Myths of wartime good and evil


'War crimes' by Chris JohnstonThe Luftwaffe bombing campaign over England claimed more than 40,000 lives, yet the Allied campaign over Germany and occupied Europe is believed to have killed at least ten times that number. Can we really say the Luftwaffe campaign was evil and a war crime, while quietly forgetting about the Allied action?

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are only the most visible, most memorable, and therefore most culturally significant of the bomb attacks on civilian targets that characterised the Second World War.

Both Axis and Allied powers took part in these almost unprecedented assaults on civilian targets. Both sides in that conflict defied the ethics and customs of warfare: that any use of force must distinguish between enemy combatants and the civilian/non-combatant population.

It is a weakness of human nature that we forgive in our friends what we despise in our enemies. How else could anyone offer in-principle support for the indiscriminate slaughter of non-combatants?

We remain conveniently ignorant of the destructive scale of conventional bombing over Europe and Japan, even though the terror of the London Blitz is ingrained in our cultural memory. But if the Blitz was wrong, then surely the bombing of German and Japanese cities was wrong too? If the suffering of English civilians was a travesty of justice, what of the tenfold suffering of German civilians?

If not for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we could excuse the crimes committed by the Allied powers as 'necessary'. But the atomic bombs can not be hidden, and we are forced into strenuous moral contortions in order to deny the undeniable. If Germany or Japan had achieved a nuclear weapon and launched it on an Allied city, our condemnation would be unrelenting.

An alternative can be found in the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War. They provided scenes of unmitigated slaughter, as military strategy dissolved into a war of attrition. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides were slaughtered without significant advances made.

But rather than blame Germany for the Allied deaths, or Britain and France for the German deaths, we now blame military commanders for their failure to adapt to the challenges of new defensive military technology. To knowingly commit one's soldiers to such pointless and deadly engagements is a serious breach of the ethics of warfare, and a betrayal of the duties of command.

This nuanced view of the First World War allows us to sympathise with the plight of the ordinary German soldier, despite the fact that Germany bore responsibility for launching its war of aggression in Western Europe. It allows us to blame British and French military commanders, despite the fact that Britain and France were justified in defending against German aggression.

We can pick apart the good and evil on both sides, instead of the neat but artificial allegiance to one side over the other.

The Second World War held a very different set of circumstances, but with an equally nuanced approach we might be able to reconcile our historic allegiances with our knowledge of what is obviously good and evil. Once we admit that the intentional killing of civilians is contrary to ethics of warfare, it is plain that both sides were guilty of this crime.

Indeed, the bombing of enemy cities was a new kind of 'attrition' tactic, with civilians taking the place of soldiers in the latest 'meat grinder' created by military technology. As Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of Britain's bombing campaign over Europe, wrote:

the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.

It is almost as though the targeting of enemy cities was, in part, an effort to make up for the betrayal of ordinary soldiers in the First World War; letting enemy civilians bear the cost of the war instead. Harris famously wrote, 'I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.'

But blaming civilians for the wars waged by their governments is like blaming soldiers of the First World War for following orders. Rightly or wrongly, those soldiers believed in their country and their duty; at the very least they knew the kind of punishment faced by deserters. It is even less realistic to expect the unarmed, disorganised citizens of authoritarian regimes such as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union to bear responsibility for their governments' actions.

This is our saving grace: that responsibility for the crimes of both Allies and Axis lies with a ruling minority, not the population as a whole. We do not have to taint whole peoples with the crimes of a few, even when those crimes are as senseless and cruel as those of Imperial Japan, as perverse and far-reaching as those of Nazi Germany, as ruthless and stubborn as those of the Allied nations.

As we look deeper into the history of that war, it becomes painfully clear that the battleline between good and evil does not coincide with the battlelines drawn between the warring nations. What remains for us is the choice to either love the good and hate the evil wherever they lie, or to cling to a one-eyed fantasy in which the obliteration of whole cities is considered simply 'necessary'. 


Zac AlstinZac Alstin is a research officer for Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide. He has an honours degree in philosophy, a graduate certificate in applied linguistics, and an amateur interest in Chinese philosophy. 

Topic tags: Zac Alstin, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Nazi Germany, World War Two



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Existing comments

All that is true Zac and there is no such thing as a "just" war.
It seems to me that our attitudes stem from a "but you started it!" mindset, which seems to drive the commonly-accepted attitudes to the differential damage caused in WW2. France started WW2 after all....
Then there is the "lesser of two evils" dilemma that is generally used to excuse the A bombing of Japan. It's true, if not for Hiroshima and Nagasaki many more lives would have been lost. "Innocent" lives? Who can say? What does it take to make one or other side in a war desist? The fire bombing of Japanese cites killed far more people than the A bombs but didn't have the necessary effect.

Just some musings on what the leaders at the time must have been thinking.
All war is evil. It's chilling to think that those who "win" are those prepared or able to inflict the most evil.

ian | 15 August 2011

Well put Zac. Lest we forget the millions of civilians who took to the streets to stop the Coalition war on innocent Iraqi civilians and now Afgani and Libyan men women and children. There is no God on any side in war for empires or oil.
Vacy Vlazna | 15 August 2011

A persuasive and well-presented theme, Zac.
Stephen Kellett | 15 August 2011

Surely there is a huge difference between good men reluctantly needing to use bad means for good ends and in the hope that greater destruction can be avoided, over bad men deliberately using bad means for very bad ends? It is doubtful whether the allied bombing campaign in Europe actually shortened the war as Harris hoped/intended, though it may have; interestingly he was never celebrated by the victors because of the moral ambivalence that surrounded him. But the bombs on Japan likely did save many millions of lives, and also signalled to the Soviets not to dare trying to role over the Western armies in Europe.
Eugene | 15 August 2011

Hi Ian, I don't think a Just War is impossible, but unfortunately the temptation to resort to unjust tactics is very strong. I'm currently reading a new book by Craig Collie called 'Nagasaki'. He argues that Japan was basically on its knees, and that its leaders were already debating their own conditions for surrender at the time the bombs were dropped. I don't find the 'lesser of two evils' arguments compelling, because I think it would have been possible to blockade Japan and demand surrender without invasion or the bombing. However, I guess that's a little beside the point of this article, since 'conventional' bombing of civilian areas was already well underway. I'm not far into 'Nagasaki' yet, but already an American air raid has bombed the local hospital...perhaps unintentionally?
Zac | 15 August 2011

It is the politicians who send the people of their countries to war. The propaganda used to convince these people of the need to take part in a war are mostly polished lies about the evilness of another countries peoples that makes them accept the politicians decisions to go to war.(eg. stories and cartoons of babies hanging from the bayonets of an evil faced opponent)
Trent | 15 August 2011

Zac, you show the same bias as in the forgiving Japan article I wont repeat what I said then as it seems redundent . i was not going to write at all but the absurd statement " the ethics of warfare " must not go unchallenged .All war is wrong ,bad and unethical in gods eyes and it is Christian ethics that I assume Eureka Street has as its base .We are to Forgive our enemies and love those who hate us , We are to aspire to the ethics of the Cross , father forgive them for they know not what they do.

Zac write about this but don't claim there is an ethical standard to judge people from the safety of 50 years away .
John Crew | 15 August 2011

The background to the development and use of the atomic bomb is well told in 'Brighter Than a Thousand Suns' by Robert Jungk.

The true heroes in these events were the German scientists who pretended to Hitler, at risk to themselves, that they could not produce such a weapon.

At the same time, scientists in the USA feared that Germany would develop such a bomb and wanted a counterbalance of terror. But they did not wish it to be used.

Instead they wanted the Japanese to be informed of its existence - and demonstrated in an area without loss of life.

But the military authorities prevailed.
Whatever we may think of the Hiroshima bombing, it was deplorable to drop a second bomb - this time on Nagasaki.
Bob Corcoran | 15 August 2011

Hi Eugene. I think that if Germany had surrendered because of the Allied bombing campaign, we would view it in the same light as Hiroshima and Nagasaki - ie. a 'necessary evil' that saved countless lives and stopped the Soviets claiming more land. With regard to a good man committing a bad action for a good end, I think there is a risk of using the end to justify the means. If it's really a 'bad' action, then it shouldn't be done, regardless of our motives and our hoped for outcomes. We might sympathise with the motive (ending the war) but it doesn't make the action itself any less horrific. If you've ever read the eyewitness accounts from Hiroshima or Nagasaki...I find it extremely difficult to think that the horrors described are in any way lessened by the supposedly good motives of the perpetrators.
Zac | 15 August 2011

Hi Trent, I think that is a very real danger you describe. But the right to self-defence is a basic reality that has to be respected. No one has the right to assault you, and so you may use force to defend your life and health, and that of the people around you. The same principle extends to communities and nations, though it is rarely realised in such a purely defensive form.
Zac | 15 August 2011

Hi John. I'm a little confused. Aren't you advocating an ethical standard by which others might be judged when you argue that all war is wrong? The traditional ethical position I am drawing on dates back at least as far as Augustine, and was further developed by Thomas Aquinas. It has influenced the laws and customs of war, all the way up to and including the Geneva Conventions. If you are a Christian Pacifist, then of course you will not agree. But I think it is a mistake to lump conventional warfare in the same category as the massacre of non-combatants, under the premise that all war is evil. You may not wish to exercise your right to self-defense, but will you defend others from attack? There is nothing 'good' about assaulting innocent people, so how can it be wrong for us to interfere with such an assault?
Zac | 15 August 2011

Thanks Bob. I did not know that about the German scientists.
Zac | 15 August 2011

I am extremely grateful to Zac for reminding me that, just because hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens of Germany, Britain, Japan etc were massacred by bombing during the sdecond World War, doesn't make it right, or even justifiable. The US Christian activist's response at a desolate nuclear protest along a Nevada roadside in the 1950s is erlevant. When asked if he erally thought that being there would change the world, he replied: "I'm niot here to change the world! I'm here to stop the world ffrom changing me!" I seem to need prompting that terrible things happen, as I all-too-easily accept them - just beccause they happened - to maintain my rage! Thanks again, Zac!
Kevin Bligh | 17 August 2011

Yes, the second bomb is much harder to justify than the first. There is evidence the Japanese command didn't really grasp what had happened at Hiroshima; some of them didn't believe the U.S. claim that it was a single bomb; and the country communications were smashed and reports out the city were confused. It has been argued that the Japanese should have been given a bit more time to surrender before the second bomb.
Gary Keith Chesterton | 17 August 2011

Very thoughtful article. I concur. The quote from Sir Harris is exceptionally awful, and it's a direct violation of just war principles as well. Personally I am deeply offended by the attitude that civilian deaths are just "collateral damage." While I think nowadays Western militaries do actively try to hit only military targets and combatants, we all know it is extremely difficult not to harm innocents. And I for one am not comfortable with any killing, though obviously tyrannical maniacs have to be dealth with somehow. Blessed Pope John Paul II had it right: "War is always a defeat for humanity."
Mouse | 18 August 2011

The question of when we should respond to an act of war has always been something I can never quite resolve in my mind. If we do nothing then the people like Hitler win and we become slaves to his plans.If he kills 40,000 and we don't do anything we end up with six million Jews being murdered. I know that Jesus would say turn the other cheek, and I agree with him. My question as a Vietnam vet is should we all become conscientious Objectors if so shouldn't we be prepared to give up our way of life?
Ken Aubrey | 18 August 2011

Wow, your last two paragraphs are *beautiful*
CC | 18 August 2011

Hi Ken. The right to go to war is based on a set of six principles: the cause must be just, war must be declared by the proper authority, it must be waged with the right intention, there must be a reasonable prospect of success, military action must be proportional to the threat, and finally, it must be a last resort. I think the war against Nazi Germany met these criteria. But of other wars I am not so sure. At the very least, it should be clear that the nation has a duty to protect its people from attack. Even if we decided not to intervene in foreign conflicts (from Vietnam all the way up to Lybia) we can at least depend upon the justice of a purely defensive war, providing conditions such as 'proportionality', 'last resort', and 'likelihood of success' are also met.
Zac | 18 August 2011

All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. Here we go again, self-hating, self-flagellating, chair bound philosophers wringing their hands in the comfort of the ivory tower. This analysis is like so much philosophy, nuanced to such a degree no-one can make any decision without being wrong. Try to sell this to the Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Czechoslovaks, Socialists, homosexuals, political dissidents of Europe, and the residents of Nanking, Manchuria, Philippines, Indonesia, comfort women, and all the other victims of the "Kill All, Burn All, and Loot All" policy sanctioned by Hirohito himself, instruction to Japanese forces in Indo-China. “War is Hell” said General William Sherman, and that is why it is an absolute last resort. If you do not intend to win a war, using all the means at your disposal, do not enter into it. By this article, you demean the people who made it possible for you to write a critical article in English in a free Australia rather than a sycophantic essay in Japanese in a colony of Nippon.
Ed Marshall | 19 August 2011

Hi Ed. When Sherman wrote that 'war is hell' he was referring to the theft of property, the destruction of 'improvements' and the freeing of slaves that he visited upon the civilian population of the South. Nowadays people use his words to justify the intentional and indiscriminate killing of civilian non-combatants by their thousands. I don't think I'm 'self-hating'...perhaps you missed my point. What I hate is the intentional slaughter of civilian non-combatants. And as far as self-flagellation is concerned, you really did miss my point. One man gave the order for the bombing of H&N. A handful of men were responsible for the conventional bombing of Europe. If you can't distinguish these actions from the totality of the war effort...well you're not really trying, are you? Honestly, it's pathetic to see the Australian war effort conflated with the slaughter of Japanese civilians. Are you seriously suggesting that the bombing of H&N saved Australia? Would you so easily overlook Australia's brave defensive battles fought in New Guinea long before the development of the atomic bomb?
Zac | 19 August 2011

I can't help but think of the
Old testament where God commanded that all be killed. Men, women, children and animals. do not be so judgemental about good and evil and which side committed the greatest sin! God will be the judge.

Jim Hamel
Jim Hamel | 23 August 2011

Hi Jim. That's not much help for people trying to work out how to behave properly in the present.

Nor have I heard even the most ardent defenders of civilian bombings claim that God commanded it.

I err on the side of caution and decide not to kill innocent people, for starters.
Zac | 23 August 2011


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