Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Combative morality

In Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, Michael Burleigh widens his scope -- and takes a few potshots

The following review was posted today on the Books page of the History News Network site.

There's probably nobody alive today who knows more about the rise and fall of the Third Reich than Michael Burleigh. His 2001 book The Third Reich was a landmark history, one notable in describing Nazism as a kind of religious experience. In the years since, he has explored similar currents in the history of other regimes and among terrorists. In his new book, he returns to his original grounding in the Second World War, and widens his scope beyond Germany, and indeed beyond Europe.

Much of Moral Combat is fascinating. Burleigh is particularly good at teasing out the nuances and dilemmas in the choices of people forced to dwell in collaborationist states like France and Denmark. And his regrettably brief chapter on resistance fighters -- regrettable because it leaves one wanting more, but also, as Burleigh makes clear, because such people were lamentably rare -- is superb.

But for all scope and unquestioned value, this is a flawed and distended book. And one whose vices seem to grow out of editorial arrogance.

The biggest, and immediately apparent, problem is the lack of a conceptual infrastructure through which to guide a reader through Burleigh's 500+ page narrative. He's clear at the outset that this is not meant to be a work of philosophy, and that the volume is meant to offer a moral map, not a moral compass. Fine. But how about at least offering a working definition of the word "moral?" How does he understand its relationship to religion or ethics? Is there a distinction to be made between individual or collective morality? Given the different value systems between Eastern and Western societies, does morality transcend cultures? Without such coordinates, it's easy to get lost, even when the map is richly detailed as this one is.

One suspects that Burleigh would react to such criticism with impatience. That's because there's a truculent subtext in the book, a desire to settle scores -- as in sneering references to "moral relativists" -- that is at best distracting and at worst alienating. For example, in his attempt emphasize the degree to which Stalin's USSR was at least as evil as Hitler's Germany, he writes that for Communist propagandists, "the concepts of good and evil were replaced by 'liquidation' and 'expropriation,' words that petit-bourgeois apologists continue to use, to show how progressive they are." Or that French resistance fighters often began their work with "statements of principle and right conduct under German occupation that would appall a modern moral relativist." Really? Could he give an example of such a principle, and a person who would be appalled? Are such people actually dominating the contemporary discourse of resistance? The intelligent but general reader that is presumably the audience for a book published by a trade house might well like to know.

Burleigh doesn't only take such sideswipes at the academic left. Though he is often impressively passionate in his moral fervor both in anatomizing and denouncing the Final Solution,  he can come off as snarky in referring to others with a stake in the matter. So, for example, in talking about the horrific death rate of non-Jewish Russians, he writes that those who were taken prisoner "were largely doomed as a matter of policy, with scarcely any of the kind of attention that has been, enormously, devoted to the Holocaust." It's a good point. But in this context, the word "enormously," set off in commas, comes off as a gratuitous potshot. Did he really need to add it, to imply that too much attention has been devoted to the Holocaust? I don't think Burleigh means to suggest this. But I do think that his writing sometimes lacks -- dare I say? -- the kind of moral discipline one would like in dealing with such sensitive subjects without distinctions that can sound invidious.

Moral Combat lacks discipline in other ways, too. It's too long -- an assertion rooted in the observation that many of the topics Burleigh deals with, particularly on the Eastern Front, were traced in some detail in The Third Reich.  The book also seems imbalanced. It is perhaps understandable that a British writer would spend a lot of time looking at England in general and Winston Churchill in particular (about whom Burleigh is notably approving), particularly since Britain was in the war for years before the United States formally joined the struggle. And Burleigh is quite good in looking his description and analysis of the U.S. Air Force firebombings of Germany and Japan and the sequence of events leading up to the decision to drop the atomic bomb.  But anyone looking for an assessment of the moral character of the G.I., an evaluation of how U.S. race relations did or didn't compromise aims, or comparisons between figures Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, or George Patton are likely to be disappointed. Burleigh has virtually nothing to say, one way or the other, about Japanese internment. Or, for that matter, the Bataan death march.

If you're willing to take Burleigh on his terms, and listen to him talk about what he wants to talk about, you're going to learn a lot, whether or not you agree with him, and that surely counts for something. But it's hard not to finish this book feeling like it could have been better.