April 2007, Vol. 44, No. 8
Bess, Michael. Choices under fire: moral dimensions of World War II. Knopf, 2006.
Bess, a historian, writes an impressive book with a broader focus than philosopher A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities (2006). Both consider the morality of obliteration bombing during WWII. In this age of political terror, when people seek to justify their own wars but not those of others, the importance of the questions Bess and Grayling raise is clear. Bess is moved by the many moral perplexities of the Good War, how the propensity for black and white loses sight of the shades of gray that actually pervaded. Centering on racism and the barbarization of war and equipped with a good understanding of just war theory and excellent writing ability, Bess attempts to carve a moderate course through these and other moral complexities: the causes of the war, the Holocaust, the Allied alliance with Stalin, kamikazes, and the politics of memory. The author questions Allied obliteration bombing late in the war (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo), yet argues that the use of nuclear weapons against Japan is justifiable. One wonders whether his propensity for gray leaves morality too murky to be useful. Nevertheless, Bess’s appreciation for moral context is as compelling as the book itself. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. – R. Werner, Hamilton College