World War II: the moral calculus
You might think there were too many books about World War II already, but one has come along that approaches that era from a completely different angle. “Moral Combat,” by the British author Michael Burleigh, is subtitled “Good and Evil in World War II.”
The evil is not just the horrendous treatment of subject people by the Germans and Japanese. There is also the deliberate bombing of civilian populations, and by the end of the war, that was being undertaken by the Royal Air Force and U.S. Air Force as well as the German Luftwaffe. The book goes into considerable detail as to the debate on the part of the allies, including the question of using the atomic bomb.
The author’s emphasis is on the actions leading up to major operations, rather than on the operations themselves. Thus there is quite a bit of detail as to the change in the nature of the Japanese government leading up to the war, but only a paragraph mentioning the attack on Pearl Harbor. There’s a detailed account of the campaign down the Malay peninsula toward Singapore, but only brief references to the rest of the Japanese drive across the rest of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The same approach takes in the fighting in Europe. The appeasement process is described very clearly, with Chamberlain flying off to confer with Hitler, or sending emissaries to do the same, on several occasions. Emphasis on the blitzkrieg in Poland is mainly on the rear-echelon efforts to round up the Jews. The campaign in the west is only briefly discussed, but the convolutions undertaken by the Petain government — to act as independent French as well as subservient to the Nazis — take up considerable detail. The year of the D-Day invasion is given over to very intense discussion of the various aspects of the French resistance movement, and not on the invasion itself.
The author praises Winston Churchill, as well as his chief military figures, Lord Alan Brooke and General Montgomery. General Wavell, the author says, was highly competent but got short shrift from Churchill because of a taciturn attitude that annoyed the prime minister.
Emperor Hirohito, the author says, should have received more blame for wrongdoing in the Pacific than he received, but was protected by Douglas MacArthur, who is not one of the author’s favorites. Similarly, most German generals are said to have been complicit in many of Hitler’s racial schemes. The author says it’s a myth that the ordinary German soldier was the unwitting tool of Nazi wrongdoing, that myth being fostered by the post-war need to integrate the West Germans into the NATO complex.
The German general staff badly underestimated the fighting power of Soviet soldiers, because of mishaps during the attack on Finland. Later the Russian soldiers are described as advancing largely because in back of them were detachments of secret police who had orders to shoot those who turned back.
There are two grim chapters on the Nazi extermination policies toward Jews. The author doesn’t use the word “extermination.” He uses the word “murder” and that’s what it was, throughout the territory controlled by the Nazis.
There are some ironic passages throughout. In the buildup to the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the German envoy in Prague is described as leading the effort to have the German minority in that country cause trouble for the central government. The author says: “He might have done his job with less enthusiasm had he known that Hitler was prepared to have him assassinated to justify German intervention.”
There is considerable detail on the Japanese general in charge of defending Iwo Jima, with details of his education in this country (Harvard and the University of Michigan) as well as his letters back to his family in Japan, accurately predicting the incendiary devastation. The moves leading up to the development of the atom bomb are outlined, along with the personalities involved. I didn’t know, for instance, that Robert Oppenheimer’s wife had been a Marxist. The decision to use the bomb came as estimates of U.S. casualties in attacking Japan increased, with reports coming in of Japanese digging in to resist invasion. The summer of 1945 was when I was drafted, and I might have died on the beaches of Kyushu, just after finishing basic training, if the Japanese had not surrendered the month I went into service.
“Moral Combat” is full of details that other books on that war have not covered as fully.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.