World War II was the quintessential “good war.” It was not, however, a conflict free of moral ambiguity, painful dilemmas, and unavoidable compromises. Was the bombing of civilian populations in Germany and Japan justified? Were the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials legally scrupulous? What is the legacy bequeathed to the world by Hiroshima? With wisdom and clarity, Michael Bess brings a fresh eye to these difficult questions and others, arguing eloquently against the binaries of honor and dishonor, pride and shame, and points instead toward a nuanced reckoning with one of the most pivotal conflicts in human history.
Unlike the Vietnam War, WW II never had to undergo the searching, even scathing, moral evaluations that the later conflict has engendered. Partly this was part of the "Good War" syndrome, whereby the world unanimously understands that the Good Guys overwhelmed the aggressors of Imperial Japan and the genuinely evil Third Reich. Having fought a bitter worldwide struggle to preserve Western democracy, the veterans and the Baby Boomer generation were in no mood for academic darts about the morality of their wartime actions. The ambiguousness that enveloped the Vietnam conflict, however, and the eventual ferocity of its opposition, changed all that. The Iraq War has only confirmed that, for years to come, no future conflict will go unexamined. In this atmosphere, author Michael Bess has managed to produce a thoughtful critique of the manner in which both the western Allies and the Axis powers prosecuted the war that swept the world. A decent study of this subject would, of course, require several fat volumes, but Professor Bess is writing for the common reader. He writes with the precision of the true academic but never lets himself get bogged down in minutiae, or in wordy scholarship. He tamed his massive subject by paring it down to a few major issues and then took care to make them accessible: the decisions to go to war; the bombing of civilian populations; the morality of allying with one brutal dictator to overcome another; and, of course, the US's decision to drop the atomic bombs. The ramifications of the Holocaust are presented, along with a discourse on the Kamikazi suicide attacks andsomewhat surprisinglythe moral factors in the Battle of Midway. Bess's objectivityand his evenhanded tone keep him far from coming across as a self-righteous moralist or, worse, a classroom scold. Thus, readers are more prepared to accept conclusions that challenge their comfort zones as well as those that confirm their personal beliefs. This is no mean feat, and Dr. Bess is to be congratulated for pulling it off. Reviewer: Raymond Puffer, Ph.D.