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The dark side of the `Good War'

November 12, 2006|Michael Bess | MICHAEL BESS is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. His new book, "Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II," has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.

World war ii is widely considered one of the most morally unambiguous military conflicts in history -- the quintessential "Good War," as journalist Studs Terkel once described it.

And understandably so. It was a defensive war, waged against aggressor nations whose catalog of crimes ranks extremely high, even in the most dismal annals of human nastiness.

At the same time, 60 years of research and reflection have gradually brought to light numerous aspects of this conflict that do not fit a straightforward pattern of black-and-white moral clarity. One of the challenges we face in thinking about World War II today, therefore, lies in striking a balance between two equally important imperatives.

On one hand, we need to honor the memory of the soldiers and civilians who sacrificed so much to secure the Allied victory. This imperative of celebration is exemplified by such eloquent works as Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," or Steven Spielberg's film, "Saving Private Ryan." Such works, not surprisingly, tend to elide the more ambiguous or morally troubling aspects of wartime, placing their accent instead on the innumerable heroic and altruistic actions, great and small, that characterized the struggle against the Axis powers.

On the other hand, we also need to strive for the most accurate and comprehensive understanding we can achieve of this far-flung conflict. This is the imperative of critical scrutiny, and it is exemplified by an equally vast body of works that focus on the more controversial aspects of wartime.

Every major belligerent nation in this war pursued policies, or carried out deeds, that have come under fire since 1945; and in every nation, the debates about those wartime actions have generated bitterly contentious arguments over the nature of public memory and the meanings of national honor and dishonor. In the aftermath of all wars -- and World War II is no exception -- both the victors and the vanquished tend to construct mythologies surrounding their wartime record, so that the moral nuances get lost.

It is only by balancing these two imperatives that we can truly do justice to the full complexity of World War II.

Here, for example, are two key wartime themes that take us in the direction of this kind of complexity.

* The centrality of race. In the context of World War II, the word "racism" is most likely to trigger immediate associations with Nazi anti-Semitism and the death camps. Yet, in fact, racism existed just about everywhere in the world of the 1930s and early 1940s. The entire globe was drenched in it -- many different kinds of racism, with equally diverse origins and features.

Rioting black GIs in Kansas, enraged at second-class treatment; Korean women forced into prostitution for Japanese troops; complacent U.S. military officers at Pearl Harbor who utterly underestimated the capabilities of the Japanese navy; Slavs murdered by Nazis in Warsaw; Filipinos in Manila massacred by the retreating Japanese garrison; emaciated white prisoners in the Japanese POW camps of Southeast Asia, where mortality rates were six times higher than in German or Italian POW camps; interned U.S. citizens of Japanese descent -- all these individuals take their place in the story of the racisms that permeated World War II, alongside the unspeakable ashes of Auschwitz.

This is by no means to imply that all these cases should be lumped together in the same category. On the contrary, each situation, each dyad of perpetrator and victim, deserves its own grim chronicle. The Holocaust stands on its own, a unique exemplar of the human capacity for industrial-strength malice. Yet it is striking, when one reflects on it, just how pervasive was the racist mentality in the 1930s and 1940s; race is arguably one of the central concepts of the entire conflagration that we call World War II, both in causing the conflict and in shaping its course.

* The barbarization of warfare. When Japan bombed civilian populations in China during the late 1930s, the United States and Britain voiced great outrage. Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to his biographers, was genuinely shocked by this atrocity and developed a far more hostile and uncompromising attitude toward Japan as a result. Newspapers in the United States and Britain issued vehement denunciations of Japan, and some politicians called for a full-scale economic embargo against this nation that practiced warfare in such a barbaric manner. This was not, in the eyes of most Brits and Americans, something that you would ever find us doing.

Scroll forward a mere seven or eight years, however, and what do we encounter? Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo -- entire cities, tens of thousands of noncombatant civilians at a time, incinerated or blasted to bits under a steady torrent of British and American bombs. The large-scale killing of children, women and old people had now become routine facets of Allied warfare.

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