Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II

Overview | Book Reviews | Table of contents | Three recurring themes in this book | Chapter outline

Overview

How a nation conducts its wars, and how an individual citizen or soldier chooses to behave during wartime, say a great deal about who they are.  Moral considerations are not just a froth playing on the surface of war’s campaigns: they permeate the policymaking and the conduct of military action in countless ways.  In this book I seek to show how the moral choices made by individual persons — military and civilian, at all levels of society — played a pivotal role both in shaping World War II and in determining its long-term impact on the postwar world.

This moral dimension of the war revealed itself in three distinct ways:

• in the political and military policies adopted (or rejected) by the belligerent governments;

• in the sometimes momentous decisions made by individual civilians and soldiers;

• in the broader patterns of small, everyday choices — relatively isolated choices that were seemingly less consequential in themselves, but that became highly significant when cumulatively played out and repeated across large numbers of people.

This book tells the story of World War II through the lens of these myriad moral choices, tracing the common threads that run through them, and assessing their enduring impact on the world we have all inherited.

Book Reviews

For links to reviews of Choices Under Fire click here.


Table of Contents

Introduction.  Evaluating the Second World War: celebration, doubt, and complexity

Part One: Fomenting War

1.  A wide world of racisms

2. Causes of the Pacific War: a longer view on Pearl Harbor

3. Causes of the war in Europe : the paradoxical legacy of Munich

Part Two: Making War

4.  Bystanders: how much is not enough?

5.  Bombing civilian populations: a case of moral slippage

6.  Deep evil and deep good: the concept of human nature confronts the Holocaust

7.  Decisions at Midway, 1942: moral character as a factor in battle

8.  Tyranny triumphant: the moral awkwardness of the alliance with Stalin

9.  Kamikaze: wartime suicide attacks in anthropological perspective

10.  The decision to drop the atomic bomb: twelve questions

Part Three: Long-Term Consequences of the War

11.  Justice for the unspeakable?  The enduring legacy of the war crimes trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo

12. Generations under a shadow: the challenge of peace since Hiroshima

13. The politics of memory: remembering and un-remembering wartime
Conclusion.  What would be the opposite of Hitler’s world?

Three Recurring Themes in This Book

1. The centrality of race

In the context of World War II, the word “racism” is most likely to trigger immediate associations with Nazi antisemitism and the death camps.  Yet in fact, I argue, racism was just about everywhere in the world of the 1930s and early 1940s: the entire globe was drenched in it — many different kinds of racism, with equally diverse origins and nuances.  Rioting black GIs in Kansas, enraged at second-class treatment; Korean women forced into prostitution for Japanese troops; complacent U.S. military officers at Pearl Harbor, totally underestimating the capabilities of the Japanese navy; murdered Slavs in Warsaw; massacred Filipinos in Manila; gang-raped young girls in Nanking; emaciated white POWs in Thailand; interned American citizens of Japanese descent — all these individuals take their place in the story of the racisms that permeated the Second World War, alongside the unspeakable ashes of Auschwitz.

This is by no means to imply that all these people should be lumped together in the same category.  On the contrary, each group, each dyad of perpetrator and victim, deserves its own dismal chronicle.  The Holocaust still stands on its own, a unique exemplar of the human capacity for industrial-strength malice.  Yet it is striking, when one reflects on it, just how pervasive was the racist mentality in the 1930s and 1940s: race is arguably one of the central concepts of the entire conflagration that we call World War II, both in causing the conflict and in shaping its course.

2. The barbarization of warfare

When the Japanese bombed civilian populations in China during the late 1930s, the United States and Britain voiced great outrage.  Franklin Roosevelt, according to his biographers, was genuinely shocked by this atrocity, and developed a far more hostile and uncompromising attitude toward the Japanese as a result.  Newspapers in the United States and Britain issued vehement denunciations of Japan, and some politicians called for a full-scale economic embargo against this nation that practiced warfare in such a barbaric manner.  Partly this reaction reflected the smug sense of moral superiority that many Americans and Europeans reflexively felt in dealing with the Japanese; and partly it reflected a sincere belief, on the part of many, that the large-scale bombing of civilian populations lay completely beyond the pale of civilized behavior.  This was not, in the eyes of most Brits and Americans, something that you would ever find us doing.

Scroll forward a mere seven or eight years, however, and what do we encounter?  Hamburg , Dresden , Tokyo — entire cities, tens of thousands of noncombatant civilians at a time, incinerated or blasted to bits under a steady torrent of British and American bombs.  The large-scale killing of children and pregnant women, handicapped people and old people, had now become routine facets of Allied warfare.  Judging by our own moral standards, repeatedly and emphatically articulated as recently as 1937, we had become unequivocally barbarized.

To varying degrees, this kind of phenomenon affected all the major belligerents in World War II: atrocious behavior came to characterize “normal” warfare, not just among the Axis aggressors, but also among those nations fighting a defensive war.  The strafing of helpless sailors whose ships had been sunk; the brutal maltreatment of POWs; the taking of gruesome war trophies such as severed enemy body parts; the shooting of prisoners; the wholesale slaughter of civilians during military operations; the invention of fiendishly clever incendiary devices and other technologies of enhanced butchery — all these grim realities form part of the rigorously documented history of wartime conduct on both sides of this all-out conflict.

Once again, we should not conclude from this — as Hermann Goering sought to argue at the Nuremberg trials — that because all sides committed atrocious acts, all hands were equally and indiscriminately stained.  No: each nation, each people, has to deal with its own measure of accountability for the moral transgressions it committed.  We need to make detailed, exacting distinctions among the barbaric behaviors of wartime, assigning proper responsibility to each perpetrator in due proportion to the gravity of the deeds done and the policies pursued.

3. The internationalist imperative

World War II led to an enduring transformation in global politics: an unprecedented commitment among the majority of the world’s peoples to erecting common institutions of humane and lawful planetary governance.  Some of the new international institutions were primarily political in nature (United Nations, Council of Europe); some were economic (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Marshall Plan, European Economic Community); some were military (Western European Union, NATO, Warsaw Pact, SEATO); some were juridical (Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials, International Court of Justice, Fourth Geneva Convention, Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Partly this new commitment grew out of the manifest inadequacy of the League of Nations and the other international agencies of conflict resolution during the 1930s.  Partly it grew out of the keen awareness, among formerly isolationist powers like the United States, that in the new environment created by twentieth-century military technologies, national security could only be secured through proactive engagement in truly globe-spanning institutions.  Partly it grew out of the sheer suffering directly experienced by so many of the world’s peoples during the war itself.  Partly, no doubt, it grew out of a chastened humanity’s coming face-to-face with the implications of Auschwitz and Hiroshima — the stark realization that the human capacity for cruelty and large-scale violence was seemingly without limits.

For all these reasons, the Second World War brought about a tremendous acceleration in the quest for a global legal order, for a new system of fair and effective conflict-resolution among the world’s peoples.  Even during the bleakest years of the Cold War, this multifaceted process of international institution-building continued to advance, step by painstaking step — despite frequent crises and setbacks.  It has constituted one of the most significant moral and political legacies of the World War II experience.

Chapter Outline

Introduction.  Evaluating the Second World War: celebration, doubt, and complexity

I lay out the book’s principal aims and overall structure, making the initial case for the importance of the “moral factor” in understanding the history and legacy of World War II.  I describe the three main themes that recur throughout the book.  Finally, I describe the unique challenge that World War II poses to the historical observer, a challenge stemming from the fact that it was really two kinds of conflict at the same time: a morally straightforward war of defense against unprovoked aggression, and a morally complex conflict pervaded by ambiguities, painful dilemmas, uneasy trade-offs, awful but unavoidable compromises.  This dual nature of the war, I argue, requires a delicate balance to be maintained between what I call the “stance of celebration” and the “stance of critical scrutiny.”

Part One: Fomenting War

1.  A wide world of racisms

When we bring up the topic of racism in the context of World War II, our strongest association tends naturally to be with Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust.  I argue that race actually constituted a far more ubiquitous and central concept — both in causing the Second World War and in determining its course and outcome — than we are usually led to believe.  Racial ideas shaped both German and Japanese war aims; racial prejudices on the British and American side led to a gross underestimation of Japanese capabilities in 1941; racial distinctions permeated the American war economy and the American military, and led to the forced internment of a racially-demarcated subset of American citizens; the racial hierarchy underlying Japan’s “Co-Prosperity Sphere” resulted in widespread brutality and mass-murder throughout Asia; racial hatreds animated soldiers on both sides in the Pacific War, and profoundly affected the clash between Germans and Russians on the Eastern Front.  World War II, in short, was a conflict in which race played a decisive role, from start to finish and in every theater of combat.

2. Causes of the Pacific War: a longer view on Pearl Harbor

Many prevailing explanations of the outbreak of the Pacific War are tendentious and inadequate, making it seem as if Japanese aggression in Asia during the 1930s and 1940s was a historical aberration, coming “out of the blue.”  I seek to correct this misconception, linking the origins of the Pacific War to the longer-term context of rising Japanese nationalism in the wake of late-nineteenth-century European and American imperialist penetration of Asia .

3. Causes of the War in Europe : the paradoxical legacy of Munich

The story of “appeasement” is too often treated in a simplistic manner that casts a harsh blanket judgment on all the concessions made by French and British statesmen to Hitler in the 1930s.  I argue that we need to make a finer set of distinctions between the legitimate Anglo-French efforts to address reasonable German grievances through 1937, and the disastrous capitulation effected at Munich .  In retrospect, moreover, Chamberlain’s disgraceful Munich policy had the unintended but powerful effect of placing the blame for World War II in Europe squarely on the shoulders of Nazi Germany; this “moral edge” was to prove an immensely valuable asset in the conduct of the Allied war effort over the long haul.

Part Two: Making War

4.  Bystanders: how much is not enough?

I explore the grey areas of the “bystander” phenomenon that emerged when millions of Europeans and Americans were confronted by the Nazi persecution of the Jews: the decision to turn away from fellow citizens in trouble; the “non-decision” that led in so many instances to silence or passivity; the moral compromises that lay behind everyday acts of tacit complicity; the elusive line between indifference and accountability.  I focus particularly on the rationales used by many devout Christians to explain their individual and collective track record of relative silence and inaction during the Holocaust.

5.  Bombing civilian populations: a case of moral slippage

How did the United States and Britain justify the strategic bombing campaign they conducted against enemy cities during the war?  What kinds of strategic bombardment can be plausibly covered by the concept of “collateral damage”?  At what point does an act of bombardment become a clearcut atrocity?  And how vital to Allied victory was the strategic bombing campaign?

6.  Deep evil and deep good: the concept of human nature confronts the Holocaust

Between June 1942 and May 1943, a battalion of some five hundred German reserve police officers — middle-aged, working-class men, many of them married, with families waiting for them back home — worked their way through occupied Poland, killing Jews.  During those eleven months they killed approximately 38,000 men, women, and children — killed them face-to-face, one by one, shooting them in their homes, in the streets of their villages, in the forests nearby.

During these same months, on the other side of Europe, something very different was happening to Jewish families.  The villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in southern France, secretly took in thousands of Jewish refugees, hid them on outlying farms, fed them and clothed them, and arranged for their escape to neutral countries.  Under the very nose of the Gestapo, the 3000 Chambonnais saved the lives of more than 3500 Jews between 1940 and 1944.

I compare and evaluate the various strategies that have been followed by historians, psychologists, social scientists, and philosophers in the effort to explain the chasm that separates the wartime behavior of such seemingly “ordinary” groups of Europeans.


7.  Decisions at Midway, 1942: moral character as a factor in battle

All too often, the moral scrutiny of human behavior yields a rather depressing story of failure: missed opportunities, self-deception, weakness.  This chapter aims to counterbalance this pessimistic tendency with an unabashed account of moral greatness in wartime.  Through a detailed reconstruction of what is undoubtedly one of the most nail-bitingly suspenseful combat stories of the war, I argue that the element of moral character played a pivotal part in determining the battle’s outcome.  It is only by taking into account the “intangibles” of duty, honor, and moral fibre — tracing the roles these elements played at key moments in the fighting — that the Midway story can be adequately understood.

8.  Tyranny triumphant: the moral awkwardness of the alliance with Stalin

Great Britain and the U.S. only succeeded in beating down Nazism through an alliance, shoulder to shoulder, with a regime that was in many ways equally as vicious as Hitler’s.  This simple fact often gets lost, amid the celebration of the great triumph over the Germans and Japanese.  I seek to redress this imbalance of perspective, underscoring both the pivotal role played by Stalinist Russia in defeating Germany, as well as the wide-ranging catalog of heinous deeds and policies that characterized the Soviet war effort.  The Allied victory on the Eastern Front presents a morally complex picture rather far from the straightforward ticker-tape jubilation that we usually associate with V-E Day.

9.  Kamikaze: wartime suicide attacks in anthropological perspective

Kamikaze attacks were often portrayed, both during and after the war, as the hallmark of a degenerate Asiatic culture that placed little value on human life.  I seek to get beyond this recurrent stereotype, exploring the significance of the kamikaze phenomenon by reconstructing the complex ways in which this act of self-immolation was construed by the Japanese themselves.  I also compare the kamikaze actions with salient examples of extreme self-sacrifice in the history of Western nations, and with the suicide attacks that continue to plague the contemporary world.

10.  The decision to drop the atomic bomb: twelve questions

Here I tackle what is arguably the most controversial moral issue to have arisen in World War II, breaking it down into twelve analytical subsections.  I reach conclusions that are unabashedly ambivalent in nature — drawing significantly from both sides in the debates that have raged over this event since 1945.  I conclude in the end that the atomic bombing of civilian population centers constituted a clearcut atrocity of the first magnitude; yet I also conclude that all the most plausible alternative courses of action for ending the war would probably have resulted in far greater loss of human life.  We are left, I argue, with a moral situation akin to the one depicted by William Styron in the novel Sophie’s Choice: an impossible decision among courses of action that are all utterly abominable.

Part Three: Long-Term Consequences of the War

11.  Justice for the unspeakable?  The enduring legacy of the war crimes trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo

I argue that these trials possessed grave flaws, ranging from lack of legitimate legal precedents, to political interference, to basic procedural iniquities.  Despite these flaws, however, they nonetheless constituted a major advance in the definition and institutionalization of universal human rights, and in the construction of a truly global web of legal norms and practices.   On balance, therefore, I conclude that their long-term legacy remains overwhelmingly positive in nature.

12.  Generations under a shadow: the challenge of peace since Hiroshima

This chapter takes as its point of departure the stable peace that has emerged since 1945 between France and Germany.  I argue that this strong and cooperative relationship between two former arch-enemies suggests intriguing possibilities for world politics in the post-Hiroshima era.  We cannot abolish war, but we can move our species — gradually, incrementally, but decisively — toward a far more stable and secure system of global conflict resolution.

13. The politics of memory: remembering and un-remembering wartime

In the half-century since 1945, virtually all the belligerent nations have experienced bitter domestic conflict over how to tell the story of the Second World War. I compare some of the significant “memory wars” that have taken place in Japan, Germany, the Soviet Union, France, Britain, and the United States. Wartime deeds of heroism, wartime deeds of disgrace: is a nation’s identity strengthened or weakened by the public acknowledgment and commemoration of questionable episodes in the national past?

Conclusion.  What would be the opposite of Hitler’s world?

One of the most profound legacies of World War II lies in the mythology that still surrounds this conflict sixty years later, in films and novels, in popular understanding, in public memory, in the rhetoric and assumptions of diplomats and statesmen.  This mythology, in a nutshell, is about powerful action against uncomplicated evil — the triumph of righteous military force in an overwhelmingly just cause.

I argue that nostalgia for World War II will not serve us well as a moral compass for working our way through the conflicts that lie ahead in the century to come.  We have to find new ways of resolving our conflicts — and a revised mythology to sustain us in that quest.  The conclusions reached in this volume suggest three main elements as starting-points for such a new mythology:

  • moral complexity: resisting the temptation to construe world conflicts in pure black-and-white terms;
  • internationalism: deepening the institutional base and the cultural attitudes required for non-military forms of conflict-resolution;
  • a new context for heroism: recognizing the indispensable role of individual moral choices, great and small, in the quest to build a stabler edifice of global peace.

In one significant respect, however, a profound moral continuity also links the world of the 1940s with that of the 21st century: the very values underpinning the great antifascist struggle of World War II — democracy, human rights, civic responsibility — are the same ones sustaining the struggle for a more peaceful international order today.