Ranking Evils In War

June 24, 2008

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All this rhetoric from Hitchens and others about the Holocaust justifying anything in WWII is a bit counter-factual and rings false.  No one at the time thought in that fashion, though Hitler and the Nazi’s many crimes against European civilians were well known and did encourage widespread callousness regarding the rights of German civilians.  Nonetheless, it’s an “ex post facto” rationalization to suggest the Holocaust motivated much of anything the Allies did, not least because most of the Allies were more concerned with what happened to their own forces and people rather than a bunch of Jews with whom they had little in common in the Western Soviet Union and Poland.

The Blitz is notably absent from Pat Buchanan’s article and so too are Germany?s crimes in Poland, and this is a pity.  Because even if British retaliation would not be allowed under the just war tradition, retaliation as a last resort in a proportional way—even to the point of killing hostages—was allowed under the law of war in force in WWII, and that law of war grew from the just war tradition. In no sense did England, France, or Poland inaugurate the brutal tactics—such as mass murder of civilians—for which the German forces were legendary, particularly on the Eastern Front. Further, British orders aside, German Blitz bombing tactics preceded the massive strategic bombing the Western Allies visited upon Germany.

Arguably, since no authority other than retaliation by combatants can enforce the law of war, the British response to the Blitz bombing by Germany had a certain patina of legal justification under the rubric of “belligerent reprisals.” In this view, the crime of bombing London’s residential areas (exacerbated by night bombing) figured far more prominently than the Holocaust in justifying British bombing of industrial and civilian targets in Germany. 

In fairness to both sides, carpet bombing came to the fore because of the difficulties of sighting and accurately hitting industrial targets with the means employed at the time, i.e., the Norden bomb sight coupled with Europe’s foggy skies.  In other words, ?strategic bombing? itself was a bit of an ex post facto justification for the crummy accuracy of the world?s air forces? bombers at the time, which would otherwise have been aimed directly at factories, air bases, and other legitiamate military targets.

Carpet bombing of civilians is wrong, unnecessary, violative of the just war tradition, and needlessly fails to draw distinctions of combatants and noncombatants.  Even so, even among evils we must make distinctions.  There is a notable difference between violence, even unjustifiable violence,, when it is an instrumental tool aimed at victory versus violence in pursuit of the wholesale slaughter of civilians as an end in itself.  This is what distinguishes American and British actions from those of the Germans, and this is why the moral reasoning is out-of-whack among those who equalize German conduct with American and British conduct—such as the writings of the nearly insane Noam Chomsky.  In fairness to Pat Buchanan, I don’t believe he has done this here or elsewhere. But I do believe he does too little to distinguish the nature of the evil in Nazi conduct from that of the Allies, and, for many of the same reasons, I think he exagerrates the likelihood with which the Germans could have been bought off with a few concessions, such as the annexation of Danzig.

This is not to say the Americans and British conduct of the war was always justifiable; it was not.  But their goals were fundamentally defensive, reasonable, and limited in a way those of the Germans’ were not.  Pat Buchanan?s talk of Danzig corridors and tit-for-tat German retaliation for British excesses understates the Darwinian value system and expansive strategic objectives of the Nazi regime.  This is essential context.  There is little doubt the Germans would not have stopped at Danzig, nor any doubt that their early conduct in Poland would have found repetition in the skies over Britain without British encouragement.  Worldwide empire was conceived, as evidenced in Mein Kampf, as a necessary means of German self-protection from other world power and a fulfillment of Germany destiny to reclaim what Hitler saw as the German race’s historical lands. 

The Western Allies? responses to German violations of the law of war, while cruel and disproportionate, were in the service of practical end:  Victory.  Our later benevolence as occupiers provides further essential context. American and British behavior even in its conduct of evil contrasts sharply with the Satanic and genocidal goals of the Germans, particularly in the East.  The Western Allies’ actions in war and in peace also contrast sharply with the orgy of revenge and rape and theft undertaken by our erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union.

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