Good and evil in World War II
Posted on May 2, 2011
If you enjoy reading about World War II as much I do, then you’ll likely want to read this new book, which discusses the war from a moral perspective:
I have only taken a cursory glance at the book, but my favorable initial impression has been confirmed by a multitude of glowing reviews. Here are three for your viewing.
Michael Burleigh has seen and filled an opening in the history of World War II. Diplomatic and military historians, respectful of the guilds of which they regard themselves as honorary members, tend not to pose moral questions too sharply. The cultural and social historians are eager to pose moral questions but often lack the concern for high politics necessary to pose them in the right places. In “Moral Combat,” Mr. Burleigh forces a confrontation between the two: He poses the moral questions to the people that mattered at the great turning points of a vast war. For the most part, these are familiar moments of Allied history: the decisions to bomb German cities but not Auschwitz, to use nuclear weapons against Japan but spare its emperor. Mr. Burleigh is at his best when he recalls the professional ethics of officers wishing to save their men and when he describes the rough morality that emerged among soldiers.
Michael Burleigh has long been one of our foremost writers on the importance of ethics in history, and in this deeply researched, closely argued and well-written analysis of the moral issues thrown up by the Second World War he has reached the zenith of his career. As his title implies, the conflict was moral as well as mortal and in Burleigh’s estimation the Allies deserved to win morally almost as much as the Axis powers deserved to lose. This analysis puts him at odds with much of postmodernist moral philosophy, somewhere Burleigh is very comfortable being.
This is no comfortable, reflective read, but the bloodiest and most wrenching account of the war I can recall. Morally speaking, the reader, however gentle, begins to feel a little blood-spattered too, because the problem with inhumanity on this scale is that it was practised, not by abstract systems, but by human beings. What more sombre message could there be?