The Corner

Ramesh & Hiroshima

Ramesh has a very interesting and thoughtful essay on the site today on the anniversary of the atomic bombings.

But if I get what he’s up to, I’m not entirely sure I buy his ending. He writes (and this is a “spoiler” in that it’s his last three paragraphs):

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?

Me: I guess my problem is that there’s too much of an apples-and-oranges issue here. The category error, in my view, is the difference between the enemies. Japan was — very helpfully for us — an island nation with an island culture. There was no wider Japanese or Shinto “world” which might be outraged or incited by the bombing. Certainly the Chinese had no problem with it. The enemy was in one place, at one time. We’d been locked in a bloody conventional war for years etc etc. Meanwhile, the terror threat is diffuse, ideologically, strategically, geographically. Even if we were inclined to nuke an Arab or Muslim city, there’s no reason to believe it would end hostilities. Moreover the humanitarian calculus would be off the charts.

Ramesh acknowledges all of this to an extent when he says that in a more pro-collateral damage America the only objections would be “practical.” But I don’t think he does justice to the differences. World War II and the war on terror aren’t usefully analogous here. Japan was not only a discrete enemy it was simultaneously, in effect, the weapon they were using against us. In a total (and conventional) war the homefront is part of the military machinery.

Meanwhile, the statelessness of the terror threat constitutes not only a huge “practical” difference but it creates a huge moral distinction as well because it suggests that the traditional binding betweet state, society and frontline warriors is not in play.

Another place the paralell falls apart is technology. We didn’t have a lot of options other than the atom bomb back then. Today we have many options, short of atomic bombs. Police, for example, have the moral obligation to wound instead of kill only when wounding is feasible.

More important, tolerance for more collateral damage has to go a very, very long way before we’d be talking about advocating the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations. Does it really have to be either/or the way Ramesh implies? Can’t we be a little more tolerant of collateral damage while holding intact the moral opprobrium on the use of nukes? Indeed, Boot is talking as much about increasing the lethality of our warmaking on enemy soldiers, not enemy civilians. We let a lot of Baathist officers and soldiers get away because we were so surgical with our warmaking. Surely, we could have been more tolerant of killing more Republican Guards without moving that much closer to endorsing a Middle Eastern Hiroshima.

Personally, I can imagine scenarios where the analogy to Hiroshima works quite well. If we knew, for example, that Iran was about to launch a nuke at us, if it launched one at us, etc. But none of those exist in the here and now. I know it’s too late for me to begin a sentence with “in short” but I’ll do it anyway: In short, I think Ramesh is trying to force a principle on others where it cannot fit.

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