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World War 2: a just war?

by Ian Sinclair at the New Left Project
The Frauenkirche, Dresden, after the Allied bombing

The Frauenkirche, Dresden, after the Allied bombing

Though I’ve forgotten an awful lot of my university education, one thing I do remember is one of my tutors arguing that we are still feeling the effects of Second World War propaganda today.

The sheer volume of newspaper column inches, magazines, history books, novels, television programmes and films that continue to focus on ‘Our Finest Hour’ shows my lecturer’s assertion was right on the money. However, the last person I expected to unquestionably repeat the propaganda narrative was Seumas Milne, considered by many to be the Guardian’s most left-wing voice.

Countering Michael Gove’s ‘preposterous nonsense’ on the First World War, in a recent article Milne stated ‘Unlike the second world war, the bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just war.’ He went on to argue, rightly in my opinion, that the ‘Great’ War ‘was a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources.’

The problem for Milne is that this summary of the First World War also applies to much of the Second World War. But rather than the 10 million dead of the First World War, the ‘industrial slaughter’ of the second caused over 50 million deaths. And while the war to fend off Nazi Germany in 1940 was a war of national defence, the war in the Pacific and Middle East can only be described as being ‘perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers’. What, exactly, were tens of thousands of British troops doing ‘defending’ Singapore and the Middle East when the UK mainland was being threatened with imminent invasion? And those who doubt our leaders were interested in carving up territories and markets should take a look at the infamous Percentages Agreement, which shows Churchill and Stalin carving up South East Europe on one sheet of paper.

A central tenet of Just War theory concerns the reason for going to war in the first place. So was it a war for democracy? The fact the UK was allied with the Soviet Union and ruled over the largest Empire on the globe suggests not. For human rights? Have we forgotten that the US armed forces were segregated during the war or that the British Empire was built on the racist oppression of hundreds of millions of people? To help the Jews? The destruction of the European Jewish population was not a central concern of the US and UK governments.

Another key component of Just War theory is the concept of proportionality – generally considered to mean that war should be waged according to military objectives and not target civilians or use excessive force in achieving these objective. Where, exactly, does the Allied terror bombing of cities such as Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo fit in to this? In his book Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? A.C. Grayling points out: ‘Allied bombing in which German and Japanese civilian populations were deliberately targeted claimed the lives of about 800,000 civilian women, children and men’. Not enough terror for you? How about the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, used in the knowledge that Japan was close to surrendering?

How the UK behaved after 1945 is also telling, I think. Because, surely, those that fought for the liberation of Europe would also fight for the liberation of India, right? And I imagine those who were disgusted by what the Nazi’s did to the Jews, Gypsies and political opponents, would also be disgusted by what the British did in Kenya in the 1950s? You know, the torture, forcing bottles of hot water up women’s vaginas, the castration and the burning alive of prisoners.

Contrary to Milne’s simplistic statement, at best, at best, it can be argued that parts of the fight against one of our three official enemies (Germany) was a just war. To argue otherwise suggests an inability to face up to inconvenient historical facts.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting here that violently resisting Nazi Germany at the time was not the best course of action for the UK. But I do think it’s important to try to demythologise Britain’s role in the war and to think critically about the subject. For example, shouldn’t we be asking whether a war that killed over 50 million people was the only way to resolve the crisis? And even if war was the only viable option at the time, do we agree with how it was executed? Because if one believes in waging total war in defence of a nation in 1940, then this raises uncomfortable questions about what actions Iraqis and Afghans have the right to take against the UK to resist the invasions and occupations of their own countries.


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Brad Benson
Brad Benson
Aug 1, 2015 11:48 AM

This was a very interesting and historically accurate article. The author addresses his article primarily toward a British Audience, but the same thing could be said in spades for the US involvement in World War II.