Review of Choices Under Fire
24 December 2006
Allied acts in World War II weren’t always morally pure
By Jack Brimm
Between June 1942 and May 1943, some 500 reservists in the German Order Police, a low-level paramilitary organization, made their way across occupied Poland, killing approximately 38,000 Jewish men, women and children. During those same months, villagers of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in occupied France were harboring and aiding families of mostly Jewish refugees, ultimately saving more than 5,000 lives between 1940 and 1944.
Why did the first group decline reassignment to other duties and elect instead to murder innocent civilians, while the second group chose to risk their lives helping strangers they had never met before and would never see again?
Historian and Vanderbilt professor Michael Bess attempts to answer these and similarly difficult questions in his new book, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II. Drawing examples form the European and Pacific-Asian theaters of the war, he analyzes moral choices made by individuals and governments involved in the conflict.
Bess weaves together ideas, arguments and excerpts from a wide array of historians and other writers, including Herman Wouk and Studs Terkel, in the process showing that this supposedly “good war” was far more complicated and morally ambiguous than most Americans imagine.
The book is divided into three sections. In “Part One: Fomenting War,” the author explains how the widespread racism of the early 20th century contributed to the war’s beginnings. He also outlines the origins of the war in Europe and the Pacific.
So in “Part Two: Making War,” Bess selects episodes and themes from the conflict and subjects them to searching examination. “Many of the war’s fundamental moral questions still remain vividly relevant in today’s world,” he writes, “and thus it is not surprising that the debates over those seemingly distant issues still retain the power both to fascinate and to enrage.”
Attempting to account for the Holocaust, the author recounts famous experiments by American pyschologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo to show that, “given the right conditions, an astonishingly large proportion of a human population can willingly participate in monstrous acts.”
In a chapter entitled “Bombing Civilian Populations,” he examines the morally dubious tactics of firebombing and area bombing and concludes that the Allied destruction of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo constituted “atrocities, pure and simple,” since the Allies “could definitely have won the war without resorting to them.” He identifies this as “the single greatest moral failure of the Anglo-American war effort.”
The book’s longest chapter, “The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb,” persuasively blends fact, analysis, psychology of the leaders, eyewitness accounts and “the very outer limits of moral reasoning” to explain why the decision to drop the bomb, while flawed, was justified.
In “Part Three: Long-Term Consequences of the War,” the author describes the legacy of World War II, from the creation of the United Nations to the politics of memory.
Throughout the book, Bess doesn’t shrink from judgment, but he does acknowledge the difficulties faced by the individual decision-makers and the superior understanding that hindsight affords. He repeatedly stresses the heroism of the Allies and the moral edge they possessed, but his evenhanded presentation will challenge readers who would prefer to think that the Anglo-Americans in particular did nothing wrong during the war.
Chancellor’s Professor History at Vanderbilt University, Bess is the author of two previous books, one of which, The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000, won the 2004 George Perkins Marsh Prize for Best Book in Environmental History. And he is a formidable stylist and storyteller. Choices Under Fire bristles with fascinating sketches of individuals from code-breaker Joseph Rochefort to the tragically fated Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris to Hiroo Onoda, the last soldier of World War II to surrender.
Although the author avoids overt political comment, the vision he lays out for “a new mythology of warfare” stands in contrast to that of the current presidential administration, in particular its policy regarding Iraq. Choices Under Fire is a tough-minded, courageous, ultimately optimistic book, sure to spark debate among readers interested in the history of warfare and the future of our planet.