Moral Combat:

Moral Combat, by Michael Burleigh ($18.24)

Starred Review. A moral history of WWII would be brief, said one wit, but respected British historian Burleigh (Blood Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism) delivers a long, riveting account of awful events and the perverted reasoning behind them. Communist, Nazi, Fascist, and Japanese systems claimed to be regimes of public virtue carrying out inexorable historical processes. Proclaiming that the only evil was obstructing this march to utopia, all discarded the rule of law and alternative moral authority (religion, ethics). The Holocaust and other familiar WWII atrocities top off an exhaustive litany of mass murder, brutality, and squalid cruelty perpetrated by governments, military leaders, local officials, and ordinary individuals who, acting without moral values, became monsters. Burleigh does not ignore Hiroshima and Allied mass bombing campaigns, but deplores the current fashion for balancing the moral books. All nations acted shamefully, he concludes, but denies that Eleanor Roosevelt’s youthful anti-Semitism made America complicit with Hitler, as one recent revisionist implied. 16 pages of color photos. (Apr.)

Review by Dennis Showalter

Burleigh is not a philosopher, but a historian of moral attitudes and sentiments in societies and leaderships, evaluating how those mentalities change with time and under pressure. He dismisses the pseudo-realists who argue, for example, that Hitler and Stalin should have been left to destroy each other. His real challenge, however, is to the currently-fashionable concept of moral equivalence that describes World War II as a comprehensively immoral process in which all participants were somehow victimized and all belligerents morally culpable.

In taking his readers through the rise of the “predator states,” Germany, Japan and Italy, in the 1930s, Burleigh leaves no doubt that the resulting policies of appeasement were popular, realistic—and dead wrong. Burleigh credits Churchill in particular with appealing to and sustaining a spirit of resistance not only in Britain, but in occupied Europe, and in a United States initially reluctant to become involved. Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, however, initiated a comprehensive revision of America’s perspectives. Pearl Harbor established the matrix of a Grand Alliance that may have been a relationship of convenience, but nevertheless held together against an enemy whose way of war is best illustrated by the “winter solstice” gift of over a hundred watches by the SS to senior army officers at the request of General Erich von Manstein—watches taken from recently-murdered Jews.

By 1942 the world was engulfed in all-out war, where any means of defeating the Axis seemed worth considering. But while the predators sank further into infamy, Burleigh concludes that among their enemies concern for decent, lawful conduct often survived. Among the strongest chapters in a powerful book are those evaluating the moral contexts of resistance and special operations; the Allied air offensives against Germany and Japan, and above all the dynamics of ground combat: why front-line soldiers in some cases abandoned the rules of war. Burleigh balances this material with descriptions of high-end strategic planning and policy-making. His common context is the process, at all levels, of moral reasoning in circumstances requiring action, under conditions of “circumstances difficult to imagine.”

War, like life, seldom offers clear contrasts between good and evil. When not to choose is itself a choice, the best that can be done is seek to maximize the good. The language of the Holocaust cannot be used when dealing with the bombing of Germany. One was an act of genocide. The other was an act of war. Burleigh speaks of providing “a rough map through intractable terrain.” What he does is demonstrate that World War II was waged against enemies bloodthirsty, ruthless and cruel in ways and to degrees still challenging the imagination. The Axis vision of the future was, in the words of George Orwell, “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” That made the Allies’ war not a good war—that does not exist—but a necessary war and above all a moral war.

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