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Morality And The Western Way Of War.

Right or wrong? Choose one.

I need someone to explain something to me. It's a moral question, so naturally I need help.

Sixty five years ago we fought a war with Japan following their attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a matter of a few months we were burning down Japanese cities. The Japanese of that era favored wood construction and we dropped incendiary bombs. Later, when the technology became available, we dropped atomic bombs.

You can argue one way or the other whether there were significant, legitimate military targets in each and every case, but let's take it as granted that there were. Nevertheless, incendiaries in packed cities full of wood houses, I think we knew what would result. I think we knew the firestorms might suck the oxygen from the lungs of children as well as adults, women as well as men, opponents and supporters of the regime alike.

Fair enough so far?

Question: were we right or wrong to do it?

Don't try to fall back on "war of necessity." That's a bullshit distinction. After we had pushed the Japanese back past Midway they ceased being an active threat to the US. We could quite easily, and at far less cost in lives and cash, instituted a regime of containment. We could have said, "You guys stay on that side of the Pacific, we'll stay over here and build a huge Navy, and what goes on between you and the Chinese, or you and various French colonies, is your business."

We didn't do that. We chased the Japanese all the way back to Japan, burned their country down around their ears, occupied them, put an American general in charge as a demi-god, wrote them a constitution and put a gun to their heads and said, "sign here."

Were we right or wrong to do it?

Well, it worked out pretty well, didn't it? Not so well for the people who died, not so well for the people who were burned, but in the grand geopolitical scheme of things, pretty well.

I'm not much of a moralist, I tend to be a pragmatist. And I'm enough of a chauvinist to conclude that in a straight-up choice I'll value an American life more highly than someone else's. But I'm not pushing the ends-justify-the-means argument as true in every situation. I'm asking if it was right or wrong to burn Japan in view of their attack, in view of the continuing pillage they'd have inflicted on Asia, and yes, as an element of the equation, the fact that it seems to have worked.

And I'm asking for a reason. Because any time I suggest that we might have to consider a similar form of warfare in dealing with Islamic extremism, Islamofascism, jihadism, call it what you like, I get shocked looks and cries of anguish.

We have two ideas at cross-purposes: First, that we are all in terrible danger, it's a war for survival, we're losing, help, help us please God. Second: we're doing all we can, we can do no more.

Well, we're clearly not doing all we can, which is what I'd think we'd be doing if we really believed we were in a war for survival. Cry havoc and let slip the puppies of war? I wonder whether we have taken real war off the table. I want to know whether real war is even an option any more. Not saying let's do it tomorrow, not arguing it's usefulness in this situation, I'm asking what arrows we have in our quiver.

So, going back to burning down Japan. Setting aside the strategic advisability of it for the moment, setting aside whether it would work, we can debate that another time, could we burn down Islamabad or Tehran or Mecca? Could we in theory? Could we do it and feel okay about it 65 years later? Or are we now evolved past the point where we have the stomach for terrible deeds in defense of our nation?

Is the western way of war, war of annihilation, still on the table? Or not? If not, why do we sttill own thousands of nuclear warheads?

If your answer is no, we don't do that anymore: were we right or wrong to do it 65 years ago?
If wrong, what changed in 65 years? Explain, because as a moral question, setting aside strategy, I don't get it.

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“Morality And The Western Way Of War.”

  1. Anonymous Walrus Says:

    This is a very uncomfortable question and it's making me squirm, quite honestly. But I'll do my best.

    War is always and inevitably a morally equivocal act, at best. In absolute terms, it can never ever be right. Horrible things will be done, even in "just wars". Innocent blood will flow. All of this is wrong.

    Sometimes though, in a world where evil walks, it is sometimes necessary. Allowing an evil man at the head of an evil regime to go unchecked can result in even greater evils. And those who stand back and allow it to continue are complicit. In other words, there are cases where you are damned if you do, damned if you don't. The only moral solution is to go for the lesser of damnations.

    It's pretty hard to rally the troops around a war cry of "the lesser of evils," so the justification of war is seldom framed in those terms. My uncle, a WWII navigator with the RCAF probably participated in the bombing of German civilians. I don't know, because he won't talk about it. I know for a fact he did do bombing runs over Germany. This was one of the few wars in history where good and evil appeared with some clarity, but even so, men of honour sleep uneasily sixty years after the fact.

    It was necessary to bring Germany to its knees, it was necessary to bring Japan to its knees, because the alternative was even more horrific. Sometimes the lesser of evils is the only moral response, even when innocents have to die.

    But when the euphoria of victory has had its day, and the rubble is cleared and the cities rebuilt, perhaps the only moral response is to weep for our victory. Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, famously said at a 1969 press conference in London: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."


    I am posting this comment to my blog, along with a trackback to your article.

  2. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    Thanks for that very thoughtful response. Yeah, it makes me uncomfortable, too. How do you argue for killing women and children and call yourself a man? It does come down to lesser evils but that phrase seems inadequate. "Lesser of two evils" is usually applied to ballot choices or to choosing between ice cream and cake, not choosing between my kid and yours.

  3. Blogger Dave Schuler Says:

    For many years I thought quite differently from the way I'm going to answer your question now, MT.

    Let's consider the case of Japan only. We need to recall that the first year or so of war in the Pacific went poorly for us. American victory was by no means a foregone conclusion.

    We had no choice. Once we had developed the atomic bomb the war was over. The Japanese just didn't know it and we had no other way to explain it to them. Any attempt at demonstration or explanation would have been met with denial or, just as likely, those who actually received the message would have taken their own lives rather than deliver the bad news.

    As to whether we had the alternative of allowing a draw after Midway, I don't believe so. We tend to forget how aggressive the Japanese offensive was. They were conducting raids on Australia in 1942. They had active chemical and biological weapons programs testing biological weapons on POW's. They may have attempted, unsuccessfully, to use these against the U. S. mainland. They would have succeeded eventually.

    I doubt that our problem with Islamist radicals is comparable. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't think that we shouldn't be much more vigorous in our activities against them than we have been. I just don't think much of the objectives of operations to date.

  4. Blogger Callimachus Says:

    I won't clot you up with a Big Answer. Like walrus says, this is a squirmy question. I've been around on it a lot lately, and you've probably already seen the results. Whatever big answers I can give are qualified and shaky.

    Here's a Little Answer, though. We fight our wars looking backward to earlier wars. So did people then. The leaders and people who fought World War II never forgot that they had to go through all this blood and fire because in the previous war, the loser never believed he had lost.

    Because the German people in 1918 were unconvinced they had been defeated, they put Hitler in power.

    That was the anti-model. I think that accounts for the wide acceptance of such disproportionate use of force against the people of Germany and Japane. The Allies didn't want to have to do this all over again in 20 years. And this was one way they could avoid the last mistake they made.

    Did Bush I/Powell/Schwarzkopf make the same mistake in 1991? Did Bush II learn from it? Those are interesting questions and even squirmier.

  5. Anonymous Jack Whelan Says:

    Right or Wrong? I don't think there's much moral ambiguity about the U.S. dropping the bombs knowing the scale of loss of innocent life that would be involved. It was a morally bankrupt use of disproportionate power, and any ex post facto attempts to justify it are a function of Americans being in denial that they are capable of doing anything beyond reproach.

    This is not America bashing. It's simply recognizing that Americans are no worse or better than anyone else. And most human beings when given enormous power abuse it. I have no doubt that if the Germans or the Japanese got the bomb before us, they would have used it on us. But there you go, because we used it, we are no better than they. We didn't have to, and we did. We're the only country that has dropped the bomb on people. When we did, we lost any pretense to moral superiority.

    It should also be pointed out that there's lots of evidence to suggest we were more interested in making a statment to the Soviets than we were to the Japanese, who were crippled and incapable of undertaking any serious offensive action. It's not as if our dropping the bomb on them was a desperate last resort action to save ourselves from defeat. The Japanese had lost, and they knew it. They were sending out feelers to negotiate a peace, but we insisted on unconditional surrender--a political impossibility for the Japanese leaders to accept. You can say, "Who cares about the Japanese leaders?" But this is where the proportionality question comes in. Who pays for the arrogance of any nation's corrupt, powermad leadership? In this case 214,000 ordinary, mostlyinnocent Japanese. The enormity of the loss of life from just the two atomic bombings is really beyond most of our ability to grasp it.

    The Americans knew what they were doing. Several leaders, Eisenhower for one, thought it wasn't necessary and were horrified at the loss of civilian life it would cause. But then as now there was a faction of bloody-minded hardliners who have to break more things than necessary to make their statement. There is nothing, nothing more important than keeping people with this kind of mentality from the levers of power. But when citizens are frightened or angry, they confuse the macho brutality of these leaders with toughness; it's not. Being tough and being reasonable are not incompatibles.

    But even if for the sake of argument you accept that Hiroshima was justified, how do you justify Nagasaki? You can't. I know the official explanations, but does anybody who is half awake these days take any official explanation seriously? Hats off to Menken for wanting to go deeper.

  6. Blogger biwah Says:

    Incinerating Japanese cities was wrong if anything is wrong. However, wrong acts don't lead exclusively to universal detriment. No matter how heinous the act, time and the attendant complexity are the ultimate solvent of morality. From the immoral incineration of cities came Japan's reincarnation as an economic superpower.

    But that rebound then became recycled as the justification for incinerating more cities. Hasn't happened on that level yet, so far merely in the form of an incremental overreliance on air power - but the bomb has taken on a halo of catharsis that we are too canny to display in public, even if we harbor it collectively. Let's not be myopic about the present. We will eventually face the choice of doing at least that, or humbly accepting defeat. That is the mood in which we will (possibly) make the choice to draw again from the well of mass atrocity against a maddening but less powerful enemy.

    Any ability to predict the consequences of your own acts is a galling illusion. Any attempt to judge the right or wrongness of an act is meaningless, if we use the results, proximate or distant, as a metric.

    That same illusion plagued the neoconservatives, who felt that history would carve out an exception for them from all the unintended consequences of every ambitious military foray into an alien culture.

    In Iraq, the ends were so clearly in view that the means were an afterthought, relying on technology and permitting the underestimation the crux of war - human resolve. We have had that same end in view ever since we witnessed the Japanese rebound after WWII. That was the conclusion that begat all the skewed questions.

    Does right or wrong matter in group consciousness? There is a sense that, much as nature abhors a vacuum, we human civilizations must do something, and an attendant sense that bloodshed is the default solution for stagnation, for any intractable problem. Regardless of whether it is right, regardless of whether it is necessary, it is inevitable.

  7. Anonymous eteraz Says:

    The question is altogether premature. 1945 was the by product of a psychological and emotional building which occurred by way of the fact that our entire nation, to its tooth and nail, was in the war.

    Without the draft that is no longer the case, and as such, the only way I see annihilation as a policy is if the entire nation is again pulled into a war.

    Without a draft, that's completely unlikely.

  8. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    So in essence, you question is, “Would we use WMDs wiping out hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, while a disproportionately small number of American lives was potentially at risk?” is that correct? I think it’s a question of ideology. We have to be very clear on what it is (which I’m not, at least not now). If we believe in each nation’s right to self-determination, than… well, what the hell are we doing in Iraq for starters, why aren’t we recognizing Hamas as a lawful government for the Palestinians, why did we get rid of Mosaddeq, Bhutto, why is the Moslem Brotherhood outlawed in Algiers (twice democratically elected), and the list goes on, and on. Perhaps we don’t believe in an unqualified right to self-determination for each nation (nothing wrong with that). And if that’s the case, do we believe that democracy or some semblance thereof is worth all these deaths? Yes? No? Under some specific circumstances? I guess, it’s not that simple. Hell.. I have no idea.


  9. Blogger Pooh Says:

    I think Eteraz has it. And to expand a bit more - to a large degree the American People were at war with the German and Japanese People - if we are comparing conflicts, are we at war (as opposed to in conflict with, as you might say we were with regards to the Soviet people from 1946-1989) with the people of Muslim nations?

    Further, from the standpoint of morality, effectiveness has to come into play - would the firebombing (or god forbid nuking) of Damascus make sense strategically or tactically?

    I'll entertain the possibility of such a thing being appropriate, but we are nowhere near that point yet (despite, at times, our best efforts)

  10. Blogger amba Says:

    Wow. The gang's all here!

    I once gave Jack Whelan's "OK, I'll give you Hiroshima, but then why Nagasaki?" to my father, who was a soldier behind the lines in the Pacific at the time and bought the "one million would die in an invasion" argument. "Why Nagasaki" stopped him cold. He has never forgotten it.

    Everyone has already said everything so I'm going to take a different tack. Pardon me while I appear to digress.

    In my very early 30s I once got stoned with two young guys in their 20s in Florida. One of them was the son of an older friend of mine, then maybe 50, and I was exactly between the generations. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to talk with the father or lust for the son. Stoned, I observed my mind aruing with itself, going "On the one hand . . . but then on the other hand . . . " and the shift was accompanied by a painful physical sensation, like the way the projection lens seems to contract and swallow like a camera shutter when you change slides in a slide show. My mind was also doing a mime of silly exaggerated poses, "on the one hand . . . but on the other hand," like a parody of an Indian dancer. I was separate enough from this process to be able to see it, not entirely caught up in it and dashed from one bank to the other. (Ambiva- even then.)

    Then one of the young guys put the joint in his mouth backwards, burning end inside. The other leaned close, and brought his lips close the first one's, and the first one blew a tiny stream of smoke, that looked like a spark, between his friend's lips. It was a heart-stoppingly beautiful image, like two young gay gods, blond and dark, exchanging a spark of creation (though neither of them was gay or a god). There was no doubt about that, no two ways about it, no "on the one hand . . . on the other hand," and all of a sudden I got '"Beauty is truth, truth beauty: that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

    Fast forward about a decade and I was going to see a Japanese Butoh dance troupe . . . what was their name . . . no, not "Silflay Hraka," but the same rhythm . . . Sankai Juku. And there came a time when I knew they were portraying the death and rebirth of Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There had been a funny little man, like a tippy Buddha doll, with a traditional painted smile, bowing constantly and comically, played by a dancer who squatted inside the costume; and with a flash and drumming he was struck down in bright light, and this little clown figure fell over and grimaced and writhed in agony; and then . . . and then suddenly he changed and stood up tall and started dancing the can-can!! Twenty years later I get tears in my eyes writing about it. And then he fell down again and writhed in torment again; and then got up and kicked and danced with a grin of ecstatic pain on his changed face. I never read any interpretation or explanation of this, but I was very sure (and I loved my Japanese karate teacher, whom I would never have met if a cataclysm of death had not somehow turned into an orgasm of fusion) that this was a portrayal of the transformation of Japan: forced to rise out of the still-burning ashes and smile and dance in a grotesquely Western way, and gradually finding the ecstasy in it.

    What's my point? I don't have one. People go to war, and there is horrible, unspeakable suffering, and then somehow war turns into love, and something new is born. Is there a better way? Couldn't we just bond and blend by making love and making money without making war? Who knows? War is an intimacy. Don't you know much more now about Islam than you ever did before, even those of you who think you hate it? The intimacy has begun.

  11. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    It appears that to provide an unqualified or even unambiguous answer to your question is practically impossible. At least for this group of folks. A decision of such magnitude requires solid faith; reason alone won’t get you there. And I’m an agnostic – the worst qualified view from spiritual standpoint.


  12. Anonymous Walrus Says:

    Yes, lesser of evils does seem hopelessly inadequate, doesn't it? Although in context, you can talk about the specific threat. In the abstract, it's harder. I tend to be a bit of a moral absolutist, so when I use the term "lesser of evils", I often am thinking about evil.

    I guess when the threat is huge, then mass destruction becomes something that can be envisaged, PROVIDED that it is the only way of countering the threat. Or ultimately, the path of least destruction.

    And for what it's worth, I'm a woman, so I don't have to worry about whether I can call myself a man... And I've got four military-age sons, none of whom have enlisted, mind you, but it means these arguments are never entirely abstract for me. I can identify with the children and with the soldiers.

    I obviously don't get too sentimental about protecting women, but children - that's hard. The only way to get past it is to imagine even more children dying. If that's truly the choice before you, there's only one way to go.


  13. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    I notice the choice is always Japan.

    That is because fairly rigorous studies showed that the strategic bombing in Germany actually increased military production by moving workers from civilian inndustries and the terror bombing did little.

    The US airforce and military in general was bothered by wanton killing. This is shy you had "limited nuclear war" wit thousands of warheades designed to bust silos rather than a cheaper system based on mad.

    Warfare is an artform and elegance is valued. Minimal NECESSARY force to increase an objective which is why the rapid advances deep into supply lines is preferred to the slug it out of WWI.

    Would we ask if the western nations of WWII were unwilling to bear the sacrifice of troops of the previous war?

    Don't worry, we will kill civilians. Remember in counterinsurgencvy major theories say that minimizing these deaths is best because the friends and relatives of the enemies become the enemy. The goal is to secure key points, not let the enemy form, identify leaders and infrastructure destroy them surgically and organize the populace.

    Note we never put in enough troops to secure Iraq. In the first half year we had 20 billion of Iraqi oil for food money to spend, a little more than one thousandth went to field commanders and others to spend on local projects and hire locals. The local councils were given little power.

    Perhaps if we looked at these things rather than not enough bombs we can explore the question better.

    In Fallujah in the spring of 2004 the Marines wanted to go in slowly and try and recreate their successes in Vietnam (and yes they were relatively successful until Westmoreland ordered them into his war.) However some of the contractors who we used iraqi and the our aid money to hire got killed, Field Marshall Rush Limbaugh orderred the president to atttack Fallujah, Junior obeyed at the same time we were launching an ill concieved campaign against Sadr.

    The conuntry exploded. As you will recall US troops were actually in some dangers because supplies were constricted and this is an army that requires lots of stuff or it stops. The people we had appointed railed against us. This came shortly after Sistani had been forced to rally the nation to force us to hold elections.

    Our control eased.

    I think before we ask as the right is, "Did we kill enough civilians, is that the problem? a million dead will trach em!" we should ask things like is it the best policy to fire individuals who give real estimates of how much the war will cost (lindsay) or humilate genrals who give the best military guess (Shineski) or to ignore the experts in government because they are politically impure and hire recent college graduates to run Iraq because they have the proper ideology? If you have 20 billion in Iraqi money should you refuse to use Iraqi firms because they are technically government owned, should you disband the traffic police because they payed themselves by taking small bribes for violations and even though this kept order on the streets it was better to have no traffic control for months and months while you tried to write regulations and did all the rest and of cours by the time you thought you had it perfect the streets had been so wild wested by looters, then criminal gangs and contractors and troops shooting at any car that came close that traffuc control was an impossibiity?

    Do atom bombs solve this?

    Why not simple competence? Then we can decide how many to kill, believe me we do know how to kill.

    Just remember if the planners of WWII could knock out individual factories and specific points with the precision we do they would have done so.

    You will notice very few with military expertise are arguing along the lines you are exploring. It is people like Field Marshall Limbaugh.

    - anna

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