The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (01. 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.

So, one obvious impact the War had on my existence is that it brought my parents together. They married as soon as they could and settled back in Oregon and both had fulfilling careers as public school teachers.

My father never talked with me about his experience (actually, there was one conversation, when I was 17 and he told me how meaningful his experience was in the context of encouraging me to consider applying to one of the military academies for college—when I showed no interest, he dropped the subject). He did share one important part of his experience, though. He had one close friend in the Army. This friend died in combat. His name was Ted. Regretfully, now, I realize that’s all I know about my namesake. I wish I had asked my dad more about his friend.

There was a third fairly direct way the War had an impact on my life. I was born in 1954, my parents’ fourth child (and first boy). Their mixture of blood types made me what is called an “Rh factor” baby. This condition would get worse with each pregnancy, and by the time I came along, it was bad enough that if left to my own devices as a newborn, I would not have been able to create my own blood and I would have perished. Medicine was in the process of learning how to combat this condition, and one type of intervention that met with success was total blood transfusions for the baby. Few pediatricians had yet learned how to handle this procedure, mainly those who had served in the War and learned about blood transfusions through working on severely wounded soldiers. It happened that in our small hospital in Eugene, Oregon, we did have one such doctor, who saved my life with this new procedure.

So, World War II brought my parents together, it provided my name, and it made the medical intervention that saved my life possible. But the War also shaped me as an American in other ways. It provided a mythology of the redemptive possibilities of violence. It was a good war that defended our way of life and defeated clear forces of evil. As such, it set the tone for belief that America was a force for good in the world, that our on-going military actions were in continuation with the Good War, and that just as my parents served this good in the world with their military service, so should I be ready to do the same.

I’ll say more later in this Introduction about how I personally came to disbelieve in the redemptive possibilities of violence (what I will call “the myth of redemptive violence”). However, I have been unusual in this disbelief. Perhaps in large part because Americans mostly experienced the benefits of being on the winning side of World War II without much of the cost of destructive side of the War,[2] it was easy for young people growing up in the 1950s and 1960s to accept without much dissonance the idea that war can be a good thing, at times it is necessary, and that Americans in particular only fights in good wars.

The U.S. war on Vietnam created significant disillusionment concerning America’s wars, and subsequent military actions have also contributed to serious questioning by some in our society. Nonetheless, the general orientation I grew up with concerning the positive value of preparing for and when necessary fighting in “good wars” and certainty about America’s goodness in her wars has remained widespread—witness the almost complete unanimity in the U.S. concerning the attacks on Afghanistan shortly following the trauma of September 11, 2001; witness also the sacrosanct character of the U.S. military budget which dominates federal spending in this time of budget crises and spiraling national debt (and which surpasses the total military spending of all the rest of the world combined).[3]

I encounter this positive orientation about America’s war fighting preparations and history of good wars regularly—and usually see it overtly linked with our involvement in World War II. As a convinced pacifist who teaches college classes in ethics, I make a point to introduce students to the ideals of principled nonviolence. The most instructive encounters with students generally come in my Introduction to Ethics course that is required for a cross section of the students at our college. Many of these students have never heard of pacifism before; quite of a few of them come from families with long histories of participation in the military.

Time after time, year after year, students immediately evoke World War II, the need to defeat Hitler and the Nazis, and the lack of any other viable alternatives to stopping such overwhelming evil. One student spoke for many others in class in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11: “Why would they be attacking us? We’ve never done anyone wrong. The U.S. stands for freedom, democracy, and against tyranny. Look what we did to stop Hitler.”

It’s not only conservatives and strong believers in the virtues of the American military who evoke the battle against Hitler and the good war as the definitive refutation of pacifism. Katha Pollitt, a decidedly leftist columnist for the politically progressive and generally reliably anti-militarism magazine The Nation,[4] wrote a sharply critical column in response to Nicholson Baker’s book Human Smoke.[5] Pollitt begins her column by stating that after reading Baker’s book she “felt fury at pacifists” and concludes that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill “got it right” then they realized that only massive violence could stop the Nazis.[6]

Such evocations of World War II have the impact of making war seem acceptable. If we have a clear cut case of a necessary and, to some extent at least, redemptive war in history, we can more easily imagine war being necessary in the future. And because war may be necessary in the future (as it was in the past) it is now necessary and, potentially redemptive, to prepare for war by pouring resources into our military. That is, when we sustain the myth of redemptive violence in relation to World War II we will find it much more difficult not to accept that myth in relation to our current cultural context.

So, my concern in this book is with our current cultural context, the ways that wars and preparation for wars are tolerated, even embraced. I want to examine this one key foundation to our toleration of present-day militarism—the belief that our nation’s military involvement in the greatest event of human history (World War II) was necessary, good, even redemptive.

What I will offer is an essay in moral philosophy with historical illustrations. I do not make any claims to originality in my use of the historical illustrations. I will rely on the work of other people who are genuine historians, who are political thinkers, who are moral philosophers. Perhaps my synthesis of their ideas and application to my own agenda will be distinctive, but my main goal is not to provide new information but simply to raise questions—questions that are not asked that often—and point to some possible responses to those questions that might help free us in the United States from the spiral of violence our acceptance of the myth of redemptive violence has trapped us in.

I have three sets of questions and issues I will be engaging. First, I will look at the War itself through moral eyes. Second, I will consider the aftermath of World War II, especially as the American experience of the War has shaped our foreign policy in the years since. The sum of my examination of these first two sets of questions and issues will be a sharp critique of the mythology that World War II and its legacy have had a redemptive impact on the world. This critique will lead to the third set of questions and issues: were and are there viable alternatives?

Looking at World War II “through moral eyes” by necessity puts on the table the ethical criteria that make up what has been called “the just war theory.” As a pacifist, I do not embrace the just war theory as an adequate moral response to the question of participation in or support for war. However, in ways that pacifism can’t (since it does not reason about war’s bases and conduct so much as simply deny the moral validity of all wars), the just war tradition offers us a moral framework for evaluating the morality of particular wars. So I will have in mind various just war criteria as they apply to the actual war we call World War II.

Along with the more abstract traditional just war criteria, I will also seek to use as bases for moral evaluation the stated ideals that American leaders and their allies used to justify involvement in this war. I will summarize these in the next section of this Introduction.

I intend to reflect on World War II and its affects by using moral criteria that can help us discern whether it was a “good” or “just” war. I do this with the intent of actually asking our moral reasoning “have teeth.”[7] My challenge to those who think in terms of World War II as a “good war” (with the recognition that the notion of “good” here is a moral notion with the implication that not all wars are “good” and that we have some bases for determining what is “good” and what is not “good”) is to think more carefully about that assignation. And, further, I hope to show that if “goodness” is our fundamental criterion, we in fact should rethink our affirmation of World War II—with the implication that if World War II does not actually serve as an example of a “good war” then it also should not serve as a basis for our being less than critical about contemporary American military policies, practices, and claims.

These are the main theses I will be testing in the pages to come: (1) The United States had morally defensible grounds for entering World War II—both in response to the Nazi threat in Europe and to the military aggression of the Japanese in the Pacific. However, if we think of the war as a “tool” that served morally valid goals, when we consider the actual execution of war itself we will see that this “tool” broke free from the moral sensibilities that justified its use. In the course of the War, the linkage between the stated moral values and the actual practices became increasingly tenuous. Thus, by August 1945, the moral legacy of World War II in terms of its immediate justification had become quite ambiguous.

When we follow the rest of the story, though, the ambiguity increasingly disappears. World War II transformed the United States and this transformation resulted in a series of military interventions that shared none of the morally defensibility of the initial entry into World War II. The “tool” came to dominate American foreign policy, leading to one violation of the criteria for just war after another. So, if we look at World War II in its immediate context, we can see that it was at best a war that was “good” in that it was fought for some morally justifiable reasons—though in ways that increasingly contradicted the moral values that had justified it. Then, when we consider the impact of World War II on the United States, we will conclude that it was not a “good” war at all. It was a war that in the long term undermined the very moral values that had led to its support by millions of Americans and others.

(2) The conclusion that World War II was not a “good” or even justifiable or necessary war even as it was fought in part for the purposes of supporting important moral values does not meant that those moral values could not be (and were not) furthered in the context of forces in the world that undermined them. There were (and are) alternatives for addressing authentic moral concerns.

Part One below will examine the events of World War II. Part Two will look at it War’s aftermath, focusing especially on its impact of American foreign policy. And Part Three will provide examples of how the moral ideals that stood at the center of the Allied rationale for going to war were furthered by committed people generally operating outside the auspices of nation-states.

Why morality is not a peripheral issue

To insist that the issue of warfare is inherently a moral issue is not simply to take a naïve, idealistic stance of trying to impose values on a situation that is inherently amoral. From start to finish, from the ground to the planning room, for all actors, warfare is infused with moral choices, moral convictions, and moral priorities.

I suspect if we looked at just about every war that societies have engaged in we would see that the rationale for the war and, especially, the appeals that were made to gain people’s support and participation in the war were overtly couched in moral terms. Certainly, this would be the case for World War II, probably on all fronts but without a doubt in the United States.

The Atlantic Charter was the foundational statement of war aims agreed upon between the United States and Great Britain in August, 1941. It was used as a central appeal to gain support for involvement in the War by the American government. This statement emphasized a couple of main points—the centrality of self-determination for the world’s people and the need to disarm first the aggressor nations (the Axis powers) and ultimately all other nations. These two key moral appeals—that all people have the right of self-determination and that militarism needs to be overcome—indeed did stand at the center of the meaning the War had for many.

The Atlantic Charter provided the basis for a statement that the American Federal Council of Churches created in the midst of the War, “The Six Pillars of Peace,” that was widely circulated and also provided the basis for a moral appeal to support and participate in the War. The Six Pillars also centered on self-determination (“autonomy for subject peoples”) and disarmament (“controlling military establishments everywhere”).

Americans supported the War, risked their lives and their children’s lives, and made other sacrifices, mostly without complaint, because they believed in the moral importance of this war that they understood to be fought in opposition to tyranny, in support of democracy, and in hope of establishing an enduring peace that would make future wars obsolete.

Another reason for recognizing the centrality of moral convictions to the American experience of World War II (as would be the case with any other war) is that the decision intentionally to kill other human beings is always a moral decision. The decision to kill is based on some kind of sense that there are values, commitments, convictions that have enough moral weight to justify this ultimate sanction against other human beings. There are greater goods that must be furthered even when that involves overriding the general moral assumption that human life should not intentionally be taken.

The psychic cost of killing other human beings, the cost in material resources that preparation for killing in warfare requires of a society, the cost in risking one’s own life to engage in warfare—all these costs can only be justified on moral grounds. There is some moral good that makes the cost worthwhile, even if in part this “good” is simply resisting moral evil.

When a society makes the commitment to go to war, it is making a commitment to devote its “blood and treasure” for some purpose of high import. This purpose almost by definition must be expressed in moral terms, right vs. wrong, good vs. evil.

For those who directly engage in warfare, the ability to sustain morale, motivation, the willingness to pay the extreme costs such engagement require, depend upon some sense that one’s cause is in the right. We have learned in recent years, for example in relation to America’s war on Vietnam, that soldiers who lose this sense of being in the right are much more prone to sustained emotional and psychological trauma after their participation in battle ends.

Ultimately, warfare has to do with our convictions concerning the value of human life. This is probably the most fundamental moral issue we all face. Warfare involves making choices to end human lives. These choices are made based on moral criteria (even if not always self-consciously understood in this way). We take life because of some value that must be sustained by the killing, some value that takes priority over particular human lives.

Because warfare is inherently a moral issue, in trying to understand any war, we have to take into account the moral convictions that were in play in justifying that particular war. What values (directly or implicitly) were appealed to in the arguments in favor of that war? What were the moral principles or assumptions that drew people into the war, gaining their support and undergirding their willingness to participate?

In trying to assess the moral legitimacy of any war, then, we must look at the rationales that were given in favor of the war at its beginning. We then can evaluate how the war itself served those rationales. Philosophers and theologians, not to mention non-intellectuals, have always struggled to provide clear definitions for the term “morality.” There is a sense that we all have come kind of awareness of morality, it’s kind of in our bones as human beings and infuses our experience of life—but it’s hard to put into words what it precisely is. However, I want to suggest that part of any solid definition of morality is the notion of stability. Human morality in some sense applies over time and across communities, even if we might want to be cautious about jumping too quickly into the realm of absolutes and universals.

The point that seems crucial for our purposes here is that in making moral appeals for certain actions and responses, we are making ourselves accountable to the values and convictions we base those appeals upon.

So, in relation to World War II, we can say, first of all, that Americans’ involvement in this War followed from certain moral convictions. The War was understood to be serving the rights of peoples to self-determination and the goal of the ultimate disarmament of all major nations in the world. Other language that was common included the need to defend the existence of our democratic institutions and to resist the tyrannical imperialisms of Germany and Japan.

These moral appeals provide us with criteria for evaluating both the execution of the war during the years 1941-45 and the longer-term consequences of the War. Our reasons for making such evaluations may partly be simply to come to an understanding of the moral authenticity of the War itself: Was it truly a just war? Was it worth all that it cost? Was it consistent in its outworking with the statues purposes for engaging in it? More importantly, though, we undertake this moral stocktaking in order to consider how the overall moral legacy of this War might shape our current and future attitudes toward war and, specifically, for Americans, the military policies of our country.

So in what follows we will be engage in a moral evaluation of World War II. How do we think morally about this War that has dwarfed all other wars? One way of answering this question, kind of the default answer, is to assume that this was a necessary war, fought honorably enough, and ultimately successful in defeating the evil Axis powers and furthering the cause of democracy in the world.[8] Even if not overtly couched in moral terms, this answer is indeed making a profoundly moral evaluation of the War. The operative word here, though, is “assume.” Such an answer, that the American part of World War II was self-evidently just and morally good, is based on assumptions, not on a careful evaluation of the evidence.

Such a conclusion about the moral goodness (all things considered) of America’s War could indeed follow from careful consideration of the evidence. Certainly much evidence can be interpreted to point in this direction. However, a careful evaluation of the evidence is rarely undertaken. We may use the term “myth” here. We have a myth of a good war—meaning not that belief in the moral goodness of the War is a lie or clearly wrong, but that the belief is more on the realm of acceptance by faith than of consideration of evidence.

Historian Harry Stout has provided a template for a moral evaluation of a major war in his “moral history” of the American Civil War.[9] Stout uses the basic tenets of the just war theory, both those concerning just causes for going to war (jus ad bellum) and just conduct in war (jus in bello), to provide his bases for evaluating how the Civil War began and then unfolded. He provides a strong analysis that concludes that while the Civil War may have been justifiable from the Union side in terms of the jus ad bellum, both sides egregiously violated the jus in bello criteria. Unfortunately, Stout does not add what I believe is a necessary component to this kind of analysis: a moral accounting of the aftermath of the Civil War. It is impossible to evaluate the moral legacy of any war without including as a central element of the evaluation a sense of what the war actually accomplished and what fallout resulted from the war.

Concerning World War II, British historian Norman Davies discusses the importance of a moral evaluation in his one-volume history of the War.[10] He outlines five central factors that must be part of coming to terms with the War: geographical, military, ideological, political, and moral.[11]

Under the “moral” rubric, Davies gives some helpful guidelines for thinking morally about the War: “All sound moral judgments operate on the basis that the standards applied to one side in a relationship must be applied to all sides….Secondly,…‘Patriotism is not enough.’ ‘My country, right or wrong’ is an amoral slogan….Lastly, it is essential that all moral judgments, all attempts to assess whether something be ‘Good’ or ‘Evil,’ be made by reference to universal principles and not to partisan feelings of hatred or contempt.” To illustrate this last point, Davies cites the Nuremberg Tribunal after the War where the Allies passed judgment on alleged Nazi war criminals. Nuremberg established categories of conduct that were asserted to apply to everyone as a basis for convicting people judged to have committed crimes against humanity.[12]

Davies provides a good framework to apply to a moral accounting of World War II—supporting my earlier comment about the importance of “stability” in moral reasoning. His book does not make the moral factor central, but he does do more than many historians in being self-conscious in how the moral dimension does factor in.

We do have two recent books that more explicitly focus throughout on a moral evaluation of the War: Michael Bess’s Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II[13] and Michael Burleigh’s Moral Combat: A History of World War II.[14]

Bess takes a questioning approach. How did World War II stack up in relation to moral criteria? He seeks objectively to evaluate various aspects of the War on moral grounds.[15] Bess shies away from strong conclusions. The general sense he gives is that for Americans the war was necessary, we fought it for just reasons, we crossed the line numerous times in the use of unjust or disproportionate means, but that the overall balance was that the War was morally “good” enough.

Burleigh, on the other hand, is much more directive and certain in his conclusions. He essentially makes an argument that the Allied cause was just, war is a nasty business that unfortunately at times requires actions that in normal life would be considered immoral, but the good that was served by the Allied war effort was worth at times morally ambiguous means. The big question with Burleigh’s book, for our purposes, is whether he follows Davies’ criteria for moral evaluation. Does he apply his moral criteria equally to all sides? Does he cross the line to making the amoral slogan “my country right or wrong” into a moral justification for otherwise morally problematic actions? Furthermore, Burleigh clearly understands the aftermath of World War II quite differently that I do. So in some ways, his book stands as an alternative interpretation of the moral legacy of World War II to mine.

In the chapters to follow I will take the moral appeals that shaped Americans’ initial entry into World War II quite seriously. What were the criteria for a morally appropriate war that we may extrapolate from the Atlantic Charter, the Six Pillars of Peace, and other public statements (such as Franklin Roosevelt’s appeal to the “Four Freedoms”)? Also, I will consider the moral content of the arguments made by religious leaders such as the prominent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in favor of intervention.

From these moral appeals, I will construct a set of values that might give a basis for evaluating the War and its aftermath. How consistent was the execution of the War with those stated values? How well did the outcome of the War and its aftermath further the moral aspirations that provided the rationale for involvement in the War?

I will give evidence to support my argument that the execution of the War, when evaluated in light of the moral framework that justified entering it, leaves us with numerous questions. The strongest case for a positive moral evaluation is that the moral justification for entering the war (jus ad bellum) was so strong that even if some of the conduct criteria (jus in bello) were violated, the War could still be seen as justifiable. However, this case must be challenged on the grounds of the sheer cost of the War. Using the criterion of proportionality, it remains a challenging question whether (thinking mainly within the chronological parameters of the War itself) the good that was achieved outweighed the enormous cost in “blood and treasure.”[16]

As the war proceeded, the Allies moved further and further from the moral framework that was used to justify entering the war. By the end of the War, the intentional bombing of civilian populations became a direct part of the War effort, culminating in the use of atomic bombs twice on targets that were largely non-military. The “tool” of warfare increasingly took on its own logic of ever-increasing and indiscriminate violence, slipping ever further from the logic articulated in the Atlantic Charter that centered on democracy and demilitarization.

The key argument I will make, though, in Part Two, will be that the aftermath of World War II sheds crucial light on the moral legacy of World War II for the United States. As a direct consequence of World War II, America was transformed into the world’s one superpower with a permanent war economy that in its foreign policy tended to disregard the moral logic of the rationales for entering the War.

The on-going role of World War II for Americans, I will suggest, has been to make it much easier for policy-makers to pursue what has now come to be called “full spectrum dominance.” Americans have by and large supported all post-World War II wars (the military engagements they have known about; there have been many hidden from the public, too). They have believed stated governmental rationales justifying those wars. In large part, such uncritical acceptance of military actions has followed from an acceptance of the myth of redemptive violence. This myth has generally been grounded in the memory of our “good” war that saved the world from Hitler and for our American brand of democracy.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

What do I mean by “the myth of redemptive violence”? In a nutshell, this is the quasi-religious belief that we may gain “salvation” through violence. People in the modern world (as in the ancient world), and not least people in the United States of America, put tremendous faith in instruments of violence to provide security and the possibility of victory over our enemies. The amount of trust we put in such institutions may be seen perhaps most clearly in the amount of resources we devote to preparation for war. Jesus’ statement, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34) rings all too true in contemporary America.

American theologian and social critic Walter Wink helps us understand how this myth of redemptive violence works.[17] Wink asserts, “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death” (13).

Part of the effectiveness of this myth stems from its invisibility as a myth. We tend to assume that violence is simply part of the nature of things; it’s seen to be factual, not based on belief. So we are not self-aware about the faith-dimension of our acceptance of violence. We think we know as a simple fact that violence works, that violence in necessary, that violence is inevitable. We don’t realize that instead, we are operating in the realm of belief, of mythology, of religion.

Wink argues that our present day belief in redemptive violence actually follows after ancient Babylonian mythology. This Babylonian mythology has at its heart the belief that creation itself stems from the violence of the gods and that violence is simply inherent in the fabric of the universe.[18] “The religion of Babylon—one of the world’s oldest, continuously surviving religions—is thriving as never before in every sector of contemporary American life, even in our synagogues and churches. It, not Christianity, is the real religion of America” (13).

The core message of the Babylonian creation myth, according to Wink, is that the way that chaos is to be subdued and order established is only through violence. To have human life at all, such order must be enforced; that is, violence is necessary for social life, violence is the foundational requirement for human beings to sustain life on earth. What follows from recognizing violence as the core operating dynamic in human culture is a sense that those who most successfully practice chaos-subduing violence have the gods on their side. Victory through violence better than anything else indicates the blessing of the gods.

In this myth, religion is meant to serve people in power. Human life always exists on the edge of chaos. We need strong (and violent) leaders to keep the chaos at bay. Such leaders are blessed by the gods and deserve our obeisance. We should not hope for perfection in this life but recognize the reality of never-ending conflict. We must trust in violence and the wielders of violence for our survival, for the limited security that we might hope for—and we must recognize that the gods are blessing those who wield this legitimate violence.

The myth of redemptive violence operates on all levels of our society. Certainly on the level of our recognizing the need for state-power, based on violence, to keep chaos at bay and our appropriate subordination to this state-power. Also we continually encounter the myth on the level of popular culture—the books we read, the movies we watch, television, sports—where the basic story of creation in violence and chaos, the need for violence to subdue chaos and defeat our enemies, the necessity to subordinate ourselves to the human beings in authority who exercise this necessary and redemptive violence, the appropriateness of our joining in the exercise of violence against our nation’s enemies when called upon.

Wink points out, though, that the myth shapes our children from early on. “No other religious system has ever remotely rivaled the myth of redemptive violence in its ability to catechize the young so totally. From the earliest age children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution in human conflicts” (23). Children hear a simple story in cartoons, video games, movies, and books: we are good, our enemies are evil, the only way to deal with evil is to defeat it with violence, let’s roll.

The myth of redemptive violence links directly in modern America (and elsewhere throughout history, of course) with the centrality of the nation-state. The welfare of the nation, as defined by its leaders, stands as the highest value for life here on earth. “There can be no gods before the nation. This myth not only established a patriotic religion at the heart of the state, but also gives the nation’s imperialistic imperative divine sanction. All war is metaphysical; only can only go to war religiously. The myth of redemptive violence is thus the spirituality of militarism. By divine right the state has the power to order its citizens to sacrifice their lives to maintain the privileges enjoyed by the few. By divine decree it utilizes violence to cleanse the world of evil opponents who resist the nation’s sway. The name of God—any god, the Christian God included—can be invoked as having specially blessed and favored the supremacy of the chosen state and its ruling caste” (26).

These dynamics characterize many nation-states, certainly. As my focus in this book is on the United States, I will reflect specifically on the role the myth of redemptive violence has played in our society. Clearly the belief in the redemptive necessity of violence in America goes way back. I will discuss the history of trusting in violence in American in the final section of the introduction below. Part of my argument in this book, though, is that World War II and its direct aftermath greatly accelerated the evolution of the United States into a militarized society and that this militarization relies on the myth of redemptive violence for its sustenance—even in face of mounting evidence that our militarization has corrupted our democracy and is destroying our economy and physical environment.

Wink suggests that the name for what has emerged as the operating framework for American militarism is “the ideology of the national security state.” He sets the date for this emergence as 1947 when the American government created two new political institutions who came to embody this ideology: the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. “To propagate national security doctrine, the National War College was established in Washington in 1948. These institutions were but the outer form of a new Power being spawned: the national security system….The spirituality of the national security system is the ideology of the national security state” (26-27).

Wink does not discuss the role World War II played in the emergence of this ideology and its attendant structures. I will argue in this book that the War was absolutely crucial. Certainly, American history is full of various expressions of the national security ideology. However, this ideology was limited in its influence. As recently as the late 1930s, American military spending was minimal and powerful political forces opposed involvement in “foreign entanglements.” President Franklin Roosevelt, a supporter of the global expression of American military force going back to his days as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, was greatly constrained in his ability to pursue interventionist policies in the years leading up to World War II. In fact, his desire for the U.S. to enter the War only gained satisfaction following the initiative of Japan and Germany to attack and declare war on America.

The “shock”[19] of the War opened many new possibilities the advocates for a kind of American national security ideology. Besides the institutions mentions by Wink (the NCS, CIA, and War College), if we go back a few years earlier we can find a couple more key institutions that did not exist until the War and exerted great power in the years afterwards in support of the national security state: the Pentagon and nuclear weapons program.

Wink characterizes the doctrine of the national security states as follows: “The survival of the nation is the absolute goal. National strategy intends to incorporate the whole nation into the national survival plan, to make it the total and unconditional object of each citizen’s life. On this view, all times are times of war. Peace is nothing more than the conventional name given to the continuation of war by other means. All politics is a politics of war” (27).

I will suggest that one way to look at American history is to see a continual struggle between what we could call a “democracy story” and an “empire story.”[20] World War II brought a decisive turn in this struggle. We may mark this turn by noting that prior to the War, when America engaged in military conflict (that is, tended more toward the empire story), at the end of the conflict the nation in a genuine sense demobilized (perhaps somewhat tending back toward the democracy story). Since World War II, there has been no genuine demobilization because we have moved directly from World War II to the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. That is, we have moved into a situation where “all times are times of war.”

The national security ideology links inextricably with the myth of redemptive violence (and remember Wink’s insistence that this myth is our society’s central religion). The purveyors of this ideology use the language, rituals, and symbols of already existing religions (mainly Christianity in America). They justify their use of violence in the name of God and Christian faith. As Wink concludes, though, “the real faith of these National Securocrats is redemptive violence” (27).[21]

One element of the national security state that most clearly reveals its religious dimension is surfaced by the question: Why would non-elites, who bear terrible costs by living in a permanent war society, submit to this arrangement, even in many cases offering intense support, even to the degree of offering the lives of their sons and daughters? Wink asserts, “The answer is quite simple: the promise of salvation. The myth of redemptive violence offers salvation through identification with Marduk (the Babylonian god) and his earthly regent….Salvation through identification…is tied inextricably with the fortunes of the hero-leader. Right and wrong scarcely enter the picture. Everything depends on victory, success, the thrill of belonging to a nation capable of imposing its well in the heavenly council and among the nations” (28-29).

For whom am I writing ethics?

In assessing the moral legacy of World War II, we tend to start with a question along the lines of, “what would you do if you were Roosevelt or Churchill?” The focus is on the choices of the very few people in power, with the assumption that those choices should be the locus for ethical reflection.

My concerns are significantly different. I am not uninterested in the choices made by policy-makers; in fact those choices will indeed play a major role in the discussion throughout the book. However, my central concern is with the regular person as a moral actor. How do I, as a citizen, a member of a faith community, a father-husband-son, act morally in the world I find myself a part of?

I do not have these concerns due to some kind of “two kingdom” ethical philosophy. There are various forms of two-kingdom ethics, some make the distinction between the roles people may play as public figures and the roles they play as private citizens. In the Lutheran tradition, this is expressed as ethics one practices as, for example, a soldier or police officer or governmental official and the ethics one practices as a church member or parent. One person acts in both realms, but follows a different set of ethics depending upon which role one is playing. In the Anabaptist tradition, two-kingdom ethics are understood in terms of one’s ethical center being either the wider, “secular” world of nation-states, coercive politics, “rough justice” or the world of one’s faith community which is where the rigorous ethical message of Jesus may consistently be followed. One’s entire life is lived in either one realm or the other.

In both cases of two-kingdom thought, though, people in power in the nation-state are, in principal, not expected to seek to implement for their society a strict, love-oriented set of ethical values. The realm of governing is the realm of coercion, competing interests, and where power at times must be expressed violently. So, when we talk about what matters ethically, say, in relation to World War II, we tend to think about ethics in this “realm of governing,” with the implication that it is the ethics of coercion that we have to do with.

I do not accept any kind of two-kingdom ethical framework. I assumed that all human beings are equally accountable to the same set of moral values. If it is right for me to be a pacifist as a church member, it would also be right for me to be a pacifist as a policy-maker. The ethical stance I advocate is the ethical stance I believe rulers should take, as well.

However, in reflecting on the moral significance of World War II, I seek to focus on reality. That is, my concern is how people like me would implement my ethical stance in face of the actual choices I face. What can/should we do as regular people in the face of these big issues of war and peace? In the actual world, I am not in a policy-making position; few of the people who might read this book are in a policy-making position in relation to the military practices of the United States. So I am not going to write from the point of view of a policy-maker or imagining myself as a policy-maker or using what a policy-maker would do with my ideas as a central criterion of relevance.

We live in a world, I believe, where there is only one way morality works—and it works that way for everyone. We could call this a “one kingdom” ethics (in contrast to the various types of two kingdom ethics that see morality working in different ways for different people at different times depending on their role). So, in theory, at least, I would affirm that the ethical stance of pacifism is the best stance for everyone, including the Roosevelts and Churchills.

However, in the actual situation, neither Roosevelt or Churchill (or Obama or Putin) share this ethical stance. In fact, it is impossible to imagine how they could be in their positions and be pacifists (not because they shouldn’t be but because the present political order is so in thrall to the myth of redemptive violence that it will not allow pacifists to be major leaders). I believe this can (and must) change—but in the meantime my focus will be on the people who can act as pacifists: me, you, our students, our teachers, our neighbors, our colleagues, people in our faith communities, and on and on.

Each of us is a moral actor. Each of us is capable of making choices to practice compassion, respect, kindness, mercy, and the various other virtues that our religious traditions and other ethical frameworks tend to value most highly. We don’t act morally as isolated individuals; most of our moral lives are lived in the context of our relations. We are social creatures, members of various communities, and dependent upon others for sustaining our existence. Yet, we are not simply cogs in the machine of the greater collective.

Walter Wink helps us think about this inter-relation between our individuality and our sociality. We struggle with a tendency to push to one of two extremes, either losing the personal in relation to the social or losing the social in relation to the personal. To function authentically as moral creatures, we need to recognize that we are both: personal and social.

Individuals do make a difference. “Almost every reform can be traced back to a single person or a small group of people who were outraged by wrong.” Along with recognizing the personal nature of innovation, creativity, moral faithfulness, and social change, we must also recognize the dangers of sacrificing the individual for the collective. “The harmony of the whole is not worth the involuntary sacrifice of a single life….The main rationale for changing structures is precisely in order to liberate people from whatever deprives them of the opportunity to realize as fully as possible their own God-given potential.”[22]

Wink continues: “We must not reduce the personal to the social….Our times have produced tragic illusions about the power of new systems to create new people….The self is that ensemble of social relations which also knows itself to be primordially grounded in being-itself, to have a name uttered over it, or within it, from all eternity. No state, or family, or employer can reach all the way to the core of our beings; and it is this residual irreducibility of the self to the social that makes it possible to resist society, to oppose the Powers, to transcend our own socialization.”[23]

Yet, at the same time that we recognize the central importance of the personal, we must not lose sight of our inextricable placement within our various social worlds. In Wink’s words: “The principle of the irreducibility of persons to systems must therefore be matched by its opposite: the irreducibility of systems to persons. Structures have their own laws, their own trends and tendencies, quite independent of the human agents involves in them. The laws relevant to collectivities cannot be reduced to those of individuals, just as the laws of engineering that regulate the functioning of a tractor cannot be reduced to the laws of physics and chemistry that determine the behavior of the individual molecules and atoms that make up its parts. There are hierarchies of laws. People are the atoms and molecules of social systems. Each person is subject to the ‘laws’ of personal development.” Yet, insofar as we are also part of wider collectivities, our social lives are shaped by the “laws” distinctive to those structures.[24]

So, each of us is responsible for our moral choices and actions, but we choose and act always in the context of the broader groups of which we are part. These groups determine many of the options we are allowed, and they impose consequences on us depending on how we choose.

By reflecting on moral choices that were made during World War II and in the years following, I hope to accomplish two kinds of outcomes. First, I hope to provide some kind of critical perspective on those choices. Let’s try to understand better the actual choices that were made and evaluate them in terms of moral criteria (the main moral criteria I will refer to are the stated moral values explicit and implicit in the rationales given for supporting the War, especially in the United States—such as the Allies’ “Atlantic Charter,” the Federal Council of Churches’ “Six Pillars of Peace,” and Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”).

The second hoped-for outcome will be more clarity about our convictions, commitments, and choices concerning our present context. How should we respond to today’s wars of America in light of the past wars of America (especially since 1941)?

I am interested in the story of World War II and in the story of the legacy of that war in the remainder of the 20th and early years of the 21st centuries. A big part of this interest, though, is on how this story relates to our present choices and commitments.

As I have stated already, World War II as America’s “good war” casts an enormous shadow that certainly still today affects our ways of seeing our world and especially issues related to war and peace. We consider the moral legacy of the War for Americans in order to escape that shadow and evaluate the morality of our present choices on their own terms. Too often, World War II serves as a trump card in discussions about the present appropriateness of violence (or pacifism). The War was morally good; hence, these other wars might well be too.

Let’s shine a critical light on the mythology of World War II as a “good war” in order to remove that trump card and to free us to consider the morality of current wars on their own terms. If we realize that even World War II turns out not to be a good war, perhaps we will thereby be freed to be much more critical of present-day claims about the appropriateness of military action.

As I have stated already, I write this book as a committed pacifist. In a moment I will explain more about what I mean by pacifist and how I came to that commitment. However, first I want to say just a little about how my pacifist convictions don’t and do bias what I will be doing in this book.

I am not writing an apology for pacifism. Rather, I am trying to look at World War II in pragmatic terms. I will draw not on a principled rejection of the War no matter how “good” it was, but on accepted just war criteria and the moral values that advocates for the War themselves established as the grounds for participation in this war. When I criticize the War, I will do so in terms of how it fell short of the moral criteria war proponents themselves articulated. In other words, I will ask for accountability in relation to the stated purposes of the War. And I will do so not only in relation to the years 1941-45 but also for the years since.

At the same time, I recognize that I am asking the questions I do ask of World War II and its legacy because of my pacifist view of the world. A non-pacifist would not likely be as troubled by the unquestioned assumptions so many Americans have about World War II. As a pacifist, I tend to assume that all wars are deeply morally problematic rather than to assume that of course some wars are appropriate. In starting with the assumption (to be tested) that even World War II was morally problematic, I am inclined to scrutinize it more critically than if I don’t start with that assumption.

However, even though I raise questions because of my pacifist assumptions, I will pursue those questions pragmatically, not ideologically. It will be up to readers to discern whether I “cook the books” due to my starting convictions. However, the bases for my negative portrayal of World War II and its moral legacy will be the actual events of history, open for evaluation by everyone, pacifist or not.

It is true, though, that I am a deeply committed pacifist. I mentioned above that my sense of connection to World War II stems in part from my parents’ participation in it along with the origins of my name and the medical technology that saved my life. That is, I have several reasons to be positively disposed toward the War, no direct personal reasons not to be (in contrast to friends of mine whose fathers were deeply traumatized by their participation in the War in life-shaping ways and in contrast to people throughout the world who grew up with the direct destruction of the War shaping their environments).

My disbelief in the moral legitimacy of war (that is, my disillusionment with the myth of redemptive violence) seems to have been shaped by three sources. (1) My parents were proud veterans, but they were also kind, gentle people who raised their five children with deep respect. I grew up without violence, and I was always encouraged to think for myself, to exercise my own moral responsibility, to make my own decisions. My parents’ values of kindness and respect ran deeper than their values of patriotism. When I came to the point as a young adult to actually perceive a contradiction between kindness and respect on the one hand and support for the wars of America on the other, I naturally chose the kindness and respect.

(2) I came of age at the tail end of the American war on Vietnam. Through my high school years, we watched the war on television. I expected to be called into the military. I was not exposed to dissent and opposition to that war. I expect that had I been drafted when I turned 19, I would have reluctantly but without serious questioning gone into the military. As it turned out, the year I did turn 19 (1973), the draft was abolished so I did not face that question (only a few years later did I actually start to learn about the Vietnam War). But by 1973 I was becoming quite interested in war issues. In short order, I came to be deeply relieved to have avoided participating in what I came to learn was an extraordinarily unjust war. One bit of exposure I gained to this war came through learning to know returning vets, almost all of whom had stories of horror, of doing things they were ashamed of, and of developing a profound disrespect toward the political and military leaders who had placed them in such terrible situations.

(3) The final catalyst for my pacifist convictions came through theological reflection—realizing that, in the words of a popular song of the time, “Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reason for.”[25] As my Christian faith deepened during my college years, I spent more time thinking about the relationship between the message of Jesus and warfare, especially the war I was most familiar with, the one in Vietnam. More or less on my own, I came to the conviction that as a follower of Jesus, I could not support war in any form.

Shortly after that point of clarity in my convictions, I discovered a longstanding Christian pacifist tradition, the Mennonites. I began reading Mennonite writings on pacifism and seeking out actual Mennonites for conversation. My wife Kathleen and I attended Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary for a year and then joined a Mennonite congregation in Eugene, Oregon.

My sojourn among Mennonites has been an opportunity to develop my theoretical position concerning pacifism, to learn to know many other pacifists of all ages and many nationalities, and to learn about on-going alternatives to acceptance of and participation in warfare. As it turns out, Mennonites will not play a major role in this book, but my experience in and appreciation of Mennonite communities stand behind what I have written here.

The myth of redemptive violence in American history

My focus in this book will be on World War II and the years since. However, we must take a moment before turning to the War and its aftermath to think about the longer sweep of American history. Americans have always believed in the redemptive possibilities of violence; America has always had violence as a major part of its ethos. While I will suggest that World War II added new dimensions to the place of militarism in American society, we cannot say that America has ever been free from deep-seated acceptance of the myth of redemptive violence.

As historian Alan Taylor has shown in his volume in the Penguin History of the United States, American Colonies,[26] the very establishing and expansion of the European presence in North America relied on extraordinary amounts of violence. He traces especially the violence done to native peoples and to forcibly imported slaves. Both forms of violence contributed greatly to the “success” of the Europeans in creating new societies that ultimately encompassed most of the North American continent. Long prior to the official birth of the nation (itself grounded in warfare), violence played quite a “redemptive” role in the formation of the United States of America beginning with the first colonialists

Taylor asserts: “The traditional story of American uplift excludes too many people. Many English colonists failed to prosper, finding only intense labor and early graves in a strange and stressful land of greater disease, new crops and predators, and intermittent Indian hostility. And those who succeeded bought their good fortune by taking lands from Indians and by exploiting the labor of others—at first indentured servants, later African slaves. The abundant land for free colonists kept wage labor scarce and expensive, which promoted the importation of unfree laborers by the thousands. Between 1492 and 1776, North America lost population, as diseases and wars killed Indians faster than colonists could replace them. And during the eighteenth century, most colonial arrivals were Africans forcibly carried to a land of slavery, rather than European volunteers seeking a domain of freedom. More than minor aberrations, Indian deaths and African slaves were fundamental to colonization. The historian John Murrin concludes that ‘losers far outnumbered winners’ in ‘a tragedy of such huge proportions that no one’s imagination can easily encompass it all.’”[27]

We could consider any number of specific examples in the years between 1492 and 1939 when America’s belief in the efficacy of violence found expression. I will mention only a few.

Jill Lepore’s account of the 1675-76 Algonquian Indian/Puritan colonist war in New England, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,[28] suggests that this early colonial war exerted profound influence on the character of the emerging American society.

Beginning with the murder of an Indian informer, followed by the execution of two of the murderers, the Algonquian/Puritan conflict quickly grew. “When the English and Algonquian peoples of seventeenth-century New England went to war in 1675, they devastated one another. In proportion to population, their short, vicious war inflicted greater casualties than any other war in American history.”[29] Though the Algonquian inflicted severe casualties on the colonists, in the end the natives were crushed, ruthlessly. And with this victory in battle, the European-Americans learned a crucial lesson. Sometimes you simply have to fight, and when you fight don’t hold back. We have a calling, we have been placed here for a purpose—and this purpose is important enough to justify massive violence in its furtherance.

Most Americans with some historical awareness would tend to point to the Civil War, nearly two centuries after “King Philip’s War,” as the paradigmatic expression (prior to World War II) of massive violence for the sake of America’s vocation; that is, the paradigmatic expression of redemptive violence.

Harry Stout’s “moral history of the American Civil War,” Upon the Altar of the Nation, provides a perceptive analysis of the religious underpinnings of the Civil War on both the Confederate and Union sides. And how these religious underpinnings lent a sense of divine approval upon utterly ruthless tactics of total war, especially as practiced by the Union. And in the American memory, these tactics have been seen as fully justified because they served the greater goods of the preservation of the Union and the abolishing of slavery.

Virtually all of the military leaders for both North and South had received their education at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Part of this education included learning the West Point Code. “West Pont cadets and officers were taught…to be ‘gentlemen.’ The term ‘gentleman’ carried with it powerful moral imperatives of ‘honor’ and justness in the conduct of war. Through intensive training and indoctrination, cadets imbibed a code that stressed the ideal of a ‘limited war.’ The tactics, such as they were, …stressed the reserved use of interior lines of operations and campaigns of position and maneuver against armies rather than crushing overland campaigns across civilian populations. This West Point Code demanded that real gentlemen protect the innocents and minimize destruction to achieve desired results.”[30]

One way to think of the history of the Civil War is to see it as a process wherein President Abraham Lincoln sifted through various lead commanders until he found one utterly unhindered by adherence to the West Point Code. Lincoln found his general in U. S. Grant, complemented by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan. And with this team in place, the Union overwhelmed the Confederacy, in large part due to tactics that did center on “crushing overland campaigns across civilian populations.”

The Civil War validated the use of total war for the sake of the “greater good.” Lincoln’s powerful and thoughtful speeches and writings reflect admirable humility. He always resisted the tendency to label the Civil War a Holy War in which God directly supported whatever tactics were necessary. However, in practice, Lincoln supported whatever tactics were necessary. His humility was joined, nonetheless, with religious-tinged language that did hint as divine support for the massive “redemptive violence” the Union exercised to defeat the enemy. In many ways, the Union cause in the Civil War remains the template for American trusting in the efficacy of military force—and in the presumed “goodness” of the American cause.

At the close of the nineteenth century, a third dimension of the “redemptive” exercise of American military power emerged (the first being military power against Native Americans for the sake of the European vocation of settling North America; the second being military power against internal movements that threatened the vocation of the American nation-state). This third dimension was the use of military power outside of North America to bring other peoples under our umbrella. The Spanish-American War of 1898 ushered in a new century that would be marked by the commitment of the U.S. to a global presence, culminating by the end of the twentieth-century with the United States as the world’s one superpower.

Walter Karp, in The Politics of War,[31] argues that the war of 1898 set off a twenty-year struggle for the soul of the United States. The struggle was between two visions for what America could be: America as an empire and America as a republic. He suggests that two American wars, the Spanish-American War and World War I, “altered forever the political life of the American Republic.” In looking at these two wars, “a single dramatic story emerges…, the story of the last great popular struggle in America to maintain a genuinely free republic—a republic free of oligarchy, monopoly, and private power—and the defeat and final obliteration of that struggle in two foreign wars.”[32]

I think Karp may overstate the significance of these wars in “obliterating” the struggle against the transformation of the United States into a military-centered world empire. The struggle certainly preceded 1898, but also has continued. The roots of America’s imperial tendencies go back to its beginnings.[33] Those tendencies have always been, and continue to be, resisted.[34]

Still, Karp’s account of the “two wars” points to a key set of moments where America entered the “modern world” and in a qualitatively new way turned its focus beyond its own continent. And this move toward “world citizenship” centered on the efficacy of military force to spread the American way, to “redeem” people worldwide.

With “evangelists” such as William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, the United States moved to a place where we would advocate using war to make the world “safe for democracy.” We would use war to end war, violence to defeat violence—all part of our special vocation to spread our way of life to the ends of the earth.

Nonetheless, even after the intense mobilization of the war effort in 1917-18, and the concomitant devastation to many of the hopes and values of genuine democracy that Karp documents, the United States did step back after the end of the “Great War.” The military was demobilized. Strong anti-war sentiment emerged.

Franklin Roosevelt, elected president in 1932, had at least from his time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, strongly supported Wilson’s understanding of the American vocation in the world and the centrality of military force in that vocation. However, Roosevelt took office in a United States of America deeply in the throes of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s focus up until nearly the end of this second term by necessity centered on the domestic economy. So, as late at 1937, the United States military remained quite small (smaller even than the military of Turkey). And, as events in Europe and East Asia cast a dark cloud over the entire world and wars and rumors of war abounded, non-involvement sentiment stood strong in the United States.

It is truly difficult for those of us today who care about American militarism to put ourselves back in history seventy some years and imagine the peripheral role the military played in American life, the lack of political power militarists had, and the constraints Congress and public opinion placed on those in power (such as the President himself) who did desire a more interventionist and militarized foreign policy.

American society, even with the historical legacy of the various outpourings of major violence and the long-inculcated belief in redemptive violence that I have sketched above, truly has been transformed since 1937. Throughout American history, we can trace an expansion followed by contraction of militarism. That is, up until World War II. Roosevelt did manage greatly to increase military spending and preparation in the late 1930s, but only with Pearl Harbor did the tide truly change. The notable truth, for our purposes in this book, is that the tide has never turned back.

World War II unleashed the “tool” of military force (not necessarily all that different than in King Philip’s War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I). But this time the “tool” broke loose from all constraints. The United States after World War II has remained a militarized state, a mobilized society, a permanent war economy—the main moral legacy of World War II.

[1] Two fairly recent widely influential expressions of this cultural embrace of the “goodness” of the War in the U.S. were the publication and wide circulation of TV newsman Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998) and the production of the widely watched Public Television documentary, The War (PBS Paramount, 2007), by prominent film maker Ken Burns.

[2] In his book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), James J. Sheehan shows how the direct experience of the destructiveness of the two world wars has led even the European nations who were victorious in those wars to repudiate militarism in recent years.

[3] Prominent New York Times op-ed columnist Nicolas Kristof wrote a succinct essay, “The Big (Military) Taboo,” in the December 25, 2010 Times that summarized these points. Sadly, this column serves as the exception that proves the rule—truly a voice crying in the wilderness.  See (accessed 12/28/10).

[4] The Nation provided one of the rare venues for consistent opposition to the Bush Administration’s attacks on Afghanistan after 9/11.

[5] Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).

[6] Katha Pollitt, “Blowing Smoke,” The Nation 286.15 (April 21, 2008), 9.

[7] This demand that moral reasoning, specifically the just war philosophy, “have teeth” is inspired by John Howard Yoder’s challenging book: When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking, revised edition (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996). Yoder, himself a widely influential pacifist, seeks to take just war philosophy quite seriously—asking its adherents to think about how to apply their convictions when they are faced with wars that do not meet their criteria for a just war.

[8] See Brokaw, Greatest, and Burns, “The War,” for widely circulated and praised examples of this kind of moral reckoning.

[9] Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006).

[10] Norman Davies, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 (Penguin Books, 2006).

[11] Davies, No Simple, 9-72.

[12] Davies, No Simple, 63-64.

[13] Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (New York: Knopf, 2006).

[14] Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (London: HarperCollins, 2010).

[15] Bess’s success in maintaining a genuinely objective stance may be seen in the hostile response he received in one forum from a historian who denies the need to ask moral questions of the Allies in the War because our cause was so clearly just vindicated by our success.

[16] I use this term, “blood and treasure,” reluctantly because of its association with military thinking. However, with the scare quotes I intend to remind the reader of that association while still finding the directness and clarity useful. We are talking about the cost in terms of human lives (not to mention the lives of other of nature’s creatures) and economic and environmental resources.

[17] What follows summarizes the chapter “The Myth of the Domination System,” in Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 12-31. Page numbers that are cited here will be given in parentheses in the main text.

[18] Wink’s analysis of the Babylonian mythology draws heavily on Paul Ricoeur’s chapter. “The Drama of Creation and the ‘Ritual’ Vision of the World,” in Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 175-210.

[19] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), for an analysis of more recent occasions where social upheaval and severe trauma (war, economic collapse, natural disasters) have provided occasion for social transformation to enhance the power of economic and military elites. She does not go back to World War II, but her analysis has obvious application to how the dynamics of power in the United States were transformed following the trauma of the War.

[20] See Ted Grimsrud, “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.

[21] For an example, see William Inboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 29-62, for an examination of the way President Harry Truman utilized Christian language to garner support for the newly engaged Cold War against “godless Communism.” Inboden himself is in sympathy with Truman’s efforts, but he’s a good enough reporter to make it clear that Truman meant Christian motifs to serve a militarized response to the Soviet Union.

[22] Wink, Engaging, 74.

[23] Wink, Engaging, 74-75.

[24] Wink, Engaging, 78.

[25] John Prine, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” From the album John Prine (Atlantic Records, 1970).

[26] Alan Taylor, American Colonies (New York: Viking, 2001).

[27] Taylor, American, x-xi. Murrin’s quote comes from John M. Murrin, “Beneficiaries of Catastrophe: The English Colonies in America,” in Eric Foner, ed., The New American History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 3-30.

[28] Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).

[29] Lepore, Name, xi.

[30] Stout, Upon the Altar, 21.

[31] Walter Karp, The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920) (New York: Franklin Square Press, 2003).

[32] Karp, Politics, xvi.

[33] See William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts About an Alternative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

[34] See John Nichols, ed. Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (New York: Nation Books, 2004).


The Long Shadow—Contents

2 thoughts on “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (01. Introduction)

  1. Tina Weldy

    Just wanted you to know I read the introduction. I appreciate your sharing this rough draft. I plan to read the following chapters, too, don’t know how much help I will be in critiquing. However, I hadn’t realized until seeing your writing how much I was questioning the “good war” thought that is propagated throughout our society. There is some interesting commonality between the assumption that everyone is Christian and the assumption that WWII was a good, just, and necessary war. Tom Brokaw’s book was in my mind as I began reading; his premise is clearly in the vein of the war being a good thing and all the sacrifices of the participants being noble. I don’t want to diminish the sacrifices made by the soldiers, but I think about what power could be generated by all our young men and women saying no to being a part of the military machine and uses them up and spits them out. I say this as a person who grew up Mennonite and pacifist, and also a mother of a son currently in the Navy. Lots of contradictions. I appreciate your doing this book.

  2. Pingback: The Moral Legacy of World War II « Peace Theology

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