Choices under Fire is not a comfortable book to read. This is not to say it’s a bad read-far from it. The book is beautifully written by author Michael Bess. But if you subscribe to the notion that the morality of the Second World War was all black and white, then parts of this book will disturb you. Bess is not afraid to dissect the morality of the Allied side and find lapses of moral courage as well as what we think of as common decency.
Bess is at his most disturbing in discussing the rationale for the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He asks questions relating to the nature of the bomb itself, potential ulterior motives for its use, and the effectiveness of the bomb as a war-ending weapon. The logic of his arguments is clear and uncomfortable. In the end, the result of Bess’s analysis may surprise you.
Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book is the one that deals with the moral arguments for and against strategic bombing. The Japanese and Germans began the bombing of cities, but it was the Allies who perfected the art. There is a moral cost-versus-benefits test that Bess applies to the question that puts much of the bombing that the British and Americans did in Europe in a questionable light. Each mission or type of mission comes with its own moral equation. On the cost side of the ledger are the losses in planes, casualties among aircrews, and collateral damage on the ground. ON the benefits side is an estimate of the pure military value of what is targeted and what its destruction will do to bring the end of the war closer.
Bess does not care very much for the doctrine of collateral damage. “Collateral damage” is a euphemism for civilian casualties on the ground. In an action like the Schweinfurt raids of 1943, strategic bombing comes closest to moral acceptability according to Bess. The targets were on the outskirts of the city. The value of the targets-ball-bearing production for the entire German war machine-was extremely high. The collateral damage (because of the location of the plants) was going to be limited to about 600 person. A successful raid would be justifiable from a moral point of view.
It should be remembered that the Americans and the British had very different approaches to strategic bombing. The British found early on that flying daylight missions over Germany was going to be a very costly affair. To save aircrew and equipment from slaughter, they adopted a doctrine of nighttime area bombing. The general strike zone for a particular mission was the target and its entire vicinity. Collateral damage was high in this method of bombing when, as was often the case, the target was located in an urban area.
The American bombers, on the other hand, were equipped with the Norden bombsight and machine guns to keep fighters at bay. (In practice, the machine guns did not keep the enemy fighters at bay. It is a testament to the moral and physical courage of the aircrews that they pressed home the attacks despite heavy losses.) Accordingly, the Americans adopted the doctrine of daytime precision bombing, which had the avowed purpose of putting a maximum amount of ordnance on the target while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. The justifiability of the precision daytime raids is clear, at least to this reviewer.
The Americans did participate in selected area raids like Dresden and Hamburg. There was war industry in Hamburg to be sure, but hitting the target the way that the raids were planned to do (with a mix of incendiary and high-explosive ordnance) makes it clear that the destruction of the city center and the massacre of the civilian population was the real goal of the raids. The killing of about 45,000 people in the raid had no war-winning benefit, and the raids are not morally justifiable.
The great fire raids against Japanese cities are also unjustifiable. They did not reduce enemy morale to the point where the people were ready to give up the fight. This was area bombing taken to the height of technical proficiency on a massive scale. Raids as horrible as the Hamburg series became an almost everyday experience. Tokyo was flattened over two days, with 16 square miles of the city’s heart burnt out and 90,000 to 100,000 people killed. Bess comments, “They were, to use the memorable words of General Curtis Le May, ‘scorched and boiled and baked to death.’ ”
It should not be thought that Bess’s book is just an attack on the morality of the Allies. He has plenty to say about the barbarity of the Japanese and the bottomless evil of the Holocaust. He examines the notion of moral courage as found in the American high command at Midway and among Kamikaze pilots. He looks at questions of morality and responsibility as examined at the war crimes trials in Europe and the Pacific and discusses how moral questions raised by the war still affect the world today.
Choices under Fire is a volume that belongs on every World War II bookshelf. It’s a safe prediction to make that copies will be worn and dog-eared in a short time.
-Brian Murphy, Fairfield, Connecticut