Politics & Policy

Hiroshima Now

Questions linger.

A few left academics have tried to figure out how many civilians actually died in Afghanistan, aiming at as high a figure as possible, on the assumption, apparently, that if the number is greater than the number of people killed in the Towers, the war is unjust. At the moment, most of the numbers are propaganda; there is no reliable accounting. But the claim that the numbers matter in just this way, that the 3120th death determines the injustice of the war, is in any case wrong. It denies one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions. . .

–Michael Walzer, “Can There Be A Decent Left?Dissent, Spring 2002

Walzer went on to describe that distinction as one “between premeditated murder and unintended killing.” Premeditated murder is surely a correct way to describe the terrorist attacks of September 11. But Walzer’s point may be generalized to apply to cases where we would not use the word “murder.” There is a distinction between military actions that have the goal of killing civilians or kill civilians as a means to a goal, on the one hand, and military actions that have the foreseeable but unintended effect of killing civilians, on the other. It is the difference between willing the death of innocents and causing it.

Math is relevant to the moral equation here. At some point the number of deaths foreseen could rise so high that the action would not be morally permissible, even if those deaths were unintended. But it seems to me that portions of the Right, in recent discussions of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have fallen into an error similar to the one Walzer mentioned. The conservative error is to assume that the intentional killing of civilians is justified in order to avert a greater number of deaths.

It has commonly been argued that the alternative to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to launch an invasion involving “at least 1.5 million Allied soldiers” (to quote Harry Truman). The bombings saved lives and thus, runs the argument, were justified. Victor Davis Hanson cites “Truman’s supporters” for the view that “a million American casualties and countless Japanese dead were averted by not storming the Japanese mainland.”

It is a trickier case than the fire bombing of Dresden and similar actions. In those cases there is some controversy about what the Allies accomplished. In the case of Japan, at first glance it appears that the bombing accomplished a lot: a swift end to the war, the rescue of a country from a totalitarian death cult, a chance for freedom to grow in the whole region. Few of us would want to have been in the position of Harry Truman, having to make this decision.

Yet it is not necessary to make a definitive judgment that Truman made the wrong choice in order to be troubled by the justifications that have been made for that choice–and to wonder about their implications for the war on terrorism. (Most of those justifications stipulate that neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki were conventional military targets: that the point was to break Japan’s will by showing how much we could destroy. And they do not treat our warning leaflets as strong evidence that the civilian deaths were unintended. I will make these assumptions my own, both because the balance of evidence suggests that they are true and because I am trying to analyze the arguments proffered for intentionally killing civilians.)

Max Boot argues that there was nothing “uniquely reprehensible” or even “unusual” about the atom bombing of Japan:

It’s true that the atomic bombs were, by many orders of magnitude, the most powerful explosives ever employed. But the havoc they caused, with a combined death toll of over 100,000, was far from unprecedented. By the time the Enola Gay took off, at least 600,000 Germans and 200,000 Japanese had already been killed in Allied air raids. Conventional explosives had reduced all of the major cities of both countries to rubble. In the end, no more than one-third of the total Japanese deaths from air raids–and just 3.5% of the total land area destroyed–could be attributed to Fat Man and Little Boy.

Boot’s statistics don’t distinguish between civilian deaths that resulted from strikes against conventional military targets and civilian deaths that were intended to break the enemy’s will. But even if every one of the deaths fell into the latter category, the question would remain whether this type of military practice is (and was) justified. To the extent that the intentional killing of civilians had become a routine military technique–and Churchill’s qualms about it are among the reasons for refusing to endorse that view completely–that might mitigate Truman’s culpability for making the wrong choice (if it was the wrong choice). But it would not yield the conclusion that his choice was right. We might well conclude that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were part of a class of immoral, though understandable, acts committed by the good guys during World War II.

Some commentators–not Boot–have cited atrocities committed by the Japanese by way of justifying the bombings. But that can’t be right, at least as the point is generally made. The war crimes of Japanese soldiers are not a good reason to kill a child in Nagasaki. The barbarism of an enemy is an added reason to stop him, but whether any means of stopping him are acceptable is precisely what is at issue.

Almost all commentators argue that Japan would not have made an unconditional surrender without the bombings–and while this point is disputed, I think that it is not disputed very credibly. But this claim is made as though it places all of the moral weight of the decision to bomb on the Japanese themselves. It is too simply asserted that we had a choice between losing hundreds of thousands of troops and dropping the bombs. We could have accepted a conditional surrender. (It hardly follows from the fact that the war was a “total war” that this option did not exist.)

There would have been real costs to such a decision. The last 60 years of world history probably would have been worse, perhaps a lot worse. Mark Steyn writes:

Japanese militarism would not have been so thoroughly vanquished, nor so obviously responsible for the nation’s humiliation and devastation, and therefore not so irredeemably consigned to history. A greater affection and respect for the old regime could well have persisted, and lingered to hobble the new modern, democratic Japan devised by the Americans.

The choice among accepting a conditional surrender, losing massive numbers of men in a battle for Japan, and dropping the bomb was America’s. It is certainly possible to argue, as Steyn does, that an unconditional surrender was so much better than either of the other two alternatives that it was worth dropping the bomb. But because Steyn is comparing the consequences of dropping the bombs to the consequences of all the alternatives, and not just to an artificially truncated set of alternatives, the argument looks rather weaker.

Boot and Steyn both turn to the present, which sheds some light on the question about the past. To proponents of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the opposition looks absurdly unrealistic. For them, it has a whiff of pacifism about it. But even though most Americans would, if asked, say that they think it was right to drop the atomic bombs, it is not obvious that the proponents’ arguments really do track well with our ordinary moral intuitions about war. (I am not implying here, by the way, that our moral intuitions are always justified.) At least, they do not track with our normal military practices.

Boot writes:

Today we can put “smart” bombs through the window of an office building. Along with greater accuracy has come a growing impatience with “collateral damage.” A bomb that goes astray and hits a foreign embassy or a wedding party now causes international outrage, whereas 60 years ago the destruction of an entire city was a frequent occurrence.

Does this make us more enlightened than the “greatest generation”? Perhaps. We certainly have the luxury of being more discriminating in the application of violence. But even today, there is cause to doubt whether more precision is always better. During the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. was so sparing in its use of force that many Baathists never understood they were beaten. The butcher’s bill we dodged early on is now being paid with compound interest.

To increase tolerance for “collateral damage”–a move that Boot implicitly raises, though he does not endorse it (as Steyn does)–would be a substantial change in American, British, and Israeli military practice. But it would be an even bigger change, and a change in principle, if we were to intentionally target civilians whenever we thought that doing so would hold our military casualties down (or even hold the total number of civilian and military casualties down).

We would have far fewer principled limits on the means of war. The only reasons we would have to refrain from killing civilians would be practical ones: Killing them might not achieve our objectives, might generate a backlash that would set our objectives back, etc. Nobody is advocating that we adopt this type of stance. Maybe, based on their arguments, they should.

National Review has had shifting views on the morality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: sympathetic to the moral objections in the late 1950s, glibly dismissive of them in the late 1980s. My colleagues’ latest statement appears in the new issue: “It is no fair to use the bomb, or any other such weapon, in the normal course of war. Against an enemy who launched an unprovoked attack, perpetrated mass slaughters, and was determined to unleash more, the calculus of appropriate response changed. America did what it should have done.” So what are we to think about the fact that all of those factors are present in the terror war?

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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