The Elusive 'Good War'

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I finished Antony Beevor's majestic The Second World War last night. I immediately poured myself a drink. Beevor's book is great look at how we think about "good" and "evil." I found it very easy to name "evil," and a lot harder to name "good."
This is evil:

Many prisoners of the Japanese had suffered a particularly gruesome and cruel fate. General MacArthur had given Australian forces the dispiriting task of clearing New Guinea and Borneo of the remaining pockets of Japanese. It became clear from all the reports collected later by U.S. authorities and the Australian War Crimes Section that the 'widespread practice of cannibalism by Japanese soldiers in the Asia-Pacific war was something more than merely random incidents perpetrated by individuals or small groups subject to extreme conditions. The testimonies indicate that cannibalism was a systematic and organized military strategy. 

The practice of treating prisoners as 'human cattle' had not come about from a collapse of discipline. It was usually directed by officers. Apart from local people, victims of cannibalism included Papuan soldiers, Australians, Americans, and Indian prisoners of war who had refused to join the Indian National Army. At the end of the war, their Japanese captors had kept the Indians alive so that they could butcher them to eat one at a time. Even the inhumanity of the Nazis' Hunger Plan in the east never descended to such levels. 

Because the subject was so upsetting to families of soldiers who had died in the Pacific War, the Allies suppressed all information on the subject, and cannibalism never featured as a crime at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946.

It's not just the practice of cannibalism, but that the cannibalism proceeded from notions of racial superiority, militarism, and empire. The Nazis, who attempted to turn human body parts into consumer goods, were not much different.

But is this good?

The mass of incendiaries raining down in a tighter pattern than usual on the eastern side of the city accelerated the conglomeration of individual fires into one gigantic furnace. This created a chimney or volcano of heat which shot into the sky and sucked in hurricane force winds at ground level. This fanned the roaring flames still further. At 17,000 feet, the air-crew could smell roasting flesh. 

On the ground, the blast of hot air tore off clothes, stripping people naked and setting their hair ablaze. Flesh was desiccated, leaving it like pemmican. As in Wuppertal, tarmac boiled and people became glued to it like insects on a flypaper. Houses would explode into a blaze in a moment. The fire service was rapidly overwhelmed. Those civilians who stayed in cellars suffocated or died from smoke inhalation or carbon-monoxide poisoning. 

They, according to the Hamburg authorities later, represented between 70 and 80 per cent of the 40,000 people who died. Many of the other bodies were so carbonized that they were never recovered... 

Harris's attempt to break German morale had failed. Yet he still refused to admit defeat and he certainly refused to recant. He despised government attempts to whitewash the bombing campaign by claiming that the RAF was going only for military targets and that civilian deaths were unavoidable. He simply regarded industrial workers and their housing as legitimate targets in a modern militarized state. He rejected any idea that they should be 'ashamed of area bombing.'

This is very clearly terrorism. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately acknowledged as much, noting that RAF Bomber Command was often bombing "simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts." Arthur Harris (Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command) rejected the idea that you could separate German civilians from the German military. 

When the entire state is mobilized to conquest, what is a civilian? In the Pacific theater, Curtis Lemay used similar logic in ordering the firebombing of Tokyo. (100,00 dead.) 

I don't suggest an equivalence here. The big difference between the Nazi embrace of terrorism and the British/American embrace is that there was an actual debate. In Nazi Germany, those who debated were seen as weak, insufficiently loyal, and often executed. 


But that isn't enough. Do we get to call ourselves "democratic" and then judge ourselves by a Nazi standard? And there is something more -- what you see is the Americans and British forces throughout the War enacting harsher and harsher measures. Faced with the evil of the Nazis, or the evils of Japanese imperialism, we find the tools of evil more alluring. By the time American forces get to the Ardennes, they are not taking prisoners. And looking at Nazi tactics -- "surrendering" and then shooting -- can we say we'd do anything different? 

This is what is ultimately most troubling for me about Beevor's work. He -- all at once --catalogues all the flaws of the Allies, but robs you of your moral superiority. How should we think about the Soviet Union, which, among "The Big Three," bore the brunt of the Nazi assault? On one page Beevor will profile their heroic stand against an Army thought sought to starve them out of existence. On another he will profile that same Army raping its way to Berlin. How do you think about the subjugators  of Poland and the liberators of Auschwitz, when it's the same Army? 

Perhaps in the same way you think about a Union Army enforcing emancipation, only to turn around and enforce the pilfering of Native American land. Perhaps in the same way you think about Britain holding out against the Nazis, while ruthlessly warring against Kenyans fighting for independence. During the Bush years there was a lot of debate about the usefulness of the concept of "evil." I don't have much trouble naming "forces for evil." What I have trouble with is naming "forces for good," to say nothing of "good wars." Indeed, it's very easy to name "an Axis of Evil." It's significantly harder to name a "Alliance for Good." Perhaps I can go with "forces for betterment" or "necessary wars." Certainly the Allied victory presented a "better" world then what Hitler promised. 

I find that it's common for people who fight "good wars" to gild the cause in humanitarianism. And sometimes there are real, actual  humanitarian outcomes -- ending the Holocaust, the destruction of the American slave society. But we didn't join the the Second World War to end the Holocaust. And the North only joined the war against slavery when it became clear that it was the only way to reunification. 

I am sorry for the confusion of all this. I am still thinking a lot of this through. Je ne sais pas.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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