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?