Ethics of Engagement

'Many modern historians are reluctant even to deploy terms like "good" and "evil"

Michael Burleigh

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme recently had the bright idea of pairing me with the former soldier Patrick Hennessey in order to see whether anything links the subjects in my new book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II, with his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan as recorded in his memoir The Junior Officers’ Reading Club (Allen Lane, 2009). At a certain micro-level of small combat unit soldiering there are obvious continuities — intense camaraderie being one — but then that probably applies to all armies throughout the ages. 

In every war, God and morality are on everyone’s side. Two common beliefs about the war was that morality was the monopoly of any side or that it was a straightforward contest between good and evil. All sides believed that they were fighting in line with their professed morality, which can be discerned from their respective propaganda.

The Japanese thought they were sharing the paternalist traditional values of imperial Japan with the “children” of East Asia. Across that region, many nationalists collaborated with the Japanese on the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, though the general experience of these soi-disant liberators was of brutality, slavery and murder, even if the Japanese granted independence to Burma and the Philippines.

The Nazis believed they were transcending received Judaeo-Christian morality as refracted through modern liberal humanitarianism. While they retained a subsidiary sense of right and wrong — punishing mass murderers for drunkenness, rape or theft — they justified their crimes by the conviction that as a unique generation they were engaged in the once-in-a-lifetime historic task of redeeming the world through a colossal act of racial purification. Odilo Globocnik, the SS mastermind of the Aktion Reinhard death camps, wanted to record these deeds on iron tablets buried in the ground.

The Soviets may have fought an existential war, defending Mother Russia, but it was also one designed to advertise the values of the Soviet New Man (and Woman) as forged by the Bolshevik revolution and Stalinism. As for the West, its slate was sullied by the alliance with Stalin, and the values of the 1941 Atlantic Charter were not deemed applicable to much of the British Empire or the peoples of Indochina or Indonesia upon whom we reimposed French and Dutch rule. The British also deposed governments in Egypt, Iran and Syria, in the second case in conjunction with Stalin, in whose authorship of the crimes at Katyn they also tacitly colluded for reasons of solidarity. Outrageously, this country also repatriated the dismal remnants of Vlasov’s Army, whom the Germans cobbled together to fight in Normandy, men who were sometimes shot just after disembarking in the Soviet Union. Most informed historians of the Pacific War would also say that the US brought an exterminatory racist frenzy to combat the fanatical Japanese. Of course, the Allies had the luxury of being the victims of aggression, although that applied only partially to the Soviets, who co-invaded Poland and the Baltic States with the Nazis.

Many modern historians are reluctant even to deploy terms like “good” and “evil”, though these abounded on all sides during the war, so one is obliged to engage with them in the interests of verisimilitude. We should not be so ahistorical as to reject this terminology just because it is camouflaged in a theological fog. In the real world, judges routinely use the term evil so as to distinguish between, say, a married person at the end of their tether who stabs their spouse in the heat of the moment and a person who cold-bloodedly decides to torture and kill a succession of women or children without the excuse of some major psychotic compulsion. 

That seems to apply to the German criminal conspiracy to murder Europe’s Jews, a deed accompanied by enormous detailed cruelty, despite efforts to make the operation seem clinical and industrial. It would also apply to the gratuitous sadism the Japanese (and their allies such as the Koreans) brought to the treatment of internees and PoWs, which was strikingly at variance with the civilised way in which the Japanese had behaved towards Russian captives in 1904-05 — that is, before they consciously decided to reject Western humanitarian values. 

Does this have any relevance to Hennessey’s contemporary war stories, which are generically related more to the separate historical stream of colonial counter-insurgency warfare? Certainly yes, on the level of how individual troops conduct themselves in wars where the distinction between combatants and civilians is blurred. And yes, too, in terms of how our government needs to make the case again and again for what young men and women are fighting for in Afghanistan, a war the majority of British people seems to think is a lost cause. 

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