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For God and Country, Ambivalently
The amount of literature on World War II is greater than that produced on any other historical topic; long ago it surpassed that generated by the French Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, or even the Roman Empire.1
There are good reasons for this ongoing interest. World War II was by far the most traumatic event of the twentieth century, one that caused more loss of life and destruction of property than any other conflict in history, and its effects on society will continue to be felt well into the next millennium. No other war had ever affected so many people in so many places and in so many different ways. A goodly number of the participants are still alive and are telling their stories. Curiosity about it extends to their descendants; in fact, the most popular course offering in my department is one on World War II.
Furthermore, it was "the last good war." America's position seemed morally unambiguous. The Axis dictators of Italy, Germany, and Japan had without provocation assaulted their neighbors and subjected them to brutal and exploitative rule. We responded by helping the victims of aggression in Europe and Asia with material assistance and then by direct military action when the Japanese attacked our own territory. We were the good guys and they were the bad guys.
And yet, as I have argued elsewhere,2 the moral position of the United States was not as clear-cut as it seemed at first glance. We had done precious little to promote an international order that might have maintained peace, we retreated into isolation instead of taking some sort of positive action against the rising dictatorships, and we ignored the plight of Europe's Jews. We adopted an all-out war policy with the unconditional-surrender doctrine that led to the saturation bombing of German cities, the development and use of the atomic bomb, and the triumph of the equally brutal dictatorship of Stalin.
Gerald Sittser, a professor of religion and philosophy at Whitworth College, takes up a topic that historians ...