Bret Stephens on Waterboarding & WW-II

by Andrew C. McCarthy

Also not to be missed is Bret Stephens piece from yesterday (up on, here).  Same issue as Dershowitz wrestles with:  Are those posturing over waterboarding serious enough to be trusted with safeguarding the nation?

Bret, drawing from a recent essay in Commentary by Algis Valiunas, recounts the relentless Allied response to Nazi bombing campaigns against civilian targets.  The result?

“Oxygen starvation and carbon monoxide poisoning killed many; bomb shelters turned into ovens and roasted the persons inside, so that rescue workers days later found the bodies seared together in an indistinguishable mass; the molten asphalt of the streets engulfed those who fled the burning buildings.” An estimated 45,000 people died this way in Hamburg. U.S. and British air forces would repeat the procedure over Dresden, Tokyo, Yokohama, Hiroshima, Nagasaki–cities of real or at least arguable military significance. Hundreds of smaller cities and towns of doubtful strategic value were also reduced to ash and rubble, bringing the total civilian death toll to about 600,000 Germans (including 75,000 children under 14) and a roughly equal number of Japanese.

“How,” Stephens asks, “can this be justified? Does it not greatly diminish Allied claims to moral superiority?”  He reasons in answering that

the only compelling ethical defense that can be made for the bombing campaign is that it hastened Allied victory, spared at least as many lives (on both sides) as it cost, and created the conditions for a more peaceful postwar world. In other words, the question here isn’t about the intrinsic morality of the bombing. It’s about whether the good that flowed from the bombing outweighed the unmistakable evil of the act itself.

The debate, in the end, is about “results” — as Judge Mukasey put it in his confirmation hearing, the awful necessity of having to choose between terrible options.  Stephens’ conclusion:

Note the difference with the current debate over waterboarding, where opponents argue that the technique is unconscionable and inadmissible under any circumstances, even in hypothetical cases where the alternative to waterboarding is terrorist attacks resulting in mass casualties among innocent civilians. According to this view, it is possible to wage war yet avoid the classic “choice of evils” dilemmas that confronted past statesmen such as Churchill and Roosevelt. Or, to put the argument more precisely, it is possible to avoid this choice if one is also prepared to pay for it in blood–if not in one’s own, than in that of kith and kin and whoever else’s life must be sacrificed to keep our consciences clear.