Moral Fog of War

Moral Combat: A History of World War II by Michael Burleigh

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”.

Four years later, a most unusual event took place in Athens and was faithfully recorded by Thucydides, the most reliable of the ancient historians. The citizens of Athens, then a self-consciously democratic society, voted in their Assembly, following a speech by the rabble-rousing Cleon, that the rebellious city state of Mytilene, which had now been subdued, should pay, in the name of justice, an exemplary penalty. All its adult males should be executed without trial, and its women and children sold into slavery. Acts of genocide were by no means unusual at the time, being committed by both Athens and Sparta: Histiaca, Melos, Scione and Torone were examples. But this was the first and I think the only time genocide was authorised, after debate, by a formal vote in a democratic body, by roughly the same people who had seen Medea four years before. To the honour of Athens, the very next day the leader of the moderates, Diodotus, persuaded the Assembly to cancel the order, and a fast trireme was dispatched to Myteline with the revised instructions, fortunately arriving in time to prevent the massacre. But Diodotus had to concede the justice of the original order, and defend its annulment on grounds of expediency. It was left to Socrates, who was almost certainly present at the votes, and indeed at the performance of Medea, to argue conclusively that retaliation was objectively wrong and could not possibly be a principle of justice. Socrates’s argument was gradually accepted, at any rate by some people, for by the time Aristotle came to write his Nichomachean Ethics, he singled out the Pythagoreans as unusual in that they defined “justice” as “reciprocity”. 

The debate between Socrates and Pythagoreans has continued, in various ways, ever since, and is currently taking all kinds of tormented forms in the war against Islamic fundamentalism, which — it is worth noting — is regarded by many Islamists, even in its extreme suicide-bomb form, as mere retaliation. There may or may not be such a thing as a “just war”. But we can be sure that war, which means the abandonment of reason, justice to individuals, and proportion, cannot be fought justly, as Burleigh demonstrates time and again. All that a morally self-respecting society can do is to try to ensure that obvious excesses are prevented. 

As Burleigh shows, both Germany and Japan failed in this respect, more or less totally. Even worse, in some ways, than the extermination camps, were the activities of large SS squads of 500-1,000 men instructed to carry out mass-murder during the early stages of the Russian campaign, since the individual often had to take personal decisions about who to kill and how to do it. Himmler’s orders to units often reflect a confused but sharp moral sense. Thus he strictly forbade troops to steal cigarettes from civilians they had just murdered. Burleigh cites cases of the more callous troops being indicted as “excess perpetrators”, examples being drunk Ukrainian militiamen who held “pigeon shoots” by throwing babies into the air, and a man found unconcernedly eating his lunch using the naked body of a dead Jewish woman as a chair. 

Burleigh presents the Japanese as even worse. They exterminated small tribes like the Suluks on Borneo as well as female Australian nurses on Banka Island. Captured airmen were deliberately killed, cooked and eaten: cannibalism was practised on a large scale, of what was deemed necessity but also for symbolic purposes. A B-29 crew was subjected to live, unanaesthetised vivisection in a university hospital, where their organs were removed one by one until they died. But Burleigh thinks that General Tojo’s instruction to POW camp officers “not to be obsessed by a mistaken idea of humanitarianism” proved that cruelty was not culturally determined. Few will follow him on that point.

Burleigh shows little tenderness to those on the Allied side who criticised ruthless retaliation, such as British bombing of Germany: Bishop Bell of Chichester is described as “more than slightly in love with his self-image as a brave dissenter”. But then clergymen rarely emerge with credit from a debate on war. Archbishop Temple is quoted by Burleigh as saying that the “worst of all things is to fight and do it ineffectively”. The Bishop of Oxford thought to oppose bombing was “neither common sense nor Christianity”. Hensley Henson of Durham said: “In the interest of the human spirit and its intellectual, artistic and, above all, its ethical preferences and promises, we dare not lose this crusade.” 

In Burleigh’s account, “Bomber” Harris, who “had the constant strain of committing his entire command to battle almost daily, for three years”, comes out of the moral debate rather better than most of those involved. He truly believed that his bombing offensive would shorten the war, and that the loss of the lives of his air crews, and of German civilians, was preferable to the much more numerous casualties of First World War trench warfare and Britain’s efforts to starve Germany into surrender. 

Burleigh is highly critical of those who seek to combine ruthlessness with conscience, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer. He has grisly fun at the expense of Henry Stimson, the American War Secretary, who in effect had to take the decision to use the A-bombs against Japan, and where to drop them. He was known as “a New England conscience on legs”, and was severely critical of the big raid on Dresden. He was horrified at the proposal that one of the Japanese targets should be the historic town of Kyoto, which he had visited. But he had no second thoughts about obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

People who try to wage war righteously are almost bound to be inconsistent. And recent post-war experience shows that attempts to limit bomb-loads and differentiate between target areas on a moral basis, as practised by both Anthony Eden in the 1956 Suez War and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, do not work from any point of view and, in retrospect, are liable to seem ridiculous as well as hypocritical. Burleigh’s book should be read, and reflected on, by anyone inclined to take a high moral line on Afghanistan and Iraq. And by those who have to take decisions on getting in, or getting out. It would be interesting to know what Tony Blair, for instance, thinks of it. But then he never reads books, poor fellow.

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