Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Dresden Bombings, and the concept of the ‘lesser evil’

Because I apparently have more in common with Anastasia Steele than I’d care to admit, every once in a while I decide to read The Daily Mail; and by “every once in a while”, I of course mean regularly. To this day, I’m still not entirely sure why I do it. I think my decision to plunge routinely into that pool of scaremongering bigotry is motivated mainly by the truism that you should make sure to read something you know you’ll disagree with, the idea being that by exposing yourself to a viewpoint different to your own you’ll be forced to evaluate and reflect on your own position. That, or I just enjoy deliberately winding myself up for no good reason.

Anyway, this last Friday I was perusing the pages of the Mail when I came across a piece written by Simon Heffer regarding the Dresden bombings, and to protect myself in advance from any allegations of misrepresentation or “bias”, I’ve provided a link to the full article here. Generally speaking, Heffer’s article is pretty standard fair for a Mail op-ed piece, including the obligatory warnings about how “the Left” are trying to “denigrate and diminish Britain” (both of which are direct quotes), even though Heffer never really explains to whom “the Left” actually refers.

Back to my main point. In his article, Heffer’s main argument is that the Dresden bombings were strategically justified, and even if they weren’t, the fact that the people of Dresden did nothing to stop the persecution of Germany’s Jewish population meant that the some twenty five thousand civilian casualties incurred during the bombings were morally justifiable. I’m not going to argue about whether Heffer’s assessment of the strategic merits of the Dresden bombings were correct, as I don’t feel I’ve studied the bombing campaigns in enough detail to come to a fair conclusion on the issue.

What I am going to do is use Heffer’s article is to discuss the ‘lesser of two evils’ principle as it relates to history, as to me the idea that an atrocity is justifiable if it is committed against a regime or nation which has committed demonstrably worse atrocities is a dangerous ethical position. This is mainly due to the fact that (as demonstrated by Heffer’s article) people assume that the passive acceptance of a regime is morally and ethically equivalent to actively supporting it, when the two should not, and cannot, be compared.

I say this for several reasons, the first of which is that it fails to take historical circumstances into account. To return to the example presented in Heffer’s article, it’s very easy for us in the twenty first century to criticise the inaction, and wilful ignorance, of the German populace during the Nazi era. However, the fact is that dissenting against the Nazi government on any level carried risks that we can never hope to understand, not just for the dissenter but also for their family, friends and anyone associated with them; and whilst this doesn’t justify the inaction on the part of a large part of the German populace, it does at the very least explain it.

Such a view also ignores the fact that not all resistance is active. According to Heffer’s logic, all (or at the very least most) of the civilians killed during the Dresden bombings were passive accepters of Nazi rule, but I’m willing to bet that at least some of those casualties had done something which hindered the Nazis, even it was something as small as failing to inform on a friend or family member who had expressed an anti-Nazi sentiment, or refusing to hand over a Jewish colleague or neighbour to the authorities. As such, to condemn the people of Dresden for failing to rebel against the Nazis simply because there was no visible and overt resistance movement is simplistic at best.

Most importantly, however, this argument is dangerous due to the fact that the definition of ‘passive acceptance’ is so broad that it can be used to describe almost anything, and as such almost any action can be justified. Indeed, this is the general problem with framing an evil as the lesser of two evils is that there is no absolute definition of what constitutes ‘evil’. Heffer’s argument seems reasonable because no one except a complete sociopath would argue that the Nazis weren’t the greater evil during World War Two, and as such almost any tactics used against them are seemingly justifiable.

However, one only has to look at history to see how the concept of the ‘lesser evil’ has been used to justify the unjustifiable. For example, the indiscriminate use of napalm and Agent Orange by the U.S.A. during the Vietnam War was justified on the basis that they were suppressing the ‘greater evil’, i.e. the spread of communism. Whilst it’s true the North Vietnamese were guilty of some truly barbaric acts during that war, neither these nor the perceived threat of global communism can ever justify the tens of thousands of civilian casualties, and the long lasting damage caused by Agent Orange.

This, then, is the real problem of the ‘lesser evil’ concept. Whilst it is very occasionally possible to identify something approaching an ‘absolute’ evil, more often than not what constitutes ‘evil’ is relative, and as such, as soon as you justify one act on the grounds it was a lesser evil than the one you were fighting, you start to find you can justify almost anything, so long as the enemy fits into what you personally see as ‘evil’.

Certainly, it is fair to debate the strategic merits of campaigns such as the Dresden bombings, and hell, topics such as the Dresden bombings do raise some interesting moral and ethical issues regarding the limits and nature of warfare. But to try and defend events like the Dresden bombings simply by virtue of the fact that they weren’t as bad as something the enemy did, or even worse that it was just punishment for the atrocities committed by the enemy, is wrong on both an historical and ethical level.

Before I conclude, I feel there is another point worth considering, and that is that in the battle of two evils, the victors often find that have to commit further injustices in order to justify the initial act. Ironically, Heffer himself draws attention to this when he highlights the way in which successive post-war British governments effectively wrote Bomber Command out of the history books, since they didn’t fit into the established historical narrative. Put simply, this is a massive injustice to the bravery they displayed during the war, which raises a pretty important question: if the lesser of two evils means we have to destroy something of ourselves, can it really be considered a lesser evil at all?

History in video games #1: Bioshock Infinite

A few months ago, whilst writing two posts about the potential video games have for the study of history, I came to the sudden realisation that I hadn’t played  a proper, narrative-driven video game for a while. First world problems, eh?. Anyway, for the past month or so I’ve been trying to catch up with some video games which, for various reasons, I’d meant to play but never got round to. After starting my epic quest by playing The Last of Us, a game which proves that anyone still arguing that video games can’t be emotionally engaging is so out of touch they could be the replacement for Dippy the Dinosaur in the Natural History Museum; I moved onto Bioshock, Infinite, a game which I feel demonstrates how historians can use video games to explore big ideas and topics, as even if Infinite itself falls a bit short in this regard, it still offers some useful pointers.

First, a brief plot summary for anyone who hasn’t played the game, and yes, there will be spoilers. You play as Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who is tasked with finding and retrieving a girl called Elizabeth from a tyrannical religious zealot named Father Comstock, the ruler of the floating city of Columbia, who is later revealed to be (SPOILER, SPOLIER, SPOILER) DeWitt from a different time line.

Already, you might have guessed my main problem with Infinite: it feels like two games awkwardly merged into one. Whilst the first portion of the game is relatively realistic and (pardon the pun) grounded for a game set in a floating city, halfway through there’s a massive tonal shift, and all of a sudden you’re ripping open time portals and fighting flying ghost women. This being a history blog and all, I’m going to be talking mainly about the first part of the game, because whilst Infinite does go a bit Slaughterhouse-Five towards the end, the game explores several themes and issues which make it worth playing for any historian.

Firstly, Infinite is an interesting exploration of the concept of American exceptionalism, i.e. the idea that America is qualitatively different, and better, than other nations. The point is hinted at by the fact that Booker was involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre, the concept and backstory of Columbia elaborate upon this theme. First established in 1893 as part of the Chicago World’s Fair, the U.S. government later decided to send the city round the world to showcase America’s superiority. However, during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901 the city bombed Beijing as retaliation for the Chinese Army taking American citizens hostage, and in 1902 the city seceded from the Union and floated away.

I don’t feel I need to go into much detail about how a flying city is symbolic of exceptionalism, beyond reiterating the fact that it’s a city floating 20,000 feet above every other nation. This message is further reinforced by the dictator of Columbia Father Comstock, who routinely refers to the fact that the citizens of Columbia are the only ones upholding “true American values”, and describes the America they left behind solely in terms of its corruption and moral decay.

Indeed towards the end of the game, in one timeline Columbia has waged war on the United States itself, an act which cements Columbia’s legacy as the defining symbol of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism and superiority are themes which run throughout the city of Columbia, and whilst sometimes the game can be a little overzealous in the way it presents these ideas, overall they’re pretty well done.

Another running theme in Infinite is discrimination. For one thing, Columbia is clearly a racist society. Black people are little more than slaves, and any non-white person who has achieved any position of social eminence are treated with suspicion; and there are moments were the racial tension is made startlingly apparent, such as the scene at the fair where you’re asked to throw a baseball at an interracial couple.

However, whilst Infinite touches on the issue of racism, it never really explores it any depth. In my opinion, this is because the issue racial discrimination is subsumed within an exploration of the wider concept of social discrimination. Whilst black people are discriminated against in Columbia, they are just one of many groups who form an underclass which is routinely discriminated against, and exploited as a source of labour, and I found that Infinite explored the concept of social discrimination incredibly well.

As I said in the introduction, Booker DeWitt was formerly employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, an organisation which specialised in strikebreaking and infiltrating unions so as to undermine the labour movement; and as the plot unfolds you begin to see how deep the social divisions in Columbia really are. I was initially going to say that the section which really highlighted this issue for me was the Shantytown district. To describe the area as ‘bleak’ would be an understatement: it is a living hell, pure and simple, full of starving families and broken workers.

However, whilst it is a vivid and engaging depiction of what it must be like to live in grim underclass environment, it’s so desperate to drive home the message that it comes off looking a bit forced. For example, to get to Shantytown you literally go down in an elevator, and whilst I get why they included the area and was glad they did, it still felt like the writers were nudging you in the back going “eh, eh, do you get it?!”  Rather, for me the most impressive exploration of social discrimination in Infinite is the background exposition delivered whilst you’re walking around the Finkton workhouse and the surrounding district.

When you first arrive in Finkton, you are greeted by projector reels talking about how some men are like lions, in that they were born to breed, and others were born like cows, in that they were born to work. Whilst walking through the district you are bombarded by lectures from the factory owner, Jeremiah Fink, one of which argues that a sixteen hour working day is necessary so that the lower classes don’t booze and whore their way to an early grave; and another explaining that the reason the factory pays their workers in tokens which can only be redeemed at the company store is to ensure the workers get a fair deal, rather than a means of further oppressing their workers. Similarly, a large portion of this part of the game is set in the ‘Good Time Club’, which is in reality a prison-cum-torture house for labour activists and political dissidents, all of which serves to expose just how deep various prejudices run through the city, and the casual way in which discrimination, exploitation and violence are accepted by the populace.

Which leads me to my final point. What I found most impressive about the game was its exploration of the latent violence in autocratic societies at both the top and the bottom strata.

Pretty soon after arriving in the city, you’re attacked by the police and military, who believe you are a false prophet come to destroy the equilibrium, and in this context the violence makes complete sense. Autocratic societies aren’t usually that laissez faire when it comes to dealing with dissidents, so the idea that Columbia’s government would use everything at their disposal to stop you isn’t beyond the Pale.

However, when (after a series of events I have neither the time nor the energy to explain) you do inspire the aforementioned revolution, you not only get to see the devastation and violence you have caused, but the rebels you inspired then start hunting you down. Admittedly, the reason they do so is less to do with the truism that all revolutions eventually turn on their leaders and more to do with the whole “alternate reality” thing, but it’s still an interesting point. Amongst any oppressed people or groups, there is a capacity for relentless, indiscriminate, and some would argue mindless, violence; and whilst the level of violence in Infinite has been decried by people who argue it undermines the game’s central narrative, to me it perfectly reinforces it.

So there you go, that’s Bioshock Infinite. Apologies for the fact that this post is so long, but Infinte raises a lot of interesting points. As I said in my introduction, Infinite is far from perfect but, as an idea of how historians can use video games to present historical topics, themes and issues to a general audience, I think Infinite has a lot to teach us.

To study a monster

Never let it be said that I’m not ahead of the curve when it comes to history books. A mere four years after it was first published this week I finished reading All Hell Let Loose, Max Hastings’ epic tome about World War Two, and all in all, it’s pretty good. Is it, as the cover jacket states, an “everyman’s story” of World War Two? Not quite. But, as a comprehensive account of World War Two, All Hell Let Loose is a damn fine book, and anyone who has any interest in World War Two, or indeed modern history in general, should give it a read.

Whilst reading All Hell Let Loose, I began to consider an issue which I’d meant to discuss in last week’s post but never got round to: the tendency to frame certain historical figures or regimes as “monsters”. The fact that this past Tuesday was Holocaust Memorial Day makes the discussion of this issue even more pertinent, as whilst the atrocities of the Nazis should be condemned, and the memory of those who suffered under their regime should never be forgotten, framing the Nazis, or indeed any similar regime, as “monsters” is at best counterproductive, and at worst dangerous.

World War Two is unique amongst modern (and arguably all) conflicts in that on a surface level, it appears to have been a war between two sides which can clearly be labelled “good” and “evil”. Of course, this analysis folds under even the slightest scrutiny. If we were on the “good” side, why were we allied with Stalin, whose regime was responsible for the deaths of between 20 million and 40 million Soviet citizens? If we were one of the “good” guys, why did our bombing campaigns focus on areas with large concentrations of civilians such as Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg? And, of course, if the Allies represented the forces of good, why was America the first nation to use the atomic bomb?

Nonetheless, “good” versus “evil” is how World War Two has been framed in the popular consciousness, and as a result we seem to have developed a tendency to see the Nazis and Imperial Japanese not merely as tyrannical and barbaric, but as “monsters” whose evils which can never be fully explained. Now, let me be clear, both regimes deserve to be condemned totally and unequivocally, and we should never forget their crimes against humanity, lest history repeat itself. However, whilst it is incredibly easy to frame the Nazis and Japanese as “monsters”, doing so teaches us nothing, and actually makes it harder to learn from that period of history.

The first problem with describing a historical figure as a “monster” is that it implies they cannot, and can never, be understood. Whether the implication is intentional or not is irrelevant. The fact is that by describing someone as a “monster”, you are suggesting that this person is a uniquely evil being, an historical anomaly who came into this world without warning and in defiance of all laws and reason.

The problem with this is that no human is somehow “uniquely evil”. Everyone is, to some degree, a product of their environment, and as such framing Hitler, Hirohito or any of history’s litany of despots and dictators as inherently evil hamstrings our ability to analyse the political, social and cultural forces which allowed them to rise to positions of power, and increase the chances that the past could happen again.

If there is one thing we should have learned from history, it’s that all tyrants and autocrats are born of similar circumstances. The list is pretty familiar but it bears repeating: a faltering economy and widespread unemployment; a media and popular culture which encourages fear of outsiders and ‘undesirables’; disillusionment with politics; distrust of academia and ‘elites’. All of these things are common to the rise of totalitarian states, but by framing dictators as “monsters” whose rise to power had nothing to do with their historical environment, we trick ourselves into believing that a Hitler, Stalin or Mao could never happen again, and as such ignore parallels between the past and the present.

However, there is another reason why I believe designating certain regimes or people as “monsters” is something to be avoided. As I just argued, any dictator is the product of their environment. However, rather than analysing the cultural, social and political circumstances of their rise to power, some people instead choose to argue that tyrants are the inevitable product of a brutal and barbaric psyche, which is common to their racial or ethnic group. The implication of this view is pretty clear. If (for example) Hitler was a product of a barbaric psyche shared by all Germans, then it is entirely possible, and arguably inevitable, that this same psyche could produce another Hitler; and it’s this mind-set which allows atrocities such as the Holocaust to happen, as the belief that certain groups are permanently “evil” makes it all the easier to justify their elimination.

For this reason, more than any other, I believe we need to stop talking about historical “monsters”. Yes, there are societies and individuals who have committed acts which can be described as “monstrous”. But they were not themselves “monsters”, they were people; and their acts were not the reflection of any inherent racial psyche, but the result of a variety of causes. History has shown what happens when we designate monsters which need to be conquered, and the sooner we stop doing so, the sooner we can put an end to the unnecessary death and suffering which continues to affect so many.