World War II was the quintessential “good war.” It was not, however, a conflict free of moral ambiguity, painful dilemmas, and unavoidable compromises. Was the bombing of civilian populations in Germany and Japan justified? Were the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials legally scrupulous? What is the legacy bequeathed to the world by Hiroshima? With wisdom and clarity, Michael Bess brings a fresh eye to these difficult questions and others, arguing eloquently against the binaries of honor and dishonor, pride and shame, and points instead toward a nuanced reckoning with one of the most pivotal conflicts in human history.
Bess, who won the George Perkins Marsh prize in environmental history for his last book, The Light Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France 1960-2000, challenges the belief that WWII was modern history's most righteous war. Pointing out that governments and individuals at war do not shelve their morality, he cites three areas where moral choices at all levels of power determined the nature of the war. Race was a central issue in Nazi policies of genocide, the mass internment of Japanese Americans and the segregation of English pubs to accommodate anti-black prejudice. Brutality developed after initial shock at air attacks on civilians gave way to acceptance of thousand-plane raids on cities and applause for the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On a more positive note, Bess believes World War II generated a permanent commitment to developing international institutions committed to justice and humanity that rose above the nation-state. While choices in these areas were sometimes clear, he observes that they more often involved compromises, doubt and shame; the challenge was-and is-to choose compassion and cooperation above all. Highlighting both the enduring presence of free will, and the paradox that justice and ambiguity coexist, Bess reminds us that strong moral choices are always possible. Author Tour.