BOOK REVIEW Moral war compass fails to point West Moral Combat: A History of World War II by Michael Burleigh
Reviewed by Jim Ash
At first, it's hard to figure out what British historian Michael Burleigh is
trying to do in his book Moral Combat: A History of World War II. The
reader who picks it up at a shop will likely be guided by the back-cover blurb,
which tells us to prepare for an examination of the "moral sentiments" of
individuals and societies involved in total war, and 'what led some to
enthusiastically embrace evil, and others to consciously reject it'.
But we only have to get a few page into the book's foreword before it becomes
clear that Burleigh is on a different mission. He informs us that, in the book
to follow, he doesn't intend to confuse morals with moralizing. He writes: "I
have tried to make this book
as detached as possible; it is not a work of moralizing enthusiasm." This
raises the question of how anyone can write about morality without moralizing.
How can we approach the issue at all without deciding what is moral, and what
is immoral? And if Burleigh isn't willing to get into the nitty-gritty of good
and evil, what's the point of writing a moral history of the second world war?
But Burleigh's confusing foreword makes sense once we get into the body of Moral
Combat and see what the historian's agenda is. In fact, he does plenty
of moralizing; he just aims the vast majority of his condemnation at the Axis
powers of World War II, particularly Germany and Japan. But when it comes to
the behavior of the allies, especially Britain and the United States, Burleigh
either glosses over the ugliest examples, or ties himself into rhetorical knots
trying to excuse it.
that there is anything wrong with a book that condemns the behavior of Germany
and Japan in World War II: both countries behaved in ways that were thoroughly
reprehensible, and steeped themselves in a shame that lingers to this day. And Moral
Combat is at its best when it deals with Germany and Japan. It is
especially strong in its treatment of the Pacific theater, which is generally
neglected by one-volume histories of the second world war. Burleigh details
just how brutal Japanese rule was over the vast areas of Asia that it
encompassed during the war, and how barbaric the Japanese military was in its
treatment of prisoners.
This is familiar ground for readers knowledgeable about the history of the war,
and of Japan's extremely racist conduct of it, but Burleigh takes the analysis
further. He shows how this behavior also came from a more general contempt for
human life among the Japanese elite. Particularly chilling is a transcript of a
discussion between Emperor Hirohito and his top brass. Hirohito wonders if
Japan's attempt to conquer China - which had been going on in fits and starts
for a decade at this point in 1941, and had already killed millions of Chinese
and hundreds of thousands of Japanese servicemen - might not be a doomed
venture. Perhaps, says Admiral Nagano, the head of Japan's navy. But if "the
patient dies", he consoles Hirohito, "one must say that was meant to be".
Hirohito accepts this and the discussion moves on.
Burleigh's treatment of the horrendous German war record is also worthwhile.
Again, much of it is nothing new as far as history-writing goes. But the author
does go outside the box in the way he delves deeply into the question of the
how the Nazis justified their ghastly behavior.
What emerges is a picture of a society engaged in utter barbarism - made even
more hideous by the way it was industrialized and made as efficient as
possible, via assembly-line extermination camps and the Einsatzgruppen
mechanized death squads - that was also trying to maintain a veneer of
Burleigh shows how the architects and henchmen of the Final Solution managed to
see themselves as victims, forced to implement a policy that was unpleasant but
necessary. The targets of the genocidal Nazi program - Jews first and foremost,
but also gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses - were a cancer that had
to be cut out. It was a nasty business, the German "surgeons" consoled
themselves, but someone had to do it, and future generations would thank them
Burleigh also makes short work of the argument that the Nazi regime's
executioners were compelled to its dirty work, on pain of death or
imprisonment. He gives numerous examples to show that a German who didn't want
to murder civilians could almost always avoid it, without fear of retribution
against either him or his family.
What compelled most to continue was peer pressure, which was why those that did
seek a way out almost always found a pretext other than morality for doing so.
Usually they claimed medical reasons - a nervous condition that made it
impossible to continue processing people in the human slaughterhouses of the
Perhaps Burleigh succeeds too well at detailing just how repugnant the wartime
German and Japanese regimes were. At times, he seems to be suggesting that
showing how evil the Axis was is enough to give the Allies a pass for their
numerous crimes and immoralities. But that argument doesn't stand up, and
Burleigh appears to understand this. So he resorts to a number of
intellectually dishonest strategies to avoid confronting just how dirty the
Allies' hands were by the end of World War II.
One is to simply ignore, or give very short shrift to, facts that don't jibe
with his triumphalist take on the Allied war effort. (To be fair, it is British
and American myths of the Good War that Burleigh is most interested in
preserving. His discussion of Vichy France, and of collaboration with Germans
throughout occupied Europe, is quite nuanced and well worth reading.) One fact
the author glosses over in Moral Combat is how Britain and the US joined
up with a regime that was nearly as repellent as the Nazi one - Joseph Stalin's
Russia. This is a serious omission. How can a book about the morality of the
second world war fail to explore the implications of the Western Allies getting
into bed with one monster in order to defeat another?
Burleigh deals with this objection - briefly - via another slippery tactic that
we see elsewhere in Moral Combat: a logically fallacious argument. "Some
conservatives claim that Britain and the US should have let Hitler and Stalin
slog it out," he writes, as if that's the end of the subject. This is a classic
example of the straw man fallacy. Drawing attention to the fact that the US and
Britain were allied with a murderous, brutally repressive regime isn't the same
thing as saying they should have let Russia hang in the wind.
We can accept the fact that the Allies had no choice but to sup with the devil,
because they couldn't have beaten Germany without Russia. But that doesn't mean
we should ignore the consequences of that alliance, which were horrendous for
millions of Eastern Europeans who ended up on the wrong side of the line after
the post-war carve-up of Europe by the Allies.
Burleigh also fails to balance his condemnation of the Japanese with an honest
analysis of American conduct in its war against Japan, a war which was fueled
by intense racism on both sides. Japanese citizens of the US (and Canada) were
locked up in internment camps, while Germans and Italians were left unmolested;
American propaganda posters of the period commonly depicted the Japanese as
cockroaches; and the fighting between Japanese and American troops was brutally
savage, with both sides conditioned to see the other as less than human.
This unsettling feature of the Pacific conflict is well documented in historian
John Dower's War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.
Burleigh cites Dower's book in his bibliography, but refuses to explore this
part of the historical record in any detail.
By glossing over facts like this, Burleigh hopes to keep alive the cherished
Western myth of World War II as a victory of good over evil. But he is willing
to deal with some controversial subjects head on, such as the Allied (British,
American and Canadian in Europe, American in the Pacific theater) bombing
campaigns that obliterated the cities of Germany and Japan, and killed at least
a million civilians in their homes.
Unsurprisingly, Burleigh tries to defend the Allied bombing, and one of the
ways he does this is by emphasizing the bravery of the bomber crews. Burleigh
is right that bomber crews were brave - many of the Allies' mass bombing raids
were cut to ribbons, and serving on a heavy bomber in the European theater was
probably the most dangerous job in the war. But this doesn't make what they
were engaged in any less despicable. And a strong case can be made that the
Allied airmen were victims of an inhuman war, not heroes, as terrified in their
flying, freezing coffins as the civilians beneath them sheltering from their
The author also seems to suggest that the sheer existential threat presented by
the Axis powers justified stooping to barbarism in order to combat them.
Burleigh approvingly quotes Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York in 1943:
in life there is no clear choice between absolute right and wrong; frequently
the choice has to be made of the lesser of two evils, and it is the lesser evil
to bomb a war-loving Germany than to sacrifice the lives of our
fellow-countrymen who long for peace, and to delay delivering millions now held
These are fine words, but they sidestep the fact
that even as early as 1943, few people still believed that bombing German or
Japanese cities was going to end the war, or even shorten it significantly.
They also ignore the fact tWRITE for ATol/tableINPUT id= cellPadding=hat the real reason the bombing went on, growing by
the later stages of the war into thousand-plane raids that destroyed major
cities in a single night, was because that was what the Allied economies were
geared up for. Bombing was going to continue, whether it was right or wrong,
and whether it won the war or not, because lots of bombers was what the Allies
And Burleigh is being disingenuous in another way by closing his discussion of
the bombing campaign on this note. He surely knows that, far from being a
desperate measure employed solely in a time of need, murderous saturation
bombing went on to become standard practice for the main victor of the second
world war, the United States. Japan and Germany were still rebuilding their
shattered cities in 1950 when the Korean War began.
And for the next three years, the US dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on
tiny, impoverished North Korea than they did on Japan in World War II. North
Korea was virtually destroyed, and more than a million civilians were killed.
What existential threat to civilization justified this psychotic level of
violence? The same question could be asked about the aerial horror the US
inflicted on the countries of Southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s.
But Burleigh doesn't have to face these questions because he restricts the
focus of Moral Combat to the war years. He seems to realize that his
Good War starts to look a lot murkier when we take an honest look at the
post-war period. And he studiously avoids one of the most important, and
disturbing moral questions of all: how did the experience of fighting a total,
industrialized war change its principle beneficiary, the US?
An answer to this question would involve a discussion of the aforementioned
poisoning of American military policy via an obsession with bombing, and of the
rise of a permanent and extremely aggressive US national security state. It
would also have to consider the unleashing of profoundly anti-democratic
intelligence agencies, which went on to wreak havoc around the world and make a
mockery of the values World War II was supposedly fought over. An analysis like
this would make it clear that victory in the second world war was far more
Pyrrhic than Western apologists like Burleigh are willing to admit.
Moral Combat: A History of World War II by Michael Burleigh.
HarperPress; 1st Edition edition (29 April 2010). ISBN-10: 0007195761. Price
US$49, 672 pages.
Jim Ash is a Canadian writer and editor.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)