It’s been a while since I posted a book review here. This review was published in the Spring 2013 edition of Dialogue, the journal of the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplains Branch.

English historian Michael Burleigh’s 2011 book, Moral Combat: Good and Evil In World War Two (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), is well worth reading by anyone who gets paid to think about military ethics and the use of force. The moral history of World War Two is important because it was, for the Western democracies, a conflict between doctrines of just war, which Burleigh defines as “a series of injunctions about the lawful authorisation of armed conflict and the relationship between ends and means”, on the one hand, and the need, on the other hand, to defeat institutionalised and industrialised evil and barbarism by any means necessary. The outlines of this conflict have been obscured not only by time but by decades of revisionist history, postmodern ambiguity and moral relativism. Burleigh’s book is a convincing rebuttal of these trends, and shows that it is possible to think about war with moral clarity and vigour.

History can be a depressing thing to contemplate. Regular, recurring examples of human failure can threaten to undermine our faith in moral judgement. The decision made in 1938 by France and Britain at Munich to hand over three and half million Czechs to Nazi Germany was, as Burleigh argues, a failure of “moral conscience”. Contemporaries, like France’s Prime Minister Daladier, felt that Munich was only “preparing the way for the destruction of Western civilisation and of liberty in the world”. When one compares Munich to the Yalta Conference of 1945, when the Allies handed the Poles from German to Russian tyranny, it can be tempting to adopt a stance of moral relativism. Slogans such as “history is written by the victors” or, as a young CF Captain told me recently, “We’re in Afghanistan for big oil”, illustrate the prevailing relativistic notion that all war aims are somehow equally corrupt and venal.

The first part of Burleigh’s book is a ground-clearing exercise, rebutting the view that the Western democracies and their enemies were morally equivalent. This exercise is accomplished by a detailed examination of the ideology, governance, and industrialised repression and murder of the police states of Nazi Germany and the USSR”. The police states, he writes, served a cause that was “responsible for the arrest, torture, imprisonment or execution of vast numbers of people because of their class or national origin, with the lucky merely having their lives ruined”. Both regimes abjured moral universalism, dismissing it, in Trotsky’s words, as “papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life” and replacing it with the view, spoken by Hitler, that “the strongest man is right”.

It has been said that the most unethical thing the western democracies could have done in World War Two would have been to lose. In the second half of his book, Burleigh carefully analyzes the “moral calculus” of the Allied war effort, from special operations in occupied Europe, to an alliance of expediency with the USSR, to the bombing of German cities. Burleigh notes that the bombing campaign, still controversial today, was the subject of intense moral debate at the time, a debate impossible to imagine in the dictatorships. It was also a theological debate, with many churchmen, including the Rev. John Collins, a Bomber Command chaplain, condemning the effort as immoral and “soul destroying”. These voices were not universal. William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, felt that the “worst of all things is to fight and do it ineffectively”. Likewise Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York, concluded that “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 in slavery”.

It was the opinion of politicians and generals, not church leaders, that decided the fate of the vanquished in 1945, and as Burleigh notes, rebuilding and the rule of law prevailed over rough “victor’s justice”. The Nuremburg and Tokyo trials established precedents and models that are followed today in The Hague. By comparison, “One needs only to imagine a war crimes trial conducted by the Nazis to reach the conclusion that Nuremburg was fair by the lights of the day”.

Burleigh’s book demonstrates that it is possible to think through historical events with moral clarity, and even with moral outrage. As he notes in his introduction, his subject is morals and not moralising, which are as different to one another as religiosity is to religion. World War Two involved millions of responsible adults confronted with difficult decisions and an often “overpowering” temptation to immorality. In such a context, it is indeed remarkable that “a vestigial regard for decent or lawful conduct survived at all”. Seventy years later, in our own age of terror and counter-terror, our militaries, governments, and peoples continue to confront moral temptations in a much more ambiguous war. As chaplains and ethicists, we have a role to play in arguing that it is possible to think and act with moral clarity.

0 Responses

  1. This sounds like a really excellent read. I've been writing an essay for a promotion course at work, on the morality and legality of unrestricted submarine warfare in WW2. I've put this on my Wishlist – thanks for a very interesting review.

  2. "History can be a depressing thing to contemplate. Regular, recurring examples of human failure can threaten to undermine our faith in moral judgement."

    I love that first sentence. Surely the thought is not original to you, but you use it well, here.

    To quote an old friend, that wheel keeps goin' 'round. For example, where was the moral judgment of the West in Cambodia in the '70s, or when the massacres were taking place in Rwanda in the '90s (all thoughts to current American politics regarding apologies aside)? I think though, taking a Christian perspective, the study of history strengthens one's faith in God and His promises. Psalm 146, and all that. And there is an obvious hope when we pray that the Father's will be done on earth – obviously, though, not by, but perhaps through, the power of man. This book adds something to that idea.

    As you note at your conclusion on the war: In such a context, it is indeed remarkable that “a vestigial regard for decent or lawful conduct survived at all”. Perhaps not so remarkable; the Puritan ideal of "a city on a hill" may have still lingered in 20th century England as it did in America. But, perhaps sad (and telling?) that this regard seems so often to come after the fact in this day when "In God we trust" seems an old fashioned slogan. Kyrie, eleison.