History Book Club

Review of Choices Under Fire

November 2006

Did the Allies commit war crimes during WWII?

Review by Dennis Showalter

Bess, professor of history at Vanderbilt, addresses the moral dimensions of what is widely considered history’s most righteous war. Without challenging that generalization Bess nevertheless argues that the war raised fundamental moral questions that remain relevant today. The righteousness many participants experienced was balanced even at the time by doubt and shame. When nations and individuals go to war, they remain deeply concerned about the morality of their actions. That held even in the Third Reich, whose people spent much of their postwar lives explaining, rationalizing, or concealing their behaviors.
Bess argues that moral choices, made at all levels of power, were decisive in shaping World War II. Josef Mengele, the butcher of Auschwitz, and John Waldron, who led his squadron to death and glory at Midway, both had a chance to show their character by making choices. Their names are remembered accordingly. Their choices, however, were clear. Millions of other men and women were confronted with decisions that were less obvious; decisions involving dilemmas trade-offs, and compromises. Bess focuses on the consequences in three crucial areas.
First was race. Nazi persecution of the Jews, and Japanese brutality towards the “lesser peoples” of south Asia were merely tips of an iceberg that ranged from the mass internment of Japanese Americans to the segregation of pubs in pre-D-Day England. Next was the growing brutalization of war. Shock at the Japanese air attacks on Chinese civilians in the later 1930s gave way to an almost casual acceptance of thousand-plane raids on civilian targets. By 1945 the incineration of two Japanese cities by nuclear bombs was greeted with general applause.
The third great choice of World War II, Bess argues, was to seek the transformation of global politics on internationalist lines by developing common institutions of governance above the sovereign nation-state. These institutions, moreover, are not about power as such, but are rather intended to support justice and humanity. The United Nations was only one of them. The World Bank, the International Court of Justice—even military alliances like NATO and the Warsaw Pact—have been designed to exert influence outside of and above state borders. Even during the worst years of the Old War and the global anarchy that followed, Bess insists that the process of international institution-building has continued to develop.
Bess is no mere revisionist, seeking notoriety by inverting conventional wisdom and demonstrating the universality of clay feet. In demonstrating choice at work in history’s greatest war, he establishes as well the enduring paradox that justice and ambiguity coexist in the context of free will. Yet the heroism that decided World War II also generally resolved the ambiguities on the side of justice. Humanity cannot afford another global war. And precisely for that reason Bess considers the heroism of choice, in little things and great deeds alike, as still needed in a new century where conflict is far from obsolete.