Sunday, September 23, 2007

Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II

Genre: History
Author:Michael Bess
I like books that make me think. Books that are clear, well written. This is such a book.

He discusses the moral implications of the war in a meaningful way: the planned genocide of millions of people, how both sides of the conflict committed atrocities, the fragile differences between the two sides. What I find fascinating was the study on how easy it is for ordinary people to become monsters within minutes. And how people develop the moral courage to fight against evil.

There are of course some flaws in the book. At times, its muddled - contradictory - inadequate research... His analysis of the battle of Midway for example, where the military implications are not as clear cut as the author suggests. I felt he made a more serious error in his discussion of the Smithsonian Museum in exhibiting the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the first A-bomb on a civilian city. The Museum got into trouble with anti-war protestors. The author argues that it should give all sides of the bomb debate a fair hearing which is what the Allied cause was all about - fairness.

But would he do the same for the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking etc..? Would he give equal weight to critics who fabricate history? Truth which can often be obscured by the people with the loudest voices.

Anyhow I thought this was the weakest chapter but overall it was an interesting read. I liked especially the story of how a French town, Le Chambon, against terrible risks and odds, harbored thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution. It was disorganized, clandestine, but effective.

The author also tells the story of how a group of young men from ordinary walks of life - were sent to an army unit - Reserve Battalion 101 - whose main purpose was to kill civilians in cold blood. They weren't brainwashed, they just went out and did their job - murdering women and children in cold blood. What was the difference between the two groups?

"The French villagers of Le Chambon had been quietly but very deliberately preparing themselves, over years and years, for precisely the kind of moral challenge that the war ultimately presented. .. they had gradually shaped themselves: cultivating the critical skills with which to question external authority; honing their sense of right and wrong through reflection..."

In other words, turning abstract Christian ideals into reality and become more like Jesus.

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