Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: Moral dilemmas of World War II

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Moral dilemmas of World War II

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters

Moral dilemmas of World War II

World War II had an entirely different character than The Great War. Advancing technology continued to increase the destructive power of armies and their ability to project that power, often in sudden and unexpected ways. World War II became alarmingly dangerous. The determination to definitively end this war posed a great many strategic and morally equivocal choices.

World War I followed centuries of colonialism and national consolidation. At that point, a bunch of bully-boys were ready and anxious to play king-of-the-mountain. Some of them played very rough and everybody got hurt. For the most part, they came away determined to play nicer in the future. Most of the world believed that they had learned the lessons of full-out nationalism.

As things worked out, social conventions (and faltering economics) had developed to the point that colonies could attempt (and usually gain) independence. World War II played out the end to large-scale overt military conquest when a pair of hard-core bad boys
(Germany and Japan) made the last of the great land grabs that our planet may ever witness.

The atrocities that the German and Japanese governments committed before and during WWII were no greater (except, perhaps, in scale) that those committed under the leadership of Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, or Moses the prophet.

The difference was that war was becoming too dangerous to contemplate and human dignity was becoming more highly esteemed. The Geneva and Hague Conventions set limits on how nations could treat each other’s combatants and citizens.

Germany and Japan blatantly flaunted these new international standards of conduct during warfare. They were not content to secure economic dominance; they felt entitled to mercilessly abuse and harshly exploit the peoples they conquered. Their lack of restraint went beyond the ferocity of their warriors; their entire culture was mobilized to support their aggression. They were not behaving as gentlemen should and their lawless abandon seriously frightened the more self-respecting nations.

If Germany and/or Japan had succeeded, this world would have become a very different place. Germany made the mistakes of using U-boats to sink American ships and offering to give the Southwestern states back to Mexico.

Japan made the mistake of attacking America directly at Pearl Harbor. They had to be stopped at any cost and the United States, rich in resources from recently conquering her own continent, was the country to do the job.

Hindsight is a luxury of armchair historians, not wartime generals. Generals, although trained for war, are famously critical of it. The existence of war veritably defines the de facto collapse of most moral options. Once fully committed to war, a commander’s objective must be to win as quickly and with as few losses as possible. In hindsight, World War II was successfully brought to a definitive end on both fronts.

We cannot know if diverting resources to disrupt death camps, or trying to make carpet-bombing technology more surgical, would have prolonged the European war. We cannot know if the Japanese population would have resisted a land invasion to the last child with a sharp stick. We cannot adequately guess what untried strategy or fortuitous circumstance might have worked out better.

We can only agonize over the appalling loss of life in the death camps, in combat, and among civilian populations. We can only make a vain estimate of the desirability or consequences of one action over another. But, in the end, Germany and Japan, both merciless aggressors, were deprived of the resources and, perhaps most importantly, the will to continue fighting.