The Corner

Nuclear Options

Thank you, Jonah and Derb, for the kind remarks you made about my piece on the atomic bombings of Japan—and thanks also for the people who have emailed me or posted thoughtful comments on it.

My ambitions in that article were limited (as Glaivester noted). Although I lean strongly against the view that the bombings were morally justifiable, as I am sure was obvious to anyone who read it, I did not actually come out against them. This is partly because I was more interested in working out the implications of common arguments for the bombings than in reaching a judgment of the bombings themselves.

(It is also partly because I have not worked through the implications of the arguments against the bombings. In the hypothetical case of a country that could avert defeat by a barbaric and totalitarian enemy only by intentionally killing civilians, for example, would the country be morally obligated, in effect, to accept defeat? Less hypothetically: Would adherence to the principle underlying opposition to the bombings have made it impossible for the United States to defend itself against the Soviet Union? I would have to be much surer in my views than I am to accept that conclusion.)

A number of people (including one of Jonah’s correspondents) argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were legitimate military targets as conventionally defined, and either argue or imply that they were bombed because they were such targets. If that claim is true—which I doubt—it leaves us with the question of what to think about the intentional killing of large numbers of civilians in a just war. It leaves us with the question, for example, of what to think about arguments for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that are not premised on their being conventional military targets (the focus of my article). The argument that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were conventional military targets is historically very interesting. But the other arguments for the bombings interest me more, because they have implications for the future.

Derb believes that this is all angels on the head of a pin stuff. He is surely correct to say that in sufficiently dire circumstances, the rules of war are likely to be relaxed. Any moral rule is less likely to be followed when the cost of following it increases. But it does not seem to me that the exercise of thinking about what the rules should be is therefore pointless. The Allies did not abandon all moral restraints as they conducted World War II. And if nobody tried to think through how rightly to conduct a just war, the civilized restraints that Derb lauds in cases of non-total (partial?) war would not have arisen. (People, incidentally, seem to mean different things in this discussion when they talk about “total war.” The phrase seems to make clear thinking harder, not easier.)

Finally, someone—I forget at which site—made the interesting comment that my error is to try to approach the ethics of war as though devising a legal code to govern it completely. I can see that it would be foolish to begin such a project. But it is not foolish, I think, to try to figure out what principles should guide a country that is trying to behave justly in 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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