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 The Greatest Generation or Steven Spielberg’s 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 over 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 defeated 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.
1. The centrality of race. In the context of World War II, the word “racism” is most likely to trigger immediate associations with Nazi antisemitism 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 American 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.
2. The barbarization of warfare. When Japan bombed civilian populations in China during the late 1930s, the United States and Britain voiced great outrage. Franklin 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.
In the firebombing of Tokyo by U.S. forces on the night of March 9, 1945, for example, the leading B-29 bombers dropped their largest M-47 incendiaries as markers to lay out a precise grid over the city center. Once those marker fires were burning, the rest of the bomber force then flew methodically back and forth over the city, filling in the grids with dense clusters of smaller incendiaries, according to a carefully thought-out pattern that ensured nothing on the ground could escape unscathed. “We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids,” Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay later said. “Had to be done.”
Approximately 90,000 Japanese, most of them civilians, died that night in Tokyo.
To varying degrees, this kind of phenomenon affected all the major belligerents in World War II: atrocious behavior came to characterize “normal” warfare, not just among the Axis aggressors, but also, to a certain extent, among those nations fighting a defensive war. The strafing by British, American, or German forces of helpless sailors whose ships had been sunk; the American and Japanese practice during Pacific island combat of taking gruesome war trophies such as severed enemy body parts; the shooting of prisoners by soldiers of virtually every major belligerent power; the wholesale slaughter of civilians during military operations; the invention of fiendishly clever incendiary devices and other technologies of enhanced butchery--all these brutal realities form part of the rigorously documented history of wartime conduct on both sides of this all-out conflict.
Once again, we should not conclude from this that, because all sides did bad things, all sides end up as morally equivalent to each other when the final balance sheet is drawn. This is what Hermann Goering tried (unsuccessfully) to argue at the Nuremberg trials. On the contrary, we need to be able to make distinctions, detailing the full context and rationale for what was done in each case, and assigning appropriate moral responsibility to each nation for the policies it pursued and the choices it made.
If we do this, Germany and Japan can be clearly shown to have sunk to lower depths of barbarity during this war than the Anglo-Americans or even than the Russians. Anglo-American strategic bombing – even in those unjustifiable cases when it needlessly slaughtered noncombatants – still formed part of a military campaign aimed at destroying the German and Japanese ability to wage war.
By contrast, the Nazi death camps and the Japanese massacres of civilians in cities like Manila yielded no military advantage whatsoever. They amounted to nothing more than gratuitous murder on a colossal scale.
My underlying point here is straightforward. There is such a thing as a just war; but even in such a war, significant evil deeds and good deeds often can still be observed on all sides. We can draw usefully here on the distinction between jus ad bellum (the moral justification for starting a war) as opposed to jus in bello (the moral assessment of conduct during wartime): the fact that a nation is fighting a justifiable war of self-defense does not exempt it from moral accountability for the means it adopts and the deeds it does in its struggle to win.
The Allied nations certainly have much to be proud of, as they look back over World War II: the Allied cause in this war was a morally legitimate one--defense against unprovoked aggression by tyrannical nations. Our troops exhibited extraordinary bravery and self-sacrifice, across the whole broad canvas of the war over six years and countless theaters of combat. Where Anglo-American armies marched in, they arrived as liberators, and treated the local populations with decency and propriety. (This cannot be said, of course, for our Soviet allies.) In victory, the Brits and Yanks showed remarkable generosity toward the defeated peoples; in the aftermath of war, they paved the way for a major resurgence of democratic practices and values in many parts of the world.
But as the two themes of racism and barbarization discussed above suggest, even this quintessential “Good War” proved to be, in the final analysis, a morally complicated event. We should take pleasure in celebrating the memory of those who sacrificed so much in defending our freedom. At the same time, our mythology surrounding World War II--and warfare in general--needs to move beyond the facile imagery of pure goodness confronting pure evil in a pure contest with a pure outcome: such rectitude exists only on movie screens, not in the real world where we all live our daily lives.
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.
Michael Bess is Chancellor's Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. His book, "The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000," won the 2004 George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book on environmental history. He lives in Nashville, Tenn.