Moral Combat: A History of World War II Michael Burleigh

Harper Press, pp.650, 30

‘Was all this the realisation of our war aims?’, Malcolm Muggeridge asked as he surveyed the desolation of Berlin in May 1945.

‘Was all this the realisation of our war aims?’, Malcolm Muggeridge asked as he surveyed the desolation of Berlin in May 1945. ‘Did it really represent the triumph of good over evil?’ All wars pose moral dilemmas for those who fight them, and the Second World War more acutely than most. How many allied lives was it legitimate to risk in pursuit of victory, even over an enemy of unspeakable wickedness? How many enemies was it legitimate to kill? Is the question even worth asking?

This admirable book is a history of the Second World War, seen through the eyes of the few who asked themselves these questions at the time, and the many who encountered them briefly before brushing them aside. It is one of a rash of books to review the morality of both sides’ conduct of the war, in a way which is symptomatic of a wider loss of confidence in the superior virtue of the victorious allies. The war is recent enough for its moral dilemmas to resonate with us. It cannot be regarded with the detachment that we bring to the far more horrible narratives of, say, the Mongol invasions or the Thirty Years’ War. Yet it is also distant enough for another generation, with little or no personal experience of confronting these issues, to have taken over the business of making judgments about them.

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Michael Burleigh is more balanced than most. Certainly, he has little time for retrospective judgments. His purpose is to show how men responded, in real time and often on wholly inadequate information, to the moral dilemmas posed daily by the conduct of war. He sets out to explain how the great majority of them overcame any qualms and got on with the job. It is an important theme, albeit one which is not easily handled within the kind of narrative framework which the author has chosen. In the case of the three totalitarian states involved, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, the result is a fairly orthodox account of the familiar catalogue of horrors, from Guernica and Abyssinia to the concentration camps and the mass rape practised by the Soviet armies of 1945.

What will be less familiar to most readers is the treatment of the dilemmas of the Allies. Was it right to destroy the French Mediterranean fleet at Oran in 1940? To risk an entire Canadian Division in the disastrous and strategically questionable raid on Dieppe in 1942? To undertake sabotage in occupied countries, when the inevitable result would be murderous reprisals against many innocent people? To bomb urban sites in Norway, the Netherlands or Belgium whose governments were our allies? To kill tens of thousands in the fire-storms of Hamburg and Dresden? To refuse to bomb concentration camps in Poland? To use the atomic bomb against Japan? Burleigh firmly rejects the view (in fact, held by hardly any one) that the violence of the Allies and the atrocities of the Axis powers were morally equivalent. But it does not of course follow that the allied war effort was free of moral issues.

The extreme test, as Burleigh recognises, is the strategic air offensive against the German cities. Neither the RAF nor the US Air Force was capable of precision bombing on a large scale against targets of military significance. Attacks on whole cities were the only technically feasible option. The bomber force represented an enormous investment, made at a time when these difficulties were underestimated. Its deployment was the only way in which the Allies could get at Germany itself before the landings in Normandy in 1944, a sensitive issue at a time when the Soviet Union was taking horrific casualties in the land war.

But the offensive was nevertheless totally disproportionate both to the scale of German attacks on British cities and to the results actually achieved. It has been calculated that for every ton of bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe on Britain, some 315 tons were dropped by the Allied air forces on Germany, with results that were certainly not negligible but fell far short of what was claimed for them at the time.

As head of Bomber Command, Air Marshall Harris rejected with characteristic bluntness the whole concept of proportionality in war. Responding to Churchill’s misgivings about the destruction of Dresden, he famously declared that any possibility that the bombing might shorten the war by whatever margin was worth taking. ‘I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.’ Jörg Friedrich (Der Brand, 2002) and A. C. Grayling (Among the Dead Cities, 2006) have written fierce indictments of this policy, and even Michael Burleigh is hesitant in its defence. But theirs is very much a postwar view. Friedrich was born in 1944, Grayling in 1949, and Burleigh in 1955. All of them write with far greater knowledge than was available to the decision makers at the time, and a moral distance from events which makes the whole concept of proportionality rather easier to apply.

The real problem, as George Orwell pointed out in 1940, is the contrast between the fundamental empathy of human beings even across the line of battle, and the collective morality of the group. In totalitarian states, mass ideology insulates men from personal responsibility for what they do. But even a liberal democracy claims to absolve guilt in a way that transcends the moral values of individuals. The technology of warfare adds its own contribution. For the pilot in his bomber or the artilleryman by his field gun, killing is almost as remote as it is for the distant politicians and generals. Death is an impersonal abstraction. The victims no longer stand out from the mass, as they must have done when the main weapons of war were the sword and the axe. Perhaps the growing significance of law in the conduct of war, and the impact of instant television reporting will change things. But there is no sign of it yet.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: History, Military, Morality, Non-fiction, Philosophy, World War 2