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A hard look at the Second World War that keeps some things out of sight

Michael Burleigh's latest book, Moral Combat, provides a searching examination of the human elements at work on both the Axis and Allied sides, yet somehow stumbles in its delivery.
Moral Combat: A History 
of World War II
Michael Burleigh
Moral Combat: A History of World War II Michael Burleigh Harpercollins Dh62

The US Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman was one of modern warfare's most prescient pioneers, and when he wrote that "war is cruelty", he wasn't exempting the Union side for which he fought, and he certainly wasn't excusing himself either. In his conception, war was a storm: if you unleash it, you have no choice but to accept its damage and simply try to survive until it expends itself. By extension, guilt only falls on those who unleash war, not to those who participate in it.

It's easy to see why Sherman might have believed this. His army killed thousands of men, dispossessed widows and orphans, destroyed mountains of food and goods, burnt entire towns and cities, and cut a physical swathe through hundreds of miles of the American South.

But was he right? For centuries, mankind has believed that "war is the greatest plague", but the debate continues to rage about whether there are different kinds of war. That debate is reflected in the title of historian Michael Burleigh's latest book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II. Burleigh, the author of The Third Reich: A New History, has here created an engrossing, large-scale portrait of the Second World War, and his organising principles are bracingly subtle. This is not the catalogue of battles that so many Second World War histories devolve into; rather, this is a searching examination of the human elements at work on both the Axis and Allied sides. And the result is almost unbelievable: a Second World War book that actually feels new.

Burleigh has an unerring narrative knack for both the telling personal summation, as when he mentions that Hitler was "never psychologically demobilised" from the First World War, and the sweeping pronouncement, as when he talks about the worst acts committed by German soldiers: "Military violence is usually kept in check by military policemen, but in Poland the army's own police forces, including the Secret Field Police, were unlikely to prevent atrocities as they were busy carrying them out themselves."

His book teems with the people of the war, most of whom move in a landscape that's suddenly become incomprehensible before their eyes. Burleigh is, however, unwilling to allow that landscape to fog over with sentimentality; he's constantly correcting the focus to remind his readers of the pitiless nature of the times, as when he discusses scattered accounts of European Jews escaping the Holocaust. "Ending this account of responses to the Final Solution with individual instances of moral greatness might have had a necessary civic or pedagogical purpose, but it distorts a history in which there was no happy ending," he writes. "The fact of the matter is that rescue was statistically insignificant in a story of catastrophic bleakness, from which there is no redemptive message."

It's all expertly done, but it's also hampered by a thematic problem that is evident on virtually every page. Burleigh is not attempting merely to delineate the moral damages done to the Axis and Allied forces during the war - he's asserting that there were two different kinds of morality at work. He's essentially talking about two different wars, one waged by predatory totalitarian regimes against civilian populations (their own included), and the other waged by liberal democracies solely in order to stop those predators. These kinds of contrasts don't work as well as Burleigh seems to think they do, and every time he approaches their limitations, his otherwise excellent book stumbles badly.

He writes that "the secret police of both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes, it should be emphasised, routinised torture, in contrast to the long-harboured aversion to it of the liberal democracies", without seeming to realise that this blurs the distinction between front-line and headquarters experience, a distinction he himself later acknowledges by reminding us that "combat often led to an automaton-like state in which much of the conscious mind closed itself down and instinct took over".

When discussing the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in Nanking, he seems to be invoking this automaton-like state but also simultaneously its contrast: "Although Japanese soldiers had a sense of right and wrong, there was no transcendental moral code to offset the absolute dictates of officers, who in turn were the unquestioning servants of the emperor. If they said kill, you killed" - but it's not entirely clear that Burleigh grants - or sees - that "if they said kill, you killed" applied equally to Allied soldiers as well.

"Most soldiers in western armies remained civilians in spirit and came from societies that had not encouraged them to hate," he writes, overlooking the bigotry and xenophobia that plagued sections of American society in the 1940s, "although like anyone else they could enjoy the adventure, the thrills, the tourism, as well as the release from civilisation's constraints." When talking about combat troops whose main task was to kill Germans and Japanese, "tourism" comes very close to being pusillanimous, and in any case it hints at the double standard Moral Combat both indulges and denies. Burleigh writes of Allied paratroopers being "lynched by cowardly German mobs when they reached the ground" without seeming to contemplate what the fate of German paratroopers landing in London - or the Bronx - would have been (and he certainly seems oblivious to the moral resonance of the word "lynched" when it comes to early 20th-century America).

Like so much else concerning the Second World War, the question is asked in place names: Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Any defence of the Allied conduct during the war must contend with the worst of that conduct, and it's on this point that Moral Combat exhibits its most blatant flaws.

A historian of Burleigh's gifts should not need to engage in the kind of linguistic subterfuge that fills these sections of his book, as when he writes, "War crimes also involve deliberately killing defenceless people, which was clearly not the case in Nazi Germany, where Bomber Command had to fly through prodigious defences to reach their targets." Civilian women and children weren't manning those prodigious defences, as Burleigh knows full well; the fact that an armed burglar manages to breach your house's doors doesn't absolve him of everything he does once he's inside. "Aircrew were convinced of the military necessity of what they were doing," Burleigh writes - but such contemptible bureaucratic doubletalk would apply equally to the Nazis.

The Allies bombed Dresden relentlessly for three days in 1945, leaving more than 30,000 dead and gutters running with liquefied human fat. They'd done far worse to Hamburg in the previous year.

"No serious person can compare the hard-fought bombing campaign with slaughtering innocent civilians in circumstances where the only risk the perpetrators ran was to be splashed with blood and brains in some ditch in Ukraine," Burleigh writes, but it's nevertheless easy to make such a comparison; the bombers weren't splattered simply because they were way up in the air - the dead were still non-combatants, and they were still dead.

Burleigh calls it "tendentious as history" to "criminalise retroactively" those bomber squadrons, and I agree; but it's also tendentious to retroactively exonerate them, especially if you have to resort to hairsplitting to do it (Burleigh at one point tells us that the Dresden bombings couldn't be war crimes because "the relevant international laws on aerial bombing were not codified or ratified until 1977. The brutal reality was that Dresden was just another name on a target board," we're told, "to which much unjustified retrospective significance has been attached." It's hard to find a polite response to sangfroid run so badly amok.

The last two place names are the most telling, of course: at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States (with Allied sanction) became the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons in war - in both cases flattening the target cities and incinerating many thousands of victims whom Burleigh would no doubt also find well defended and therefore justly killed.

"It remains invidious to judge what people did 70 years ago by the far from perfect light of utterly different modern circumstances," he writes, noting that nowadays "the media and human-rights lawyers are effectively an independent non-combatant arm".

He continues: "This author neither approves nor disapproves of this development," but I don't for an instant believe him. He clearly disapproves. He should approve: the more public scrutiny is paid to combatants, the more quickly any atrocities they commit will come to light - and, one hopes, the more quickly they'll be punished by exactly the kind of civilian moral codes which Burleigh professes to endorse.

Of his history, Burleigh contends that it "does not confuse morals ... with the separate activity of moralising." But there's plenty of moralising on display in Moral Combat, and not much of it does its author any credit. There's also plenty of gripping narrative, expertly rendered by one of the best historians currently working in English. Like those partisans of 70 years ago, readers will have to assess for themselves to what extent the rewards outweigh the risks.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Updated: June 17, 2011 04:00 AM