You are here:   Civilisation >  Books > Moral Fog of War

All's fair? Survivors being rescued from USS West Virginia after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor 

Michael Burleigh has written an unusual account of the Second World War, which focuses on its moral outrages and dilemmas. This is an excellent idea and on the whole he carries it out successfully. If he reaches no general conclusions, he does give us detailed glimpses of the terrible events that took place over six years, and we emerge from his book, if none the wiser, at least considerably better informed. 

Human beings seem always to have possessed some kind of rudimentary conscience, and nearly all of them require, for their own ease of mind, some kind of justification for what they do in wartime, however atrocious, or indeed for going to war in the first place. This is the principle of retaliation, and Burleigh's book illustrates it in action time and again. Hitler launched the Second World War in retaliation against the hidden forces which, he believed, had undermined Germany from within and lost her the First World War, and which were still at work, making it impossible for him to avoid another one. His policy of exterminating the Jews, something which could only be done under the darkness of war, was itself, as he saw it, an act of retaliation. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was, as Japan's military commanders saw it, an unavoidable and essentially defensive war of retaliation against the Western policy of denying her resources, especially oil. British "area bombing" of German cities was, among other things, retaliation for German bombing of British ones. The American use of nuclear weapons against Japan was a retaliatory act to shorten the war against a people who had started it in the first place. 

There are some indications that the retaliatory principle operated in prescriptive and savage societies, and represented for them a form of justice. As Francis Bacon wrote, "Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out." Yes: but what if retaliation, the ordered form of revenge, is the law? This was true of most early civilisations and, as Burleigh's book shows, was still the governing principle in the mid-20th century. In antiquity, however, there was less humbug and the law was explicit and honest. The Hebrew Book of Exodus (21:24-5) states: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." Note that this law itself was intended to be to some extent a restraining force: only one eye was to be exacted in return, not two. The early Greeks, especially the poets, were not so restrained. Hesiod, whose
quasi-religious authority was second only to Homer's, wrote: "If he starts it, by some wicked words or deed, pay him back twice as much." That tremendous tragedy of Euripedes, the Medea, first performed in Athens in 431 BC, shows an overwhelming exaction of revenge as a form of justice. However, by this time the more sensitive and virtue-conscious Greeks were beginning to have second thoughts about the matter. Medea is made to say that she had "dared to do a most impious deed".

View Full Article
Seeking Enlightenment
August 20th, 2010
4:08 AM
I am a fervid admirer of Michael Burleigh, but this bok seems to have been somewhat rushed, the prose inelegant and full of dangling participles, slang and subjectless sentences. A pity, for his erudition is truly awe inspiring, and his sheer good sense breathtaking in this age of the philistine and uncouth products of academe, as he notes.

July 5th, 2010
2:07 PM
great paul johnson, the best writer alive

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.