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They All Knew They Were Right

April 18, 2011

Tmothy Snider in WSJ:

Michael Burleigh has seen and filled an opening in the history of World War II. Diplomatic and military historians, respectful of the guilds of which they regard themselves as honorary members, tend not to pose moral questions too sharply. The cultural and social historians are eager to pose moral questions but often lack the concern for high politics necessary to pose them in the right places. In “Moral Combat,” Mr. Burleigh forces a confrontation between the two: He poses the moral questions to the people that mattered at the great turning points of a vast war. For the most part, these are familiar moments of Allied history: the decisions to bomb German cities but not Auschwitz, to use nuclear weapons against Japan but spare its emperor. Mr. Burleigh is at his best when he recalls the professional ethics of officers wishing to save their men and when he describes the rough morality that emerged among soldiers.

Although Mr. Burleigh has his heroes— Winston Churchill above all, but also George Marshall—there is nothing romantic in his description of the war. For him, it had to be fought more or less as it was fought, even though the battlefields were a horror of moral education, not just killing men but altering them. Mr. Burleigh recognizes that there is nothing simple about the relationship between morality and history. [More]

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