The essay portion counts twenty percent of the final grade

>> Thursday, March 27, 2008

A few years ago I picked up a fine collection of essays, The Bombing Of Auschwitz--Should The Allies Have Attempted It?, edited by Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum. What was fine about this collection was that the editors managed to answer the question in a fashion that I don't believe they intended.

See, the problem with the bombing of Auschwitz is extraordinarily complicated. The first issue is what did the Allies actually know, and when did they know it? And then you have to discuss the loads and ranges for the Allied planes that might have been available for such a mission. There's math involved with this part of the question, and geography, and the technical capabilities of Allied warplanes. And if you assume that planes with the necessary range and payloads could be deployed to safe airbases within range of the camps (having the planes isn't enough if they're all stationed in England or the South Pacific, is it now?), then you have to consider the defensive capabilities of the German AA guns. And if you discount that, or (rather) decide that the inevitable losses are acceptable within the mission profile, you have to ask if the bombs are accurate enough to strategically bomb the camps, or really you have to actually ask how many prisoners is it acceptable to kill on the bombing mission, because the bombs aren't actually that accurate at all. And then, then you have to pull back and look at the big picture, and the question of whether it's a better effort to divert resources to bomb the camps than it is to bring the war with Germany to a close as quickly as possible so the camps can simply be liberated.

It happens that there are at least two answers to each and every one of the questions in the above paragraph (and all the other questions I may have left out). The Allies had the planes—no, they didn't, at least not in place to bomb Poland. The Allies knew early about the genocide—the planners didn't, not 'til late in the war. Some of the dual answers are just ugly: you're proposing a mission where the Allied bombardiers will inadvertently kill everyone they're trying to save—those people were condemned to die anyway, better in an instant than in a gas chamber. Some answers are heartbreaking: some pilots have said on the record they would have volunteered to fly those missions, however dangerous—it wasn't their decision to make, their superiors and their countries needed them elsewhere.

And this is where the answer, the real, scary answer emerges. The editors, or at least one, seem to be of the view that the Allies should have tried. But the picture that emerges from the fifteen essays in The Bombing Of Auschwitz is this: If the contemporary analyst, with the benefit of hindsight, the knowledge of subsequent events, the luxury of thinking things through in his study or classroom or armchair, with all of the intelligence that has shaken loose of Nazi and Allied files in the past sixty-something years can't see what the right answer should have been, how the hell can anyone say what someone in the fog of war should have done with only days or even mere hours to make a horrible call. The answer, the real scary answer, isn't that the Allies made the right or wrong decision; it's that it's a terrible thing to have to make such decisions at all, that there is no right or wrong decision.

What brings this up, you wonder?

The twists and turns of the internet brought me to a faintly ridiculous piece in The New Republic about Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Senator Barrack Obama's speech the other week. It's faintly ridiculous largely because it has the same strangely grinchy air as so much of the conservative reaction to the speech (given that TNR tries to paint itself as a liberal rag, there is intended irony in that observation): Obama gave a great speech, one that seemed to come from the heart and one that uncompromisingly acknowleged the complexities of history and race in America. A speech that didn't apologize for Wright or denounce him as everyone assumed Obama would. The conservative reaction to this is reminiscent of the Grinch's reaction when he hears the Whos singing in Whoville on Christmas morning. "They're not crying," say the conservatives, "they're singing. Singing? He didn't denounce, distance, discredit! He didn't apologize, abase, aquiesce! Can the Whos down in Whoville not face it—his base is only his race? And liberals with guilt over blood that's spilt! Singing! Dancing! How can this be?" Unfortunately, instead of their hearts growing three sizes, the conservative pundits have decided everyone else must be stupid. (It's possible that the conservative—and neoconservative "liberal"—heart is nothing more than a rubbery, stringy mass akin to the inner core of a baseball, installed by their long-absent creator as some kind of placeholder for a yet-to-be-invented cardiopulmonary device; this "heart" cannot grow, but if you can find one it makes a good entertainment for hyperactive cats and most breeds of dog.)

Anyway, I should say that the TNR piece starts as faintly ridiculous and then goes insane. It would seem that Reverend Wright had the unmitigated gall to criticize the decision to drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For those of you of a historical bent, you are doubtlessly aware that the decision to use atomic weapons is controversial. Like the question of bombing Auschwitz, this is a subject that has become a subject of much debate and study and many, many, many answers. It was done to save lives; it was unnecessary. The Japanese were pondering surrender—it was only a matter of days, weeks, minutes, or millenia depending on who you would ask and which documents you cite and how you read them. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was vital to ending the war with Japan; no, it was only political theater to impress the Soviets. We didn't have to bomb either city; we should have only dropped one and waited; no, we needed to drop both. It was a war crime; it wasn't. It was the worst horror of the war; it wasn't even close. And so on and so forth and onward—do you know what the answer is? Can you guess? There is no spoon, that's the fucking answer. This will be debated forever, and that—like the question of the Allies bombing the concentration camps—that is the answer: if the best experts can't agree sixty years on, why was the answer clearer then when the pressure was on, the future uncertain, and the data imperfect?

But TNR would like Barrack Obama to answer. Unable to understand the singing Whos, they would like to politely frame a historical hypothetical:

While I know that Obama doesn't think the government created AIDS, I'm less assured that he shares a vision of American power that understands our singular role in the world. In sum: does Obama believe Harry Truman was right to end the war with Japan the way that he did? Why is no one in the media asking him this question? That seems to me an entirely fair query of man who wants to become Commander-in-Chief.
Allow me to step in to field this question for Mr. Obama, since it would be impolitic of him to proffer the correct answer. The correct answer is, "Fuck you, Mr. Kirchick. Stop being a douche."

I believe that's an entirely fair answer to the man who would ask a question like that outside of a sophomore European History class. That's the only place for it: the essay portion counts twenty percent of the final grade. In one hundred words or less. Was Truman right to end the war the way he did? Discuss. Be specific.

The New Republic. Giving new meaning to sophomoric political discourse. The grad students who handed out their reading lists would be proud.


Nathan Friday, March 28, 2008 at 10:47:00 AM EDT  

I love it when the giant midgets get all ranty. Excellent!

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