Isaac Chotiner reads one rosy tale too many about how the British responded to the Blitz without resorting to torture, and points out that humanitarianism was hardly the rule of the day in the 1940s:
Let’s just take one example: The Bengal Famine of 1943. Scholars still dispute what exactly caused the famine–and whether there were in fact sufficient amounts of food, amounts which went unused–but there can be denying that the Churchill government’s response to this disaster was, in the historian Peter Clarke’s word, gruesome. Upon learning that people were dying at a rapid rate (the total death toll was around 3 million) Churchill simply asked, in an infamous letter, why Gandhi had not yet starved. Eventually the government responded adequately, but this was of little solace to the millions of dead Indians.
Part of the story here is just Churchill’s boundless hatred for Gandhi. But it should be said clearly that today’s sense of outrage about the depredations of the Bush administration is in part about the nature of the depredations, and in part about the fact that our ethical senses have become more refined. World War II was something like the nadir of humane conduct in world history. Back then you could be deliberately targeting enemy civilians for mass death and still be the good guy in the war. Heck, you could be Stalin and still be the good guy. It was a bad time. What’s so disturbing about Bush isn’t so much that his misdeeds have reached an unprecedented level of badness, it’s that much of his conduct seemed to reverse a trend toward better behavior developing over time.