Morality and Warfare: Reflections on the Battle of Stalingrad and the Historian’s Treatment of Dirty Hands
Ever since excerpts from “The Fog of War” were aired in lecture, I have felt compelled to re-examine and evaluate my approach to historical writing. From the onset of ninth grade, when I first learned of terms such as ‘political correctness’ and a ‘holistic approach,’ I have constantly strived to present my observations in a fair, level-headed manner. In particular, McNamara’s testimony reminded me of a paper I wrote during Junior year in high school. For my 20th Century World History class, I was required to prepare a 1000-1500 word research paper, which I believe was titled something like “The Role of the Red Army Infantry Soldier during the Battle of Stalingrad.” I am ashamed to admit it, but my choice of topic was greatly motivated by a video game. The following mission, from Activision’s Call of Duty: Finest Hour proved my strongest influence (only three to four minutes of the video is necessary.)
Actually, the paper exceeded my expectations. I recieved a high grade, and genuinely positive comments. My feelings began to change over the summer, however, as I began brainstorming topics for my extended essay (a 4000 word paper that is part of the IB Diploma, a program roughly equivalent to AP.) Initially, I planned to stand by my strengths by returning to the WWII Eastern Front. An analysis of both sides’ tactics, perhaps, would prove interesting. Nevertheless, something held me back -aside from the obvious lack of originality, of course-; As I laid out my plans, I considered the perspective I had written my first paper from. Yes, I did write a good analysis of the strategic situation, the factor which, from childhood, had always fascinated me, but I suddenly realized that I had also ignored one strikingly obvious aspect of Stalingrad: the bloody, gruesome slaughter which afflicted both sides during the battle. Of course, the structure of my paper absolved me of any need to account for issues of morality, yet what disturbed me was the blatant self-deception I had subjected myself to. My fallacy was not merely basing a paper on the rhetoric of a Call of Duty game; I had, subconsciously, also chosen the topic as a way to avoid morality altogether.
Now, I suppose you are wondering how the concept of dirty hands plays a role in my incessant ramblings. During the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army utilized several “dirty” tactics. From the onsent, Stalin forced the civilians to remain in Stalingrad rather than evacuate, choosing a strong defense of the city over the chaos that fleeing refugess would cause. On the German side, numerous atrocities were commited behind the battle lines, from mistreatment of people in German occupied regions to – of course – the acts of genocide instigated by the Nazi party. And, above all, the war between Germany and Russia was forever stained by the inherent racism mutually expressed between the two warring nations. Quite simply, dirty hands, and issues of morality played an integral part in the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Eastern Front as a whole.
Overall, my problem is not with the paper itself, but my own self-awareness of the topic when I wrote it. As an aspiring historian, I feel it is my duty to present my analyses as thoroughly as possible, with at least self -acknowledgement of the other major factors involved. Now, I accept that full knowledge of an historical event is most likely impractical, there are simply too many perspectives, as each participant’s recollections have a valid – albeit biased – account of the event. While I did not need to account for morality and dirty hands in my paper, I should have, nevertheless, at least considered these factors as I formulated my analysis. Thus, I feel it is an historian’s responsibility, if not duty, to understand as many of these different perspectives as possible, even if only with a passing thought.