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I'm out of town at the moment and blogging from the downtown Austin Hilton (pretty nice, call it three stars) but I wanted to respond to the outpouring of very thoughtful and intelligent responses to this post here at Sideways, and the identical post at Donklephant.

It is interesting, as one commetor pointed out, that many commentors sought to sidestep the limitations I tried to impose. People feel a lot more comfortable talking strategy rather than morality. Me too, which is why I posed it as a moral question. Playing the chess game is fun, while justifying the knowing destruction of very large numbers of innocents is, to understate the case quite a bit, troubling.

Those who condemn the bombing of Japan and who would, by extension, condemn similar actions in future wars seem much more comfortable with their responses than those who take more nuanced positions.

Even those who believe we were right in the case of Japan cannot quite bring themselves to imagine that we might be justified in doing it tomorrow or next year to Islamabad or Tehran. The reasons advanced for why it would be okay in Japan and not in some other context were not, in my opinion, very convincing.

One commentor drew a distinction on the grounds that we were at war with the entire Japanese people, while that's not the case in our current fight against international Islamist terrorists. I don't buy that, and I'll cite Lot at Sodom as my text. Lot repeatedly asked the Lord to spare Sodom and the Lord kept offering to do so if Lot could come up with 100 righteous men . . . ten righteous men . . one righteous man. Tokyo and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were full of children. We're never at war with children. If the Lord would have spared foul Sodom for a handful of righteous men, surely we should have spared Hiroshima with tens of thousands of innocent children.

"The enemy" is never just "the enemy." It doesn't matter who the enemy is, he has women and children. And the enemy has internal dissent. The enemy has people who are counted on his side purely by accident of geography. The enemy includes people who have risked their lives to resist the evil being done and yet will be exterminated by our bombs.

I posed this question because I wanted to know whether in the future we still had within us that capacity for wholsesale savagery. If I had discovered that the answer was "yes," then I would have been 100% sure of the outcome of the conflict between the West and radical Islam. Asymmetric warfare works only so long as the superior power allows it to work. It works only so long as a superpower refuses to take the gloves off. If the gloves come off, the game is over, because the asymmetry is real: we have the greater power.

More than one commentor suggested that we had not yet been pushed to the point of contemplating such extreme action and held open the possibility that circumstances might arise that we would interpret as permission to take off the gloves. I think that's true: people who say they could never do murder lack imagination.

In any event, after reading all the answers I conclude that we are highly unlikely to use the full range of our power under any but the most extreme circumstances. Another Pearl Harbor would not lead to a Nagasaki. (It didn't on 9/11.) It would take an American Nagasaki to cause us too unleash hell on our enemies.

This speaks well of us morally, no doubt. But it means that we're going to fight this current conflict, war, whatever we decide to call it, with one hand tied behind our back and both legs hobbled. I'm not happy about that because it means I can't be sure we're going to prevail.

I don't mean that we'll somehow be conquered, that's ridiculous. But is it inconceivable that Sharia law will be in force throughout the entire Muslim world in 20 years, and the last vestiges of liberty there extinguished? Is it inconceivable that we'll see a nuclear "exchange" between Israel and Iran? Is it inconceivable that terrorism will so intimidate European governments that they will defect from the West and seek a separate peace even at the cost of their own liberty? Is it inconceivable that in 20 years we could be just one player in a dangerous multi-polar world where we, without allies, face Islamist as well as Chinese and perhaps Indian power? Is it inconceivable that the America of 20 years from now will be one where freedoms we now take for granted have been surrendered in an effort to keep ourselves "safe?"

I don't like the idea of taking options off the table. It means we're predictable. It means our enemies sleep better than they otherwise would. I think that although it's high-minded it is also self-righteous, stupid and arrogant: it assumes that we will prevail without having to sully ourselves and boy, I hate arrogant assumptions of superiority. History is too full of comeuppance for the cocky.

What is so fascinating about this to me as that the answers from Left and Right are essentially the same: whatever we've done in the past, we don't do awful things anymore, not even to win. We're in a war we are forever being told is 'must win,' and a 'war of survival,' and we're to win it without splashing any dirt on our boots? That makes me nervous.

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  1. Blogger amba Says:

    in 20 years we could be just one player in a dangerous multi-polar world where we, without allies, face Islamist as well as Chinese and perhaps Indian power?

    And, you forgot Russia. There are a lot of powers that have been humbled or upstaged by us in one way or another and are ready for comeuppance, and their turn.

    Indeed, we have become more humane and more able to see the humanity of all humans, more reluctant to demonize. In the abstract this is a good thing, the flower of human evolution. In reality it's a luxury, a product of our success (ironically, via ruthlessness) and resultant security. Is there some kind of natural law that societies that have reached the top lose the stomach to stay there?

    Can the natural life cycle of civilizations and empires be revised? Nothing lives forever.

    So you're right to be nervous. We are de-cadent, which means literally "falling down." We have too much to lose, including our nice lives and our fine sensibilities.

    It would be great if we could be open-hearted and necessarily ruthless, both. We've come probably as close as it's possible to come to being uniquely great in that way. But the strain of the contradiction is almost impossible to sustain. To have to be willing to slaughter little kids and brave dissidents because they have the misfortune to live under a power that threatens our power, which protects our survival -- well, I guess that's what great generals do. I don't think they foam at the mouth and rave with pleasurable hate like the New York Post. I think they close off too much sorrowful awareness and just do what has to be done. You don't have to hate or dehumanize to do it. You just have to have the will to survive and protect your own.

    Hey, I know what we need -- an alien invasion. That would unite the human race pretty quick, to face an Other that had tentacles and slime and jaws inside of jaws. No need to dehumanize.

  2. Blogger reader_iam Says:

    That would unite the human race pretty quick, to face an Other that had tentacles and slime and jaws inside of jaws. No need to dehumanize.

    Unite? Naah. I think we'd pretty much see what we see now. Our Inner(s) being what it(they) is(are).

    As to your original scenario, M. Tak, I'll quote myself:

    "Yes, we were right. That sucks, for all the obvious reasons, and of course, in the process of defending the largest, most important moral issue, a whole bunch of smaller ones got chewed up in the maw. But that's how it goes when you're dealing with imperfect human nature (of which human affairs, and foreign affairs, are mere writs large): Your only options are imperfect ones. No Utopic Visions Need Apply. From my point of view, it's not about the lesser of two evils. It's about working with what you have to achieve the (unsatisfactory) best that can be managed in this world, given its realities and flawed human nature itself. And doing so, as often as not, while not only not truly knowing what part or parts of the elephant we're touching, but not even realizing that we're touching an elephant."

    I've discovered the joys of pessimism, over the course of this year. Can't you tell?

  3. Blogger cakreiz Says:

    Hitting the nail on the head, as usual.

  4. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Wait, you're in Austin and you don't invite me up for a drink? I'm hurt.

    But seriously, hope you're enjoying our 100 degree afternoons!

  5. Blogger Pooh Says:

    FWIW, I think you're dismissing my point re: "at war with the People" too lightly - yes we weren't at wat with the Japanese children, but we were more at war with the populous as a whole . The armies are part of that populous, as are the industries which support the armies. I don't see how you can argue that we are similarly at war with those in Iran, Syria, what have you (yet is the unfortunately necessary caveat.)

    So to some extent, that has to make more destructive measures more moral. Whether it crosses some ideological Rubicon into morality, I don't know.

  6. Blogger Pooh Says:

    As a further point, I think it's both impossible and foolish to try and seperate questions of effectiveness from questions of morality. In your original post, you asked:

    Could we do it and feel okay about it 65 years later?

    If Japan was firmly in the third world, rather than an economic powerhouse, would we feel largely ok about Hiroshima and Nagasaki today?

  7. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    Decadent is the word. I've tried to avoid reaching that conclusion because I don't want to believe that we're past our peak.

    I think great generals are in the business of making ruthless decisions. First they have to learn to sacrifice their own men, which must be a hell of a thing to get used to. Tecumseh Sherman is a good case study in this. He knew from the start the Civil War would be bloody and protracted and sought to avoid it. He fought like crazy in ptched battles, throwing his own men against entrenched positions as necessary. And later he was the great modern innovator of war against civilians -- the famous march through Georgia and the Carolinas.

    He knew war was hell, he fought like hell, and he inflicted hell on civilians in the cause of victory. A great and ruthless man who never sought war, but once engaged did whatever it took to win. (He's not very popular here in North Carolina.)

  8. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    We've had pessimism inflicted upon us. That may be why I'm so cranky about the situation now: I'm an optimist by nature and I hate this dying-of-the-light mood that's settling over the country.

  9. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    Thanks, man.

    I forgot you work on Texas standards of distance. I assumed an hour and a half drive from Sann Antionio was a loooong way. But of course: Texas.

  10. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:


    I didn't mean to sound as if I was casually dismissing your point. But I don't know at what level of support a populace becomes responsible for the actions of a government.

    I think we'd both agree that most Germans supported the Nazis, at least tacitly, so we can hold them collectively responsible, I suppose, but there were certainly some who opposed Naziism. In Japan many surely opposed Tojo. In Iran, to take one example, many people may oppose the goveernment, but that doesn't set them apart from Japan.

    So let's tke a really tough case: Pakistan. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and a long history of support for terrorism: both Al Qaeda in the past and Kashmir terror groups today. In addition Pakistan is the world's greatest nuclear proliferator, it is the presumptive home of Osama Bin Laden, it supports radical madrassas that help provide the ideological foundation of Qaeda and groups like them. The military dictator currently in charge of Pakistan is friendly to the US, but what if Musharraff takes a bullet tomorrow and an overtly hostile government takes over?

    We believe we know that a substantial portion if not an absolute majority of Pakistanis are anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-West, tacit supporters of Kashmir terrorism, tacit supporters of Al Qaeda -- and have deliverable nuclear weapons. Given all that, why would we be justified in nuking Hiroshima, or threatening for 40 years to nuke Moscow, but not justified in applying the same threat to Islamabad?

    Our theoretical new government of Pakistan would not themselves be members of Al Qaeda, and of course the vast majority of citizens would be innocent. (Surely the children would be innocent in any event.) So, would we have the moral right to threaten Pakistan that if any of thier nukes -- by hook or by crook -- ended up in terrorist hands, with nuclear retaliation.

  11. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Ok, this response is late ... but, yeah, an hour-and-a-half is nothing. That's like a trip to the grocery store.

    Down here, if you can get there and back on one tank of gas, it'ain't far.

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