Uncommon Sense

World War Two. The good war. The best.

Fascism. I mean, that’s why I enlisted in the Air Force – to fight against fascism. And it’s a good war, it’s a just war. What can be more obvious? They are evil, we are good.

Howard Zinn and James Baldwin

And so I became a bombardier in the Air Force; I dropped bombs. On Germany, on Hungary, on Czechoslovakia. Even on a little town in France three weeks before the war was to end – when everybody knew the war was to end. We didn’t need to drop any more bombs but we dropped bombs.

On the little town in France we were trying out napalm. It was the first use of napalm in the European theater. I think by now you all know it: napalm is one of the ugliest little weapons. Who knows what reasons, what complex of reasons, led us to bomb a little town in France when everybody knew the war was ending. And, yes, there were German soldiers there hanging around – they weren’t doing anything – they weren’t bothering anybody. But they were there; it gives us a good excuse to bomb. We’ll kill some Frenchmen, too, what does it matter? It’s a good war.

We’re the good guys.

One thing – and I didn’t think about any of this while I was bombing – I didn’t examine “who are we bombing and why are we bombing and what’s going on here?”

“Who is dying?” I didn’t know who was dying because when you bomb from 30,000 feet (this is modern warfare, you do things at a distance) it’s very impersonal. You just press a button and somebody dies. You don’t see them. I dropped bombs from 30,000 feet and I didn’t see any human beings. I didn’t see what’s happening below.

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The only rational position, confronted with the reality of warfare, is moral nihilism. It ought to be impossible to believe that there is some kind of system of belief in effect in mankind, except the belief that we must destroy that which we do not understand because it scares us – of that we may destroy that which we can.


  1. Raucous Indignation says

    I think we understood Nazi Germany very well. Not to say everything the Allies did was justified, but a bunch of my extended family is missing because of the camps. Opposing the industrialization of genocide was a just cause.

  2. says

    Even on a little town in France three weeks before the war was to end – when everybody knew the war was to end.

    USA and France were allies. It should have been fucking obvious for Americans that, if they bomb French villages, it will hurt France much more than Germany (even if a few German soldiers live in that village when it gets bombed). With allies like these who needs enemies.

    The only rational position, confronted with the reality of warfare, is moral nihilism.

    It’s not just warfare. I feel the same way also when thinking about a multitude of others topics. Humans have invented countless ways how to hurt one another. Warfare is just one of them.

  3. drew says

    @Raucus Indignation #1: I think you overestimate the understanding of the concentration camps even by the military or political leaders at the time. And underestimate the level of antisemitism in the US at the time. Not to mention the level of skepticism, given the exaggerated reports of German atrocities in the previous war, and probably other factors I’m forgetting. The real truth of the horrors wasn’t understood until after the war when a concerted effort was taken to educate the population. It was just too horrible to seem real. It may be comforting to use concentration camps to justify allied actions after the fact but we can’t do that if we’re being honest.

  4. says

    The real truth of the horrors wasn’t understood until after the war when a concerted effort was taken to educate the population.

    That is absolutely not true. For one thing, there were plenty of allied spies on the ground in Germany, who reported what was going on, and for another there were very clear photoreconnaissance images that showed the camps, large masses of people, and piles of corpses. There were also plenty of people who escaped the camps, and some of them even got to England and reported on their experiences. Yeah, “people didn’t know what was happening.” Nonsense.

    There were parts of the US that were in denial, but they were – as you say – the parts that didn’t give a shit about what happened to the Jews. And there are also the parts that, decades after the war, promulgate misinformation about who knew what, and when – similarly to the propaganda surrounding Hiroshima. As someone who has read a tremendous amount of military history, it frustrates me, because the information is very accessible. When I encounter someone who claims not to know, I wonder if they are lazy or engaged in motivated reasoning.

  5. Raucous Indignation says

    @drew I do nothing of the sort. Marcus, thank you for stepping in while I was enjoying my day off.

  6. says

    Raucous Indignation@#10:
    Marcus, thank you for stepping in while I was enjoying my day off.


    I used to know a guy who kept copies of Eugen Kogon’s Hell in Theory and Practice to give to people who asked “innocently” about how well-documented the camps were. And, of course, Spielberg made Schindler’s List… Where did the Jews that Oskar Schindler helped escape go, anyway? Britain and the US. Yes, the British and US governments knew what was going on.

  7. says

    Eugen Kogon’s Hell in Theory and Practice

    I just googled for this. Added it to my reading list.

    Yeah, “people didn’t know what was happening.” Nonsense.

    They knew. So what? Did they care? Of course, not. I’m getting the impression that politicians who are in charge of countries don’t give a damn whenever some ruthless and oppressive regime kills and tortures their citizens. Did anyone care when the Soviet Union murdered or deported to Siberian concentration camps thousands of Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Poles in the aftermath of WWII? Of course, nobody cared. Did anyone care about the Holodomor (the Ukrainian Genocide of 1932–33)? Of course, not.

    By the way, during WWII a bunch of Latvian refugees escaped to Sweden in fishing boats. In 1946 Sweden decided to ship these refugees back to the Soviet Union, where part of them got promptly executed (the rest “enjoyed” spending years in Soviet prison camps). In 1994 Sweden did apologize. Unfortunately, an apology couldn’t revive the dead who got slaughtered by the Soviet state.

    So it goes. Politicians don’t give a damn when people die or suffer. Of course they didn’t care about the Jews who suffered in the death camps. They never care about anybody.

    “Their political leaders are killing their own citizens” is never a reason to intervene in what happens in some other country. It can only be an excuse whenever some warmongering politicians want to start another war.

  8. consciousness razor says

    The only rational position, confronted with the reality of warfare, is moral nihilism. It ought to be impossible to believe that there is some kind of system of belief in effect in mankind, except the belief that we must destroy that which we do not understand because it scares us – of that we may destroy that which we can.

    Now perhaps I can understand why I’m so often confused when you talk about “moral nihilism.” Because what I mean by it, given all the moral philosophy I’ve ever tried to understand, has nothing whatsoever to do with that.

    If you believe nothing is good or bad, then you are a moral nihilist. Pretty simple, really. And it’s an extremely stupid view. If you get that, basically everything from here on can be skipped.

    That is the specific sense in which you “believe in nothing” as this brand of nihilist, not that you believe generally that there is nothing at all. The alternative is not that you believe some such belief system is in effect, whatever that would mean, as clearly there was no mention of a “system” being in effect or not being in effect. One cannot be logically derived from the other; it is simply neither here nor there whether or not there is a system. I don’t see any substantive claims so far – this is just about defining our terms well enough that we could begin to reason with them.

    So, when confronted with the reality of warfare, a non-nihilist can coherently claim things like “warfare is bad,” while a nihilist can’t do that coherently. If your carefully considered view, having reflected on the nature of warfare, is that you find it impossible to say it’s morally bad (or good! because your contention as a nihilist is that in fact nothing is either), then the nicest thing I can say is that you’re a very strange person. More accurately, I think you’re just confused and/or speaking in a confusing way.

    When I say something like “warfare is bad,” I’m not attempting to describe how all people behave in reality. The real evidence I’d like to describe is pretty clear: they (fairly often) behave badly, and they may do so for very complex reasons as Zinn described. I want to use concepts like “bad” in that specific way, not to describe unrealistic situations in which everything they do is marked as good or everything they do is bad. It does not stop me in my tracks for even a moment, to note (inter alia) that we are not always good, that this is not in fact the best of all possible worlds, that there isn’t a “system” (at least not an obvious or simple one) in use by people around the world or throughout history. So what? I doubt even your claim that we must (all?) destroy that which we do not understand, if that could be construed as a “system of belief” — and if it were “in effect in mankind,” one person’s recollections of a particular war would not even come close demonstrating a widespread or ubiquitous system of the kind you presumably meant. But why were we even looking for anything like that in the first place, and why should it bother us if there’s nothing to find?

    Notwithstanding any of that, I’m definitely willing to claim we could (at least some of the time) do things better than we actually do, because I believe there is such a thing as doing stuff well, badly, better, worse, harmfully, helpfully, etc. I have no clue why I should be tempted to think otherwise. Noticing that and talking about it (as coherently as we can) is useful. That is one use of talking about possible or hypothetical things like this – these are distinct from describing something “in effect in mankind,” as they are not necessarily what actually happened: we could attempt to identify problematic behavior and could aim to do better than we actually did. You yourself routinely do this, despite suggesting that one can’t (rationally) have the relevant beliefs. That project would go nowhere fast, if what we were stuck with is only ever describing what actually occurs, much less what occurs among all (or most) people everywhere. It seems incredibly silly to me that anyone would seriously think that’s somehow one of our big, deep, insurmountable problems.

    It would be especially pointless, if on top of that we thought the conclusion which must be reached is that this all needs to be defined a priori as “good,” before learning anything about the real world. There have to be much easier ways of consoling yourself and/or patting yourself on the back, if that’s all you wanted to get out of the deal. And for all I care, maybe that is what you wanted … but you can’t push that on me. I had no pre-cooked notion that the goal is to tell myself that things are okay, that people are always good, that in reality we do the right things consistently or according to some system or another, etc. That’s not where I started and that was never the point. Part of it was precisely to discuss when things are not okay, when we don’t do what we should, when we’re not being reasonable or what have you, so that we may instead try to do better in the future. You can fail to say anything relevant and/or coherent about that, if that’s really what you were aiming for, but that’s definitely not my problem to worry about.

    I just don’t get it…. Is it really so confusing? Does it need to be? If I should (and of course that’s not a moral “should”) subscribe to moral nihilism, however you understand it, then what am I supposed to get out of it? Am I mistaken about something? Is there some deep insight or another, which I just can’t have any other way? It’s not hard to tell you why you shouldn’t believe in gods and so forth, but the case for nihilism is at best unclear. If anybody takes it seriously, what they seem to be saying is so incoherent and sloppy that I sincerely couldn’t tell you how that argument is supposed to go. I’m fairly sure it’s just a load of nonsense. But if in the course of this I seemed to do something “impossible,” then please do let me know. I’ll definitely be surprised about it.

  9. springa73 says

    Ieva Skrebele @#12

    I don’t think one can reasonably make generalizations like “politicians never care about suffering”, etc. Politicians are just people, with all the potential for good and bad that this entails. The biggest difference between politicians and “ordinary” people is the amount of power and responsibility that politicians have, especially on a national level.

  10. bmiller says

    springa73: Except one could argue (with some basis in reality) that some? many? most? politicians and corporate leaders are functional sociopaths whose rise to power is facilitated by that very lack of care about suffering?

  11. drew says

    Based on the reaction I got I think you mistake me for a holocaust denier. I’m not. I am not in any way trying to justify holocaust denial or antisemitism. If anything, the opposite is true. Combining massive industrial scale of holocaust while the rest of the world ignored it should be an assertion of an uncomfortable kind of shared evil that was the holocaust.
    I am in no way claiming the holocaust didn’t happen or that nobody knew. I am saying that even officers at the highest level didn’t realize until the camps were taken so most people (“most people” == “people) surely didn’t know. Patton was shocked when Buchenwald was liberated. So much so that he had Eisenhower go see it, too. If they didn’t fully realize the horror, who would you expect would? Unbelieved, possibly incorrect, and largely unknown information from spies happened to be right? It is easy to rewrite this in retrospect and claim that everyone knew all about the camps and that justifies war crimes. It is also wrong. Pretending that the US invaded Germany to free the Jews is a disservice to the memory of 6 million people.

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