Monday, June 18, 2012

Questioning the World War II Trump Card

For a while now I have been browsing a fascinating webpage run by Ted Grimsrud, Peace Theology. Ted writes extensively from a Mennonite and pacifistic perspective on a wide range of issues and his essays are quite deep and engaging. Almost every essay I read is link worthy and I find myself being stretched as I consider what he is writing.My favorite thus far is a powerful rebuttal to the prevailing wisdom of World War II as the "good war", the war that is so often thrown out in by many Christians in response to the call of Christ to love our enemies as cover for active involvement and support of militarism. The argument is based in an alleged appeal to realism, a school of thought that says sure enemy love sounds good and all but sometimes the only way to defeat evil is with more evil. Grimsrud's essay, A Christian Pacifist Response to World War II. In this persuasive and compelling essay, Grimsrud presents an alternative to the narrative of World War II as the trump card war that is designed to provide cover for all other war.

Grimsrud presents a number of lines of critique ranging from the question of the justice of the war to whether the conduct of the war was just, given the latter stages of the war when civilians populations were intentionally targeted in places like Hiroshima and Dresden. While he does not address the root causes of the second World War which are inextricably tied to the American involvement in the first World War, he does lay out a plausible alternate narrative that raises troubling questions and pokes holes in the seemingly unassailable argument of World War II as the exception that overturns the rule.

Perhaps his best line of critique has to do with the impact of the aftermath of World War II on the identity of post-war America, namely the move to a state of perpetual preparation for war and when war didn't materialize, a conflict could always be created to provide cover for the never-ending militarization of America and trillions upon trillions spent on newer, better and deadlier armaments.

Americans, prior to World War II, 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. Directly linked with Roosevelt’s desire for more unhindered power, American military leaders desired to leave behind the limits to military power that characterized the U.S. in the 1930s. Due to key unilateral presidential actions that did not pass through the legislative process, and without informing the public, the United States moved seemingly irrevocably from a democracy to a “national security state.”

That is a great observation. The pattern of mobilization, war and then demobilization stopped with World War II. My entire lifetime has been lived under this state of affairs. I have never known a demilitarized United States or really a time of peace. It has been one conflict after another. I was born in the waning years of Vietnam although I don't remember any of it. Throughout my childhood we lived in fear of a nuclear strike by the Commies. I recall vividly the Iranian hostage crisis when the Western installed puppet Shah was overthrown by the radical Islamists and the subsequent botched rescue attempt. That was the low point of American military prestige in my lifetime, the combination of the ignominious retreat from Vietnam and the Carter administration's vacillation between confused and weak inaction and incompetent action resulting in the death of eight American servicemen. With the election of Reagan the military in America began to ascend to a new position of prominence. A military build-up that bankrupted the Soviets and the irrelevant but welcome "victory" in Grenada had us back on the path to being the big dog. This set the stage for the first Iraq War, the response to September 11th and the state of perpetual war against a difficult to define enemy over the last decade that has done little to secure our nation, inflamed passions against the United States around the world, alienated one of the world's nuclear powers and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, most innocent civilians. Today the military has a position of prestige and prominence that is unpredented and dangerous.

In a nutshell....

Just because the other guy is wrong it doesn't always follow that you are right.

I recommend Ted Grimsrud's essay as a much needed and well researched alternative to the "good war" narrative of World War II that permeates the church. We need to think critically and theologically with a Kingdom mindset about World War II. We cannot check the Gospel at the door when faced with questions that lead to uncomfortable answers in our culture. We cannot be so afraid of being accused of being insufficiently patriotic or being "anti-American" that we can conceivably be accused of serving another master. World War II was a horror, a horror that saw the population of entire continents decimated, genocide on a massive scale, weapons of mass destruction and the intentional targeting of civilian populations. The aftermath was a world of instability and virtual enslavement of Eastern Europe, Russia and much of Southeast Asia by the allies of the "good guys" coupled with a state of perpetual militarization in America. Perhaps World War II really was the exception that validates "just war" from a Christian perspective, although I don't believe that is the case, but we certainly cannot just assume that a war where tens of millions of civilians died is somehow a trump card that overrides the central Gospel truth of enemy love. While you are reading this essay, check out some other pieces he has written. I find that webpage to be a wealth of important and thoughtful information on peace and non-resistance.

1 comment:

Bean said...

A few years ago I went with a Franciscan Fraternity to Manchester College, affiliated with the Church of the Brethen to meet with the founder of their Peace Studies Program, Ken Brown. Ken had retired, but he and his wife attended the discussion along with another man who taught Peace Studies at Manchester. We had a pleasant afternoon, toured the campus, visited the Peace Garden, and then sat down to talk.
World War II was the topic of discussion, the professor's position was that WWII was not a just war. It was a very unsettling afternoon, I was angry when I left, I still think about the discussion and simply do not know what to think. There were so many atrocities in WWII, does the world stand by while a dictator practices eugenics and attempts to eradicate Jews? Yet, we do stand by and allow terrible things to occur, look at Darfur, look at the Rwandan genocide, for many years the Taliban control of Afghanistan and the terrorizing of its citizens was allowed to go on, and we stand by as North Korea abuses/starves its people.
The reasons to enter war are many, and helping the victimized population is part of the reason, but obviously there is not as much interest if there is no obvious gain, or the victimization going on doesn't affect your own country, population, political control, and assets.
So once more I feel it is a fox chasing it's tail, is war sometimes justified or is all war bad?
My family is from England, what would life be like there, and in much of Europe, if Hitler had succeeded in his domination? We will never know.
Even though Hitler was beaten, WWII forever changed Europe, atheism is rampant and socialism is rampant, in some ways it appears that some of Hitlers vision has taken place. Tony Judt wrote Post War, an excellent book addressing the rebuilding of Europe after WWII.