Rocky Mountain News

Review of Choices Under Fire

Dec 29, 2006
* Nonfiction. By Michael Bess. Knopf, $27.50.

Grade: A

Book in a nutshell: Bess, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, has written another WWII book to join thousands of others that have been published in the 60 years since the cataclysmic conflagration ended. Readers may wonder if there needs to be another book on the subject, but Bess takes a unique perspective on the war, analyzing its causes and effects from a moral standpoint.

The author wades back in time to 1853, when an American fleet appeared in Tokyo Bay under Admiral Perry and demanded that Japan open its economy to Western trade. Bess hypothesizes that this act of aggression led to the Asian nation’s future nationalism and, thus, Pearl Harbor. Choices Under Fire seeks to position it within a moral framework.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are also analyzed under the ethical microscope, as are the actions of Nazi Reserve Battalion 101, a group of Germans that participated in the massacres of Jews at gunpoint in Eastern Europe.

Best tidbit: Bess links the psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram – which studied people’s willingness to inflict pain on others when an authority figure requests it – to the atrocities committed by Germans under the Nazis.

Pros: The book manages to bring fresh light to one of the most pivotal moments in human history, no easy task.

Cons: The details of massive civilian casualties, first perpetrated by the aggressors, then by the Allies to bring the war to a close, makes for difficult reading.

Final word: The author makes a stunning and brilliantly written case for using history as a filter to examine the great traumas of our more recent past, adding a moral compass to see the true roots of war and violence in our time.

Copyright Denver Publishing Company, Rocky Mountain News Dec 29, 2006