On August 6, 1945, the day the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Robert Oppenheimer—the scientist who did so much to bring that day about—was jubilant. Pumping his arms over his head like a prize fighter, he told his team at Los Alamos how proud he was over what they had accomplished. Almost immediately, however, he experienced regret. After obtaining an audience with President Truman, Oppenheimer unburdened his soul. “Mr. President,” said the shaken scientist, “I feel I have blood on my hands.”

In Moral Combat, his riveting new book on the Second World War, Michael Burleigh relates the incident, and tells what happened next:

Truman’s response has been variously reported. He said, “The blood was on my hands—let me worry about that” or “Never mind, it’ll all come out in the wash.” Another version the President liked to relate was that he offered Oppenheimer a handkerchief and said: “Well, here, would you like to wipe your hands?” After encountering the ‘cry-baby scientist,’ Truman told Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.”

The visceral feelings this scene evokes—and the debates it causes—lie at the heart of Burleigh’s book: an exploration of how war affects people, and what it does to their natural moral instincts.

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Although many wars came before it and have arisen since, World War II is the standard by which all others are measured—the biggest, most brutal, and most unforgettable. Its experiences put all our most deeply held beliefs to the test.

The power of Moral Combat is in its immediacy. Unlike the dry and abstract books on the subject, Burleigh takes us right into the heart of battle, so to speak—into the minds and emotion of the people who waged it, for better and worse. Although World War II has been endlessly covered, its actual history, paradoxically, remains largely unknown, buried beneath layers of myth and patriotic fervor.

One reason Burleigh wrote Moral Combat is to challenge romantic notions about the “Good War.” But he also wrote it to correct revisionists who depict a conflict “in which all belligerents were as bad as one another.” Those who engage in such “moral equivalency” not only trivialize the real issues at stake during the War, but also undermine their own credibility. Making elementary distinctions between the combatants is a first and necessary step to judging the Allies fairly.

In his opening chapters, Burleigh does just that, contrasting the democracies with the predatory behavior of the twentieth century’s emerging totalitarian regimes—in Italy, Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union. (If we think we face existential threats today, imagine what it was like being shadowed by four menacing empires all at once). As Moral Combat demonstrates, the new despotisms “tried fundamentally to alter the moral understanding of humanity, in ways that deviated from the moral norms of Western civilization.” The result was such horrors as the Rape of Nanking, the Gulag, and Auschwitz.

Burleigh’s description of these events makes for harrowing reading, raising the question of how they could have occurred in the first place.

Exceptions notwithstanding, it is not normal for one human being—let alone whole societies—to want to slaughter another. To reach that point, regimes have to condition their citizens to despise their supposed enemies (internal and external), and to adopt a warlike mentality. But even that may not be enough to persuade people to engage in mass murder. Something extra—the worship of a charismatic, god-like figure, comparable to the devotions that cults induce—is often necessary, and this is exactly what the world’s new “gods” provided.

“The totalitarian dictators,” writes Burleigh, “represented a regression to what Churchill called ‘one-man power,’ a form of idol worship alien and odious to Anglo-Saxon civilization, and more akin to that of the ancient Egyptians and Aztecs with their monumental structures and idols demanding perpetual human sacrifice.” Faced with such towering evil, the civilized world reacted defensively, with confusion and hesitation. Today, this is seen as “appeasement,” but it’s important to remember the cultural context in which it occurred. World War I was still fresh in the minds of those who survived it, and no sane person wanted to re-live the trauma: “The Anglo-French statesmen and diplomats who had to respond to the aggressions of the predators were haunted by the mass carnage they had witnessed during the Great War.” Unlike the dictators, who viewed aggression as an instrument of racial and nationalist regeneration, the democracies did not want war. In fact, their very reluctance to get into a new one is a testament to their basic humanity, although that delay would cost them dearly.

When the democracies were finally forced to act by Germany and Japan, they did so stoically. But in their very resistance to the new barbarism, they quickly found themselves at odds with their own beliefs. In 1937, for example, Winston Churchill publicly denounced Nazism and Communism, declaring, “I repudiate both, and will have nothing to do with either.” Within three years, however, Churchill was forced to backtrack, “expressing a pragmatic willingness to sup with the Devil in hell to defeat Nazism,” as Burleigh writes of his tactical alliance with Stalin. Similarly, when the Nazis invaded Poland, President Roosevelt—to his credit—issued a public appeal, urging the combatants to avoid bombing civilian areas. After the German Luftwaffe began carpet-bombing Warsaw, however, and followed with similar bombings elsewhere, this pledge was quietly withdrawn, and the Allies retaliated in kind.

“Strategic bombing,” as it was called (often euphemistically), began on a limited scale in World War I, and gradually expanded in subsequent conflicts. Signs of what was to come occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when Japan bombed Nanking and Guangzhou. The attacks provoked widespread indignation, including a fierce protest from Lord Cranborne, British Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, who decried this new breed of “terror” and its “indiscriminate slaughter of helpless civilians.”

The savagery of modern warfare caused scant reflection within the Axis, but the Allies were sensitive to it. One of the many strengths of Moral Combat is how well it explains the terrifying situation the Allies faced—on a daily basis, in dire circumstances—and the reasons they made the decisions they did. Wars are not conducted according to the “deliberations of a philosophy seminar,” Burleigh reminds us, “and the threshold of what could be countenanced evolved over time.” Of course, “evolving” standards of conduct are not always for the better, and strategic bombing is a prime example of that. More on this in Part II.

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