by Terry Scambray
A review of Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, by Michael Burleigh (Harper Collins, 2011, 562 pp.)
On August 5, 1945 as the Enola Gay passed over Iwo Jima on its way to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, it rendezvoused with two observer planes, one of which was named, Necessary Evil. In Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, Michael Burleigh shows that “necessary evil” may be the simplest and most accurate way to describe the horrors committed by the Allies in WWII.
Burleigh’ masterful tome is a response to several schools of thought about WWII, but mainly to relativist historians and journalists. Such writers equate Allied bombing of civilians with Germany’s monstrous atrocities; some of these writers also excuse the Japanese rape, torture and murder in the Orient as understandable responses to European colonialism.
The poison of such rationalizations has long been promoted by a variety of thinkers who view the Western heritage, a sterling part of which is the Allied victory in WWII, as a skeleton in the collective closet of the West and specifically America.
In contrast, Burleigh writes: “I find myself defending the Allies war effort, whatever reservations one may have about the conduct of the Soviets. Some patriotic myths are not only useful but true; so were the virtues which accompanied them.”
This is not to say that Burleigh presents his thesis in a tendentious way. For the brutality on all sides in this war was legion, the events too far ranging and dreadfully complicated to fit neatly into any sleek moral equation. Indeed, the massive brutality and global extent of the war has numbed most people into seeing merely a blur of sameness where, in fact, many crucial differences existed between the sides.
Burleigh’s sub theme is that the absolute, uncompromising goal of the Allies was to end the war as soon as possible. Everything else was subordinate to that, whether it be saving the Jews or the concern for civilian populations in Germany and Japan as well as civilians in the territories occupied by The Third Reich and The Imperial Japanese Armey.
Not least of the Allied concerns were the thousands of Allied POWs, many of whom especially in Japan were subject to the most inhumane treatment imaginable, including beheading, bayoneting and in several instances crucifixion. The Japanese also seemed to have practiced cannibalism on a wide scale, and one captured “B-29 crew was subjected to live, unanesthetized, vivisection in a university hospital.”
Of the Americans and British captured by the Germans, 4% died in captivity; of the same group of servicemen captured by the Japanese, 27 % died in captivity. Additionally by the end of the war, 100,000 Korean, Chinese and other Asian slaves were dying horrible deaths each month in areas controlled by the Japanese.
Deciding which targets to bomb was only one series of decisions that had to be made among the thousands made by Allied leaders during the course of the war. Making such decisions for the Allies who had “a transcendental moral code” complicated matters, complications which did not restrain their enemies who were unquestioning servants of their earthly tyrants.
Then there were the myriad battle field decisions. As Burleigh writes: “Common sense suggests the one should distinguish between hot-blooded and cold-blooded atrocities.” For example, amidst the Normandy hedgerows or in Pacific island jungles, the enemy was liable to pop up out of nowhere. Men, thus, had only a split second to react and at times did not notice, or care to notice, whether the enemy was firing or surrendering.
Beyond this, all sides in the war shot prisoners for reasons of expediency mixed with raw sadism and hate. On both sides individuals were charged for committing such acts: such individuals were sometimes punished, but most were given light sentences, if that.
However, despite it all, many brave acts of humanity are recorded. One such was by German Corporal, Anton Schmidt, who ran a truck repair shop for the Wehrmacht. “He was no intellectual and had never opened a book or a newspaper.” He covertly assisted Jews in various ways. When discovered, he was shot. His letter to his wife tells of Nazis shooting thousands of Jews in a meadow, a practice that was repeated many times by the Germans and Russians. His letter concludes: “. . . I only acted as a human being, and never wanted to harm anyone. . . . rest assured that we’ll see one another again in a better world with our beloved God.”
Others performed acts of almost inexplicable altruism, like the ones made famous by the Sudeten German, Oskar Schindler. Burleigh’s 2006 book,Sacred Causes, shows how the Vatican under Pius XII and at great risk and financial cost saved hundreds of thousands of Jews and countless others during WWII.
The motives for such profoundly courageous acts were many: religious; hatred for the Nazis; mavericks defying convention; Protestant minorities who sympathized with other minorities. Burleigh deftly writes: “the sociology of rescuers is uninteresting. Businessmen peasants, monks, nuns and priests did a great deal more rescuing than academic philosophers, of whom history has recorded not a single example of altruism in this era, although they do a lot of writing on these subjects.”
Then there is the case of a Japanese commander who refused to mistreat American POWs and was relieved of his command. The same happened with a few in the German command. The consequences for such acts were removal from command, an innocuous penalty when contrasted to what America’s ally, “Uncle Joe” Stalin, did to anyone who dared protest his dictates.
Racism played a role, most prominent with the Japanese and the Germans both of whom “entertained myths of racial purity, although they applied their racism to each other.” As usual, each was hardest on those in closest proximity, the Japanese on the Chinese, the Germans on the Poles and Slavs. For the Americans, prewar contempt for the Japanese was soon replaced by a fear of them as supermen. That fear was replaced by loathing and then pity as the Allied forces saw the emaciated, disease ridden state of many Japanese survivors by the end of the war.
Despite the mounting pressure, the Allies tried to limit civilian causalities. One such case involved a plant in occupied Norway which produced deuterium-enriched “heavy water,” thought to be indispensible to making an atom bomb.
A bombing raid was ruled out as too lethal for the surrounding population. So in November 1941, two Halifax bombers, towing gliders filled with commandoes took off on a mission to blow up the plant. The first plane crashed into a Norwegian mountainside, killing everyone but 14 of the commandos who were picked up by the Nazis and shot. Other survivors were tortured until they revealed their plans and then shot.
The second glider, unable to locate its landing area, returned home during which its tow rope snapped, plunging the commandos to their deaths.
Another attempt was made to destroy the plant by commandoes who managed under terrifying conditions to blow it up and escape without killing anyone. They left evidence indicating that theirs was a purely British operation in order to protect Norwegians from retaliation.
About this incident, Burleigh concludes: “There is much elegant academic disquisition about just-war theory, but it is rare to see it practiced with such extraordinary scrupulousness.”
Because of the desire to end the carnage as soon as possible, unbelievably intense hour by hour pressure was put on all involved. Yet Burleigh also shows that decisions which in retrospect have become highly controversial, were at the time made in as analytic and balanced a way as possible.
A crucial example of this was the decision to drop the atomic bomb in which “the key decision-makers were not insensitive to moral questions.” Yet with the overriding consideration to shorten the war, US leaders like General George Marshall, Secretary of State Henry Stimson and others had to consider that the Japanese had never surrendered in their 2,600 year history nor had any of their military units in WWII.
Causality projections of a land invasion of Japan were staggering based as they were on many considerations, the foremost of which was that it took three months to subdue Okinawa where the Japanese had lost 135,00 soldiers and 75,000 civilians while 7,400 US troops were killed with 32,000 wounded.
Estimated US loses varied from 30,000 to 55,000 in the first thirty days of a land invasion. American leadership realized that the American public was in no mood to undergo such further suffering which could mount up to losses which might dwarf the 300,000 already killed in action.
However, Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur opposed dropping the bomb. Admirals Nimitz and Leahy wanted to starve the Japanese with a blockade, another morally problematic scenario.
Others like Robert Oppenheimer, a director of the Manhattan project, originally cheered the dropping of the bomb. Though like some other Western scientists, he imagined that the way to avert future wars was to share the technology with the Soviets, a happy prospect for those scientists who were covert Communists or Red Army Intelligence spies.
However, after the atomic bombs were dropped, Oppenheimer publicized his doubts about the operation, doubts which “contributed to his general celebrity, something that he ardently craved.” Given a brief audience with President Truman, Oppenheimer confessed, “Mr. President, I have blood on my hands.” After the meeting Truman told a subordinate, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.”
The Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, in 1943 when the British bombing of Germany was questioned, wrote: “Often there is no clear choice between absolute right and wrong . . . it is the lesser evil to bomb a war loving Germany than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow countrymen . . . and delay delivering millions now held in slavery.”
Mortal Combat is the third in a trilogy of penetrating books by Burleigh about modern Europe, the first two being Earthly Powers and Sacred Causesboth of which show Christianity being replaced by the ersatz religion of human progress and hope. Burleigh explains how this transformation was driven by the proliferating pseudo sciences and utopianism of 19th-century Europe.
In the 20th century, these “non-God religions,” as Churchill called them, coalesced into Nazism and Communism, and along with Japanese emperor worship they became engines of massive devastation and suffering. However, as Burleigh writes in Moral Combat: “But the ineffable uniqueness of suffering can also mutate into its sacralisation.” That is, suffering can become a sacrament of secular religiosity. Thus any polity or group which can project an image of suffering or exploitation is beyond the reach of rational discourse.
As Burleigh reminds us: “While Japan has embraced the uniqueness of being history’s only victim of a double nuclear attack, it has stubbornly refused to apologize publicly or to give compensation for the atrocities it committed.”
When Shiro Azuma, a Japanese veteran of the Rape of Nanking, published a book on his experiences, he was sued and vilified. The book has not appeared in Japan.
Burleigh concludes by saying that the fifteen million Chinese killed by the Japanese may hurt Japan as China rises to be the superpower of the 21st century. “For although the events of WWII seem so far behind us, in many ways they continue to structure mentalities in the contemporary world.”
A caveat to an otherwise distinguished work: Burleigh incorrectly states that only Americans of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps during WWII. However, only west coast Americans of Japanese descent and a much smaller number of Americans of Japanese descent living in Hawaii were forced into relocation camps though all Hawaiians lived under martial law during most of the war. Secondly, a few Americans of Italian and German descent were also sent to relocation centers.
©2011 Terry Scambray