“World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity,” said Ted Grimsrud in his presentation, “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy,” on Oct. 6 at Goshen College.
Ted Grimsrud is a professor of Bible and Religion at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. Both his parents participated in World War II and he was named after a good friend that died in combat. While growing up, his family didn’t talk much about the war. Grimsrud finally took a pacifist stand in his mid-20s and came to terms with the war and is still researching its impacts
“Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into Harrisonburg and kills 40,000 people. This would be incredible news. America’s worst natural disaster. But then, imagine that something like this happens every single day for five years. You can’t imagine that? Well, that’s what World War II was–40,000 people killed every single day for five years,” said Grimsrud.
His presentation focused on five key questions concerning World War II’s moral legacy; was this war necessary? Were the means used in this war just? What were the costs of this war? What were the long term consequences of this war? Is there an alternative story for postwar America?
Grimsrud discussed why America had decided to enter the war at the first place: to maintain national autonomy, protect democracy and save the Jews from Nazi Germany. “Neither Germany nor Japan appear actually to have intended to invade and conquer the U. S.,” he said. Their leaders knew such an invasion would be impossible. “Plus, neither Germany or Japan seem to have wanted to conquer the U. S., in any case. Both wanted to dominate their own regions, not the entire world,” Grimsrud said, suspecting that it was America’s desire to be the leading world power.
He also talked about the moral criteria in war tactics, proportionality and non-combat immunity, which were both violated by America when they created fire storms over Hamburg, German. The U.S. continued to do so, which is apparent in the devastation created in Hiroshima and Nagasaki among other locations. “Four out of five” deaths were of noncombatant civilians.
The cost of going to war is an important economic factor that cannot be determined. Grimsrud highlighted the number of deaths across the board. Beginning with the number of deaths, Americans lost 400,000 soldiers. Great Britain lost about 450,000 and the Soviet Union lost as many as 26 million. Germany lost 10 million lives and Japan about 3 million. There were many more causalities from Poland, China, India, and Indonesia among others. With all this were the additional costs of disease, famine, damage to environment as well as physical and psychological damages.
World War II lead to the Vietnam war, which was the lead to the cold war, eventually blending in with the Gulf war and finally with the war against terrorism – an unending state of war is what came as the long term outcome of World War II, Grimsrud said. He added, “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.”
Is there an alternative story for postwar America? Grimsrud said doesn’t know, but is exploring through his research that emphasizes the accounts of alternative narratives of people that were conscientious objectors and reflect more on the theology behind these alternative narratives. Kathleen Temple, his wife added that she noticed that the primary audience today was conscientious objectors themselves. “These people were dedicated to peace for their whole life” she said as she expressed the encouragement she feels.
Josh Miller, a junior Bible and religion major added after the lecture, “It was a great presentation, at a great moment in Goshen College’s history.”