Coming to terms with Allied war crimes

Spiegel recently examined “new openness” in the discussion of war crimes American soldiers may have committed on D-Day.

Now, the Times reviews the latest work of World War Two era history by Michael Burleigh. It’s called “Moral Combat” and focuses on war crimes by the Allied forces, in the end comparing them favorably to the Axis’ crimes in battle:

One day in 1942, amid the confused hell of the battle for the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines, a 22-year-old American infantryman called Sidney Stewart jumped into a bomb crater and found himself face to face with a Japanese soldier of about his own age. “He didn’t look as I had expected Nips to look,” Stewart later recalled. “His face was clean and clear cut. Sort of simple, and his eyes were brown and somehow honest. Yet there was a hopeless look in them.” The man said something in Japanese: “I knew it was surrender,” Stewart remembered. “I knew I had to move on. I knew I couldn’t take him prisoner.” Even as the Japanese man was tugging desperately at the prayer board in his pocket, Stewart shot him dead. For the next few days the memory haunted him, until one of his comrades said reassuringly: “Sid, you shouldn’t let that thing worry you. You shouldn’t think about it all the time. After all, boy, this is war.”

Stewart was not a bad man: today, Americans regard him as one of the “Greatest Generation”, whose patriotic heroism defeated the cruellest empires the world had ever seen and kept the flame of democratic freedom alight. In shooting that young Japanese man in cold blood, however, he crossed a line to which most of us never come close. Safe in our armchairs, we never have to contemplate the kind of moral dilemmas that dominate Michael Burleigh’s new history of the second world war: to kill or to be killed, to collaborate or to resist, to bomb from the air or to fight hand to hand. And thankfully, few of us will ever share the experience of Anatoly Chechov, a 20-year-old Russian who became a sniper at Stalingrad but at first “couldn’t bring myself to kill a living being”. “When I first killed,” Chechov told an interviewer, “I was shaking all over: the man was only walking to get some water! I felt scared: I’d killed a person!” But then, he said, “I remembered our people, and started killing [the Germans] without mercy.”

Since there are far too many books on the second world war already, I confess that my heart sank at the thought of another. But Burleigh’s book is infinitely better than the usual tiresome trudge through the battlefields of North Africa or rose-tinted retrospective of the Battle of Britain. More than any book I have read on the war, it confronts us with the ethical questions millions of people faced in their daily lives, from the statesmen who devised the policy of appeasement to the soldiers for whom, “at the combat coalface, killing became a job of work”. Among other things, it comprehensively demolishes the argument made two years ago by the American novelist Nicholson Baker in his book Human Smoke, which argued that the allies and the Axis were as bad as one another. As Burleigh shows, the allied forces did some terrible things, some of which — the firebombing of Hamburg, say, or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — are hard to contemplate with equanimity. But in war, as the Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, wrote in 1943, “frequently the choice has to be made of the lesser of two evils, and 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”.

The reviewer doesn’t stop to ask: Who’s to say that Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Hamburg were definitely “the lesser of two evils”?

What if the decision to firebomb Hamburg merely appeared to the decision makers as the “lesser of two evils”? Or, what if losing the whole war was invoked as the “lesser of two evils,” and the comparison was devalued when applied to certain military decisions?

I’m not casting judgment on the use of the Bomb or on allied firebombing, just wondering whether more than a “lesser-of-two-evils” standard is required here.

Burleigh is far from insensible, though, to the moral conundrums posed by the allied embrace of area bombing in the later stages of the war. His portrait of the controversial Arthur “Bomber” Harris, for instance — a “tough little man with an angry face, hard stare and brusque manner”, perpetually irritated by the large alimony payments demanded by his first wife — is impressively nuanced. What Harris never forgot, Burleigh points out, was the horrific toll exacted on his own airmen. Addressing a mixed Anglo-Polish group of pilots, he once said bluntly: “I want you to look at the man either side of you. In six months’ time only one in three will be left, but if you are the lucky one I promise you this. You will be two ranks higher.” As he moved to leave, the men started banging their appreciation on the tables. Harris paused and turned to speak, but was so choked with emotion that no words came. Instead, in a scene that might have come from some Hollywood war film, he gave them a smart salute — the gesture of a patriotic man who always believed that bombing, for all its horrors, was more humane than the slaughter his generation had suffered on the western front.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Burleigh’s book is that, unlike so many historians, he has a refreshingly realistic, clear-eyed view of human nature. He is excellent on the motives behind anti-Nazi resistance, praising, for example, the unaffected patriotism and moral courage of the Norwegians who distributed flyers urging their countrymen to defy the Quisling regime. But he recognises that most people ended up collaborating one way or another, whether they were French wine growers who produced bottles for German troops or “bar staff, chambermaids, cooks, typists and waitresses in garrison towns”, all of whom had to make a living somehow. And in an extraordinarily powerful passage, he shows how defiance brought moral compromises of its own, describing how resistance fighters in central France tortured suspected collaborators — including women and children — by inserting white-hot irons “into the suspect’s rectum or pressing them into the back and stomach simultaneously to simulate disembowelling”.

Hmmm … According to the the Daily Dish standard, the acts of these Frenchmen evoke an evil as bad as the Nazis. And if the French Resistance used such tactics as a matter of unofficial policy, or condoned it in some circumstances, the Resistance was behaving far worse than … the Gestapo in its attempt to both restrict and benefit from “sharpened interrogation” in situations of supposed necessity.

This was not merely a matter of cruel necessity: as an onlooker recalled, “the person operating the forge seemed to be enjoying his work”.

Sadism is extraneous to the sin of torture according to the Sullivan definition. It may perhaps make certain criminal damage to an individual human body more severe, but does not increase the wrong of the act of torturing.

Is it possible that overt sadism does worsen the crime of torture, not just by degree, but also in an essential way?


One Response

  1. […] epidemic of not watching” ctd. Posted on May 21, 2010 by justquoting Further to this post … what the hell is he talking about? – Yes, a conservative [the British foreign […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: