Friday, October 21, 2011

What We're Reading: Moral Combat

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh

This is not a book of military history, but rather a detailed account of the atrocities that accompanied military action and occupation in the Second World War. It isn’t enjoyable reading. But there are compelling reasons to read other than enjoyment. What makes this book tough is not only its subject, but the difficulty of grouping various incidents of unbelievable savagery and outrage into a coherent narrative structure. The author is tendentious, rather deliberately so. His account is not extenuating, apologetic, or distanced, and given the subject, I suppose we would fault him if he was. This makes, however, for an argumentative voice that sometimes imposes itself upon the exposition, but like it or not, there is little uncertainty or equivocation in Burleigh’s point of view.

Moral Combat is largely a response to revisionist history about World War II that has obfuscated what Burleigh views as the clear moral lines between good and evil that characterized the conflict between the democracies of the United States and Britain and the Soviet, Japanese, Italian and Nazi totalitarian systems. An extended portion of this book focuses on the Nazi and Soviet actions in the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic during the war, and in particular the interaction of both the Nazis and Soviets in the battle on Russia’s eastern front, an engagement that was rife with atrocity and slaughter committed by both armies upon combatants and the civilian population, one that is arguably unequalled in human history. Burleigh takes pains to disabuse us of the notion that these were only the rogue actions of the SS or the Soviet secret police. The armies of both countries were deeply implicated as perpetrators of heinous crimes. Burleigh argues that the evil these regimes perpetrated had its origins in their oppressive and predatory systems of government. He presents the horrendous fate of Poland, a place of ransack and murder at the hands of both the Soviet Union and Germany, as a characteristic example of the moral degeneracy of the two totalitarian states. The complicity of “liberated” ethnic factions in murdering the Jewish population of both Eastern Europe and in the territories of eastern Russia occupied by the Nazis will leave the reader with an understanding of the Holocaust as an event that is even broader and more disturbing than they had previously imagined. Burleigh takes exception to Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Nazi evil in her Eichmann in Jerusalem, to what she famously called the “banality of evil.” In Burleigh’s view, the killing was never simply something that became a bureaucratic commonplace, a routine distanced from emotion. He shows that this evil was action enthusiastically committed by both civilians and soldiers, and that it represented a feral license born of extraordinary emotion and hate. The will to commit these atrocities came from a visceral place, and the torture and killing was a source of gratification to the perpetrators.

Burleigh examines as well the nature of Imperial Japan and the terrible war crimes it committed in Manchuria against the Chinese and against civilians and soldiers in Southern Asia and in the Philippines. The fighting in the Pacific theatre of the war, especially on the islands, was particularly brutal, and Burleigh tells us about incidents of reprehensible behavior by Australian and U.S. Troops. The crimes of Mussolini’s Fascist state in Italy, and in particular the German reprisals against partisans and the civilian population in Italy are also a part of this detailed dossier of malefactors and their crimes.

The heart of Burleigh’s argument may be controversial, for while Burleigh is not willing to gloss over the actions of any of the participants in the war, he is adamantly opposed to the view that actions like the Allied firebombing of German cities or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima can be equated with the Holocaust and the systematic atrocities of the Nazis, the Japanese (and for that matter, the Soviets). This may be difficult for readers to accept, but it is in fact a distinction that is at the heart of this book. It is one Burleigh insists we must make, that we cannot simply make these insidious equations and conclude that all parties to the terrible conflict of the Second World War were just as bad as the other. For Burleigh that equation minimizes what the war was about, it deflates and diminishes the fundamental evil of the Japanese, Nazis, and Soviet moral and political vision. He finds it essential to distinguish between the moral compromises that seem a part of modern warfare itself and the programs of murder and racial extermination that had an endemic origin in the nature of those predatory states that had ignited a global conflict. Burleigh’s account ends with what he sees as the not altogether satisfactory nature of the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials.

What should be most unsettling to us about Moral Combat, however, is not just the depth of the criminality of the Axis and Soviet regimes and the massive cast of degenerate actors, but the fact that some of the worst savagery in human history was acted out not so very long ago. Today, somewhere in the world, there remain a few yet living of those thousands and thousands of criminals never held to account. Perhaps the Nazi officer who wore rubber gloves and an apron so that the blood and brains of countless men, women, children, and infants he shot in the head at close range would not besmirch his uniform, or the Japanese soldier who beheaded American and Philippine prisoners of war, or one of the Russian soldiers who posed the corpses of frozen German soldiers in the snow and raped women and young girls as the Red Army marched through Poland and Germany, or the American soldier who liked pissing into the mouth of dead Japanese soldiers. Are their children and grandchildren some different species of man?

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