Thursday, December 14, 2006

Pg. 69: "Choices Under Fire"

Michael Bess, Chancellor's Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, is the author of The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 (2003) and Realism, Utopia, and the Mushroom Cloud: Four Activist Intellectuals and Their Strategies for Peace, 1945-1989 (1993).

His new book is Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (Knopf, 2006).

I asked Michael to apply the "page 69 test" to the new book. Here is what he reported:
In this book I try to persuade the reader that World War II was far more complicated, from a moral point of view, than it is usually made out to be. I wrote this book because I was unsatisfied with the tendency in many books and movies to picture this war in morally simplistic terms of pure black and pure white. I became convinced, the more I studied the war, that most of the actual realities were far more complex, far messier, fraught with shades of grey. At a broader level, what I’m hoping to achieve with this book is to heighten our appreciation for ambiguity and messy complexity in understanding history. I think there is a tendency in contemporary public discourse to force simplicity and clarity on issues that are actually extremely complicated. In an age of sound bites and dueling pundits on TV, many of us have become accustomed to having the key questions of public policy boiled down into comfortable little packages of straightforward either-or choices. But this is dangerous, because in fact the real world does not work this way. The real world is baffling, fragmentary, intricate, and riddled with paradoxes: it often presents us with choices that entail difficult compromises or trade-offs. This book seeks to flesh out this kind of complexity in the context of a war we have tended to consider morally cut-and-dried. My hope is that, by doing this, it will also make a contribution toward greater acceptance of ambiguity and nuance in discussing the important issues of today.

Page 69 of Choices Under Fire:

The appeasement of the 1930s was clearly a disastrous policy. It not only failed to avert the war its proponents dreaded, but may actually have contributed to the war’s outbreak, by emboldening the expansionists in Germany and Italy and repeatedly rewarding their tactics of threat and deceit. Why, one might ask, did the French and the British not do more to oppose the string of bullying moves by Hitler and Mussolini? They certainly possessed the military resources to do so: Germany was still in the process of rearmament throughout much of the 1930s, and as late as 1938 the French and British armies outnumbered and outgunned those of Germany and Italy. Why did they not stop the aggressors in their tracks?

We face a double challenge in addressing this question. On the one hand, we need to avoid a facile approach that heaps scorn on the French and British policymakers of the 1930s from the all-too-comfortable perspective of hindsight. It is tempting to dismiss Chamberlain, Daladier, and their colleagues as timorous statesmen, blinded by wishful thinking, foolish enough to believe that they could buy peace at any price. Such a judgment comes easily, given the tragic outcome that we know all too well: but it fails to capture the complex reality of the 1930s. On the other hand, we must explain how the leaders of the democracies actually reached the profoundly flawed decisions they did: what their motivations and reasoning were, how they came to apply the wrong policy to the wrong man. What factors led them to misread Adolf Hitler so egregiously?

According to the historian Robert O. Paxton, three tacit assumptions undergirded Chamberlain’s foreign policy, and more broadly the enterprise of appeasement:

1. Another all-out war in Europe would result in catastrophe for everyone involved. Such a war would not only devastate the continent and kill millions, but would also severely weaken Europe as a center of world power.

2. Nazism was a temporary extremist aberration caused by the lingering iniquities of Versailles. Remove those iniquities--addressing them point-by-point in good faith--and the Germans would quiet down.

3. A new war would result in the triumph of communism in Europe. Given the widespread socialist revolutions or revolts brought about by World War I--in the USSR, Hungary, Italy, Germany--one could expect even worse to come after another war.

Were these assumptions misguided or unrealistic? Not at all. The first assumption turned out to be quite accurate: the war did devastate the continent...
Many thanks to Michael for the input.

Click here to read an excerpt from Choices Under Fire.

Click here for an overview of the book, the table of contents, a look at three recurring themes in the book, and a very useful chapter outline.

Last month Bess published an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times: "The Dark Side of the 'Good War'," which discussed how the "World War II myth obscures the widespread racism and gruesome atrocities committed by Allied and Axis powers."

To read the Publishers Weekly review of Choices Under Fire, click here.

To listen to a radio interview with Bess on WILL-AM, click here.

Michael Bess' current research extends the line of inquiry launched in his first two books; click here to learn more about that research, and here to read a couple of related essays.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue