Michael Bess. Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II. Knopf, 2006.
Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud
An extraordinarily strong cultural assumption most Americans hold—to a large extent across the political spectrum—is that World War II stands as one of the highest moral achievements in our entire history. It’s obvious that the patriotic Right affirms the “goodness” of the War, but strong similar feelings are held by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, too (witness, for example, Leftist pundit Katha Pollitt’s scathing response to Nicholson Baker’s attempt to question the “goodness” of the War in his book, Human Smoke, in The Nation [April 21, 2008]).
One of the main virtues of Michael Bess’s Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II, is how Bess, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, complexifies the easy assumption that World War II was mostly a morally unambiguous success story for American virtue.
While Bess pays respectful attention to pacifists who question the validity of all wars (see especially his highly sympathetic treatment of French pacifist pastor André Trocmé’s work to save Jews during the war years in chapter six), he is no pacifist himself. He even states that, of course, we have no reason to question whether this was ultimately a necessary and just war. And in the end, in fact, he treats even the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima, Japan, as a morally justifiable (if barely) act (he’s less positive about the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki).
However, the ultimate justifiability of the war does not release its participants nor those now seeking to take account of what happened from moral analysis. Bess works hard, and mostly with admirable success, at offering an objective moral analysis that scrutinizes “our side” as much as “their side.” So he criticizes the bombing of civilian populations by the Allies as a case of “moral slippage.” And in one of his more important, though frustratingly brief, chapters he examines the “moral awkwardness” of the Allies’ alliance with Stalin and totalitarian Soviet Russia. He also critically discusses the “victors’ justice” of the post-war war crimes’ trials.
I found the positive impression Bess’s careful analyses made on me lessening as the book continues, however. The first half of the book, showing the dynamics of racism shaping all sides of the conflict, the policies of the victorious World War I nations that surely played a major role in making Germany “safe for the Nazis,” American imperialism in the Far East, and the morally problematic war tactics the “good guys” used, indeed effectively challenges American mythology about the “goodness” of the “Good War.”
However, right in the middle of the book, Bess offers a curious chapter on the Battle of Midway that turns out simply to be a celebration of the bold American tactics that turned a likely defeat into a war-changing victory. Admirable and interesting as those tactics and their execution may be, it was unclear what the role of this particular story played in relation to Bess’s overall argument in the book—and Bess’s account here adds a note of triumphalism that actually seems to diminish the overall objective tone of the book.
It was with his thorough and thoughtful account of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan that Bess challenges my thinking the most. He raises important questions and makes a strong case for the complexity of the American decision to introduce the world to this most devastating of weapons. However, since he doesn’t convince me that this decision was not an unqualified moral disaster for this country, I ended up finishing this part of the book with a bad taste in my mouth. Any moral account of the War that leaves the door as open as Bess’s does to the moral legitimacy of nuclear weapons fails its most important test.
Bess, at the end of the day, seems to treat morality as a series of quandaries without any overarching anchor points. With his assumption that, of course, this was a necessary and just war, he ends up mostly making the case for the inevitability of “dirty hands.” He does give the reader a lot to appreciate in his treatment of the various elements of World War II—his rigor in raising moral questions marks this as a highly unusual work. And this distinctiveness is certainly commendable, even if in many ways I am left with the feeling that the fact that I am as impressed as I am with this book mostly reflects the utter failure of other historians and ethicists in our country to use stable moral criteria in their evaluation of the War.
Ultimately, though, Bess gives us only a little help in our struggle to counter the American version of the myth of redemptive violence that uses World War II as one of its paradigmatic cases of how violence does indeed defeat evil and make good win out. If indeed, as Bess helps us see at a number of places, the actual war that was fought from 1939 to 1945 did violate fundamental moral principles, perhaps we should allow those violations to push us to ask even more fundamental moral questions about World War II than Bess seems willing to ask.
Maybe the War was actually a moral failure—and as such more serves as a cautionary tale. Is it possible that even when there is a “good cause,” even when democratic and “Christian” nations take up the sword in “justifiable” resistance to tyranny, even then war corrupts absolutely?