

By early 1942, the U.S. joined the European air war. The British intentionally bombed population centers. The Americans argued instead for focusing on military objects—you simply don’t directly target noncombatants. However, by the summer of 1943, new American leaders were in place more open to civilian bombing. The British created a list of German cities to be smashed, beginning with Hamburg. In July 1943 for the first time, air attackers intentionally created a firestorm that incinerated everything in its path—including tens of thousands of old people, children, and other non-combatants.

The second intentional firestorm was loosed on Dresden early in 1945—an attack immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut, a prisoner of war, witnessed the destruction of this “unfortified” city that was full of war refugees.

In both cases, the Allies justified the attacks as military related. However, with Hamburg, which was a center for war manufacturing, the attacks focused on the city center. As an ironic consequence, survivors of the bombing, deprived of their normal livelihoods, flocked to the suburban weapons plants for work, alleviating what had up to that time been a chronic labor shortage in those plants. With Dresden, the only possible military-related significance of the city was its role as a transportation center. Yet the actual bombing ignored the railroads. Within three days, Dresden’s transportation facilities were back in full swing and in fact large numbers of German troops and supplies passed through the city not long afterward on their way to battle to the east.

Whatever reluctance Americans had for targeting civilians was gone by the time of attacks on the Japanese mainland. The first and most destructive attack was on Tokyo, March 9, 1945. We burned Tokyo’s most densely populated districts to the ground in a ferocious firestorm that killed more than 85,000 people. Over the next five months, the American city-bombing campaign across Japan killed up to 900,000 people and rendered maybe 20 million homeless. “The principal cause of civilian deaths,’ said the postwar US Bombing Survey, “was burns.”

It was only one more step to the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Debate continues about their military necessity. Regardless, these weapons brought immediate death to tens of thousands of noncombatants and brought lingering death to tens of thousands more, and poisoned the genetic legacy of those exposed to that radiation. Their use clearly violated the jus in bello criteria.

Not only do we see during the years of World War II steady accommodation to tactics that drastically violated the criteria of proportion and noncombatant immunity, the use of these tactics had a major impact on the practice of warfare for the United States in the years following. I’ll offer just one example. During the entire course of World War II, with the kind of devastating consequences I have alluded to, the United States and Britain dropped about 3.4 million tons of bombs on Germany and Japan. Twenty years later, during the Vietnam War, we dropped 6.7 million tons of bombs on Indochina.

British philosopher A.C. Grayling’s careful consideration of the evidence in his book Among the Dead Cities concludes that the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II constituted a war crime. Former American Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who worked during World War II analyzing targets for the American air war, stated not long before his death that the firebombing of Tokyo was also a war crime.

After World War II, the Allies conducted war crimes trials and executed several German and Japanese war leaders. Part of the rationale for those executions was the assertion that no war requiring war crimes is ever “necessary.”…

What were the costs of this war? We can only very roughly estimate. We may start with the number of deaths. Of all the major belligerents in the War, the United States suffered by far the fewest. Even so, over 400,000 American soldiers died. Great Britain lost about 450,000 (proportionately about three times more than the U.S.) and the Soviet Union perhaps as many as 26 million (65 times more than we did). Of the Axis powers, Germany lost as many as 10 million lives and Japan close to 3 million.

Some of the nations caught in the crossfire sustained casualties greater than most of the belligerents—most notably Poland (5.8 million), China (20 million), the Philippines and Yugoslovia (1 million each), French Indochina [Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos] (1.5 million), India (2.6 million), and the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia] (4 million).

On top of the direct deaths, the tens of millions of people were injured, driven from their homes, suffered disease or severe hunger. Not to mention the incalculable weight of grief and other emotional traumas. We must also note the deaths of domestic and wild animals plus the immense damage done to the physical environment.

Eighty percent of the deaths caused by the War were noncombatants—but only 1,700 American noncombatants were killed. A high percentage of deaths came to people in nations who were not partisans in the conflict. For example, the number of British, American, and Japanese war deaths combined were fewer than the war deaths suffered by Indonesians. India suffered six times the deaths that Great Britain did.

Let me very briefly touch on three other kinds of cost from this war. I have already mentioned the Holocaust—an atrocity totally to be lain at the murderous feet of the Nazis. However, the war itself made the Holocaust possible. This is the conclusion of Holocaust historian Doris Bergen: “War…exponentially increased the numbers and kinds of victims….War provided killers with both a cover and an excuse for murder; in wartime, killing was normalized, and extreme, even genocidal measures could be justified with familiar arguments about the need to defend the homeland. Without the war, the Holocaust would not—and could not—have happened.”

I have also alluded to another cost of the war—the spread of Communist totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia. We cannot imagine how the creation of the Warsaw Pact and the “Iron Curtain” could have happened except for World War II. The United States supposedly went to war for the sake of democracy and disarmament. As far as Central and Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia were concerned, in relation to these purposes, the War was an abject failure.

Another cost may be seen in its impact on American democracy. President Roosevelt saw his role being to figure out what the best course of action was and then to move the country in that direction. He willingly contravened the will of the people and their congressional leaders, engaging in ever increasing clandestine behavior and public misrepresentation of the facts.

In American history prior to World War II, we would enter a war, mobilize, and then at war’s end demobilize and return to a civilian-centered, more democratic political economy. Not this time. American military leaders also sought unhindered power. Key moves—mostly unilateral presidential actions that did not pass through legislative processes and nor inform the public—moved the US seemingly irrevocably from a democracy to a “national security state.”

Let me mention three crucial institutions that began in World War II, that became permanent (though each began as a temporary response to the “present emergency” of the war), and grew to immense—and fundamental anti-democratic power. The first key step was the construction of the Pentagon, which expanded to become the true center of power in the U.S. government. The centralization and tremendous expansion of military power in the United States were central costs of the War.

A second key structure was the nuclear weapons program. It absorbed enormous amounts of resources—all hidden from Congressional scrutiny. Vice President Harry Truman himself knew nothing of the program until after Roosevelt’s death. Truman’s decision to drop two nuclear bombs on Japan was made no input from Congress. The decisions to expand our nuclear arsenal and to share nuclear capabilities with various countries have all been made outside democratic processes.

The third key structure was the Central Intelligence Agency. During the war, Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to organize spying and covert operations. The actual impact of the OSS on the war was minimal, and after a careful review it was slated for elimination. Strong lobbying efforts rescued the OSS, though, and it was renamed as the CIA in 1947—and soon became entrenched as a means for presidents to operate “of the books.” In the years since, out of this initial launching of a “secret government” has grown an entire network of secretive agencies.

In the late 1930s, the U.S. had a relatively small military and presidents felt constrained by the Constitution and democratic accountability to rely on a formal declaration of war by Congress before committing American forces to war. By the end of the War in 1945, both of these elements of American politics were gone not to return—no more small military, no more democratic accoountability.

At the end of the War, we stood as the world’s dominant power economically and militarily. Our political system had unmatched prestige in the world. More than any other time in our history, we stood in a position to move the world toward the ideals we based our war effort on—self-determination, disarmament, genuine democracy.

We also had a monopoly on the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen. In the months after August 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson advocated that we treat our nuclear capability as a kind of global trust. We should ask the Soviets and the British to join us and have joint stewardship over this new mega-weapon. In the end, those who wanted to expand our nuclear arsenal and retain our monopoly defeated this proposal. We can only imagine our world now if Stimson had carried the day.

Up until 1947, the U.S. had a War Department. This name implied a role that would to come into prominence only in the rare instances where America found itself at war. After 1947, it was the Defense Department, with ever-expanding prominence. We always need to pour major resources into defense. So, World War II bled into the Cold War, the Cold War bled into the War on Terror, never-ending war footing fueled by war-oriented agencies permanently expanded by World War II: the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and other secret agencies, and the nuclear weapons program.

In 1947, President Truman announced what came to be known as the “Truman Doctrine.” This doctrine locked us into an adversarial path in relating to the Soviet Union. It said, in effect: Anywhere in the world where Communism arises, it constitutes a direct threat to the security of the United States and must be met with force. This doctrine led to interventions against many peoples’ efforts at self-determination worldwide, since virtually all such efforts would be labeled “communist.” The “communist threat” also led to horrific repression inside the US during the early 1950s—the “McCarthy era” that criminalized dissent and permanently marginalized the political left.

The past 60 years are a litany of one Truman Doctrine-inspired intervention after another—including the massive military engagement in faraway Korea, in which about 4 million Koreans lost their lives; 75% non-combatants. The Korean War came at a crucial moment. Following the end of World War II in 1945, the US did demobilize its military forces and reduce spending. Those who benefited from militarism resisted the cuts. The Truman Doctrine did make it certain that the US would not return to small 1930s military. However, pressure to make increasing cuts continued through the late 1940s.

Then, the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel in June, 1950. As one military leader admitted later, “the Korean War saved us.” Thoughts of demobilization ended. In the years to come, one military intervention after another followed—all in the shadow of the (very lucrative for arms contractors) Cold War. Many military interventions were covert—such as overthrowing democratic governments in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. Both those interventions led to decades of violent, authoritarian consequences.

Another intervention begun in the 1950s ultimately became one of the greatest American foreign policy disasters in our history—our war in Vietnam. Perhaps America’s current morass in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan is proving to be a larger disaster. It would be interesting to discuss which disaster has been greater. However, the war in Southeast Asia was truly disastrous. This war ultimately brought down both President Johnson and President Nixon. It resulted in 58,000 American deaths and millions of deaths in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Finally in 1975, the Vietnamese drove us out.

In the late 1980s, a great-power leader emerged who genuinely understood the intense danger the U.S./Soviet arms race had placed the world in and purposed to do something about it. Mikhail Gorbachev helped end the Cold War, and, though this wasn’t his intention, presided over the peaceful dismemberment of the Soviet empire.

With Gorbachev taking the Soviets out of the arms race, the U.S. emerged as the world’s one superpower and, as we had in 1945, we stood in a position to exert immense influence in moving the world toward genuine peace. And, as in 1945, the actual choices of American policy makers moved the world in the opposite direction.

The moment that focused these choices came in the summer of 1990. Many hoped for the dawning of a new era. One symbol of this hope was the clock of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This clock, using minutes to the midnight of nuclear war, measured the world’s danger. When the clock was first created, in the late 1940s, it showed just six minutes until midnight. It got as close as two minutes. But in early 1991, it showed seventeen minutes until midnight.

Even though the George H. W. Bush Administration supported militarism, they faced increasing pressure to draw down. Just days after major American military cuts were announced, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, who for years ruled with American support, invaded Kuwait. Diplomacy could have resolved this problem; Saddam was susceptible to American pressure. But his move presented the war forces with an opportunity not to be missed. February 1991 the Gulf War erupted, resulting in a great victory for the U.S. military—especially by reversing the movement toward disarmament.

Ten years later, the attacks of September 11, 2001 provided more opportunity for the forces of militarization to expand their power. First, the US invaded Afghanistan, followed by the “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq, growing acts of war in Pakistan, and increasing threats toward Iran—all linked with acts of torture, the major expansion of the secret agencies, erosion of civil liberties, and the empowerment of militaristic “homeland security” under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

So, back to the moral legacy of World War II. That war permanently enhanced American militarism. It led directly to the creation of new, extraordinarily powerful structures devoted to sustained dependence on force: the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons regime—all linked with the most powerful corporations in the world though a revolving door of top personnel and lobbyist wealth.

Several American presidents since the 1940s have claimed to seek more peaceable paths—such as Eisenhower’s critique of the military-industrial complex, Jimmy Carter’s human rights concerns, and Bill Clinton’s challenge to the Reagan/Bush open militarism. Most recently, President Obama ran as a peace candidate, challenging both Hilary Clinton and John McCain for their support of the Iraq War. However, in each case, these “peace-oriented” leaders, including Obama, have expanded military spending, even in face of huge budget deficits and economic crises.

In a nutshell, we may characterize the impact of World War II on America’s way of being in the world this way: it powerfully pushed our policy-makers to view problems that arise in international affairs as problems to be solved mainly through the projection of force. Military might worked well in the 1940s—and that success seems to justify trying the same kind of approach over and over….

Is there an alternative story for postwar America?

Well, the story as I’m telling it thus far evokes an image I learned from my friend, Andy Schmookler—the parable of the tribes. Imagine several tribes living as neighbors. Then one tribe wants what another has and takes it by force. The attacked tribe has two options, both tragic: fight back and be like the attacking tribe or flee and allow the attacking tribe to get what it wants. In either case, violence wins. This initial attack, Andy says, sets off a dynamic in social evolution that leads to a continual victory for violence and force, and becomes the ever-expanding dynamic of human social life.

So, we have an ever-growing momentum toward un-freedom, increased coercion, movement toward the abyss. Well, I want very briefly to mention two themes to counter the fatalism and despair this story seems to point towards. The first theme is the counter-narrative, the alternative story of resisting American militarization over the past seventy years. And the second is to reflect theologically on the meaning of this alternative story. Clearly, the alternative story is tiny and marginal compared to the dominant story, but it does provide bases, when seen with eyes of faith, for possibilities for genuine renewal, for guidance in a strategy of Tikkun (healing the world).

The alternative story has roots in World War II as well. It is, you could say, the minority report on the moral legacy of that war. Some 16 million Americans served in our military during this war—and about 18,000 formally refused to serve (that includes 12,000 who performed legally accepted alternative service and 6,000 who went to prison as draft resisters). So, for every potential soldier who said no to participation in this war, nearly one thousand said yes.

However, this tiny group of objectors provided the spark, provided inspiration, and certainly provided people power for the emergence of powerful efforts to construct a different kind of legacy than ever-expanding militarization and unending violence, a different vision of politics, a method of seeking self-determination and disarmament directly, rather than indirectly through the state’s coercive force. The key starting point that unites all who take part in the counter-narrative is simply to refuse to consent to the warring state—in the 1940s and ever since.

There were two distinct tendencies among most of the objectors: those with predominantly “servant tendencies” who focused more on addressing hurting people’s needs and those with “transformer tendencies” who focused more on social change. These tendencies may be seen in two different types of activity in the postwar years—though they complement each other and many have embodied elements of both. The transformer tendencies, for example, may be seen in direct action for social change such as civil rights and peace movements. It is certainly worth suggesting here in Greensboro that in remembering the fiftieth anniversary of the immensely creative nonviolent sit-ins and freedom rides of the Civil Rights Movement, we have probably the best antidote to the myth of redemptive violence that the MIC relies upon.

Examples of servant emphases may be seen in the relief, development, and witness efforts of several organizations that emerged from World War II primed for peace work in a severely damaged world. Three representative “servant” groups are the American Friends Service Committee, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Catholic Worker. Quite different from each other in many ways, they nonetheless share an emphasis on caring for people in need, a grounding in faith traditions and communities, and a desire to impact the surrounding world in ways that remain consistent with their core nonviolence-centered values.

These two peacemaking streams, the servants and the transformers, have contributed in major ways to the emergence of a tremendous ferment around the world—the possibilities of people power, the world’s other superpower, the civil society movement, a force more powerful, world and local social forums. These movements have created possibilities for a different kind of story, a different kind of moral legacy that could yet emerge from the rubble of World War II.

At the same time, the effectiveness of peace work always seems to remain doubtful. The MIC retains its dominating power in a society seemingly headed for self-destruction. Despite loud and widespread protests against the American aggression toward Iraq, the war-makers have continued mostly unhindered and now, following important anti-Republican elections in 2006 and 2008, the strongest supporters of more and more violence have regained a lot of their power in the US Congress.

So, as a theological response to the general trend since Eisenhower’s speech toward more and more disasters, I am thrown back to the book of Revelation. Chapter 13 gives us as vivid an image of the spiritual power behind World War II and the momentum towards the abyss as we could ask for: “A beast rising out of the sea” with heads, and horns, and crowns, the epitome of militarist violence. “Who is like the beast, and who can stand against it?” Indeed, as we look at the last seventy years of American foreign policy from the perspective of peace, we can’t help but join in this question. “All the inhabitants of the earth will worship it”—the power of the sword reigns supreme.

But Revelation does show a counter-vision. “I looked, and there was the Lamb!” The imagery here is complicated, but I believe that we are being shown, standing with the Lamb, multitudes from all nations who trust in his way instead of the Beast’s. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes, even in the face of the mighty power of the Beast. They are the ones who trust in “the force more powerful,” the force of love and compassion, of human solidarity and the rejection of weapons of war.

There aren’t many compared to those following the Beast. But Revelation claims that the power of those following the Lamb’s peaceable path nonetheless does stand on the side of the world’s creator. Revelation’s visions may be linked with Martin Luther King’s proclamation: the arc of the universe is indeed long, but ultimately it does bend toward justice.

Those who said no to the “good war” in the 1940s, small as their number may have been, witnessed to this force more powerful. We see this force emerge even in the face of the Beast’s seemingly all-powerful story of redemptive violence that stands as World War II’s main moral legacy. This other moral legacy, one of genuine peace, can become history’s final verdict on those terrible events that marked the twentieth-century.

The last word, I believe, belongs to a prophet for peace such as A.J. Muste, the former Marxist who came to believe that the way of nonviolence does indeed provide the key to overcoming the self-destructiveness of the MIC and the worship of the violence of World War II. This is how Jo Ann Robinson’s fine biography of Muste ends: “‘I agree that there is a sense in which the so-called peace movement has failed,’ Muste told a querulous correspondent. ‘[I agree] that I have failed, as you suggest. But this is not our real problem. The real problem is that too many human beings have lost touch with their own best instincts [that point profoundly toward peace]. Joy and growth come from following our deepest impulses, however foolish they may seem to some, or dangerous, and even though the apparent outcome may be defeat.’”

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2 thoughts on “The Military Industrial Complex and the Moral Legacy of World War II

  1. Pingback: Two Alternative Views of WWII | The Penn Ave Post

  2. MarkinPNW

    Leaders in my own faith tradition (LDS-Mormon) bemoan the steady decline of traditional values since WW2 – sex, drugs, homosexuality, etc. yet they don’t seem to get the connection of our involvement in WW2 (and WW1 beforehand) as the major cause, or at least a major contributing factor, in this decline of values. I think the culture war was lost in our headlong rush to total war in WW2 . All of these cultural declines are, I feel, in large part an outgrowth of our enthusiasm for unjustified war.


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