Sunday, May 29, 2016

Was Truman wrong?

1. A friend asked me to comment on nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The question raises two issues: 

(i) Military ethics in general. The criteria for morally licit warfare. And (ii) whether nuking Japan met these criteria. 

So I'm going to begin by discussing the ethics of war, then say somethings about the bombing in particular. 

2. This raises roughly two issues: 

(i) Facts, and (ii) morality. To some extent these are interrelated. The facts include the circumstances and options. The predicted outcomes of each alternative. That, in turn, feeds into the question of which options were morally permissible.

Both of these are subject to dispute. The facts are contested. For instance, critics of the bombing say Japan was on the verge of surrender. However, defenders dispute that. 

In addition, there are ethicists who consider the circumstances to be irrelevant insofar as they rule out certain actions under any circumstances whatsoever. 

3. Some critics deny the legitimacy of national defense in principle. National sovereignty isn't worth defending.

i) To some extent I agree. I don't think we should kill to defend an abstract principle ("national sovereignty"). Some evil regimes hide behind national sovereignty. But these are illegitimate regimes. They are not entitled to take refuge in that principle. 

ii) But in many cases, national defense is a logical extension of self-defense. Humans are social creatures. We live in communities. In order to secure our human rights and liberties, it's often necessary to pool our collective resources. These are like internal military alliances. 

By the same token, humans who live in the same area for generations develop an infrastructure. That's not something you can replace overnight. That's worth defending. 

4. Many critics suffer from an irrational, knee-jerk aversion to nuclear weaponry. They act as if there's something intrinsically evil about nuclear weaponry, in contrast to conventional weaponry. But at most it's a difference of degree, not of kind. Was nuking Hiroshima inherently worse than firebombing Tokyo? 

What about the use of napalm and flamethrowers? Although that kills on a smaller scale, is it better to die that way?

The moral objection to nuclear weaponry strikes me as generally ad hoc. 

5. Another arbitrary distinction is indignation when many people are killed at the same time and place, but absence of indignation when the same numbers are killed at several times and places. The totals are the same. The difference is that one is more dramatic while the other is cumulative.

6. The objection to nuking Japan isn't isolated to that event, but involves a larger objection to weapons of mass destruction. Bombing civilian populations. Failure to even attempt to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants.

Carried to its logical conclusion, this led to calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament during the Cold War. The deterrent of mutually assured destruction was deemed to be immoral. Of course, that amounts to preemptive surrender. An invitation to be conquered by the enemy. 

7. I'd add that this isn't all that new. Siege warfare starved the inhabitants into submission. It resulted in death (by starvation) of many noncombatants.

8. Ironically, pacifists erase the distinction between combatants and noncombatants when they erase the distinction between killing and murder. For pacifists, all killing is murder. There is no category of justified killing. 

9. In modern Western civilization, just-war theory is the traditional framework for assessing the ethics of warfare, both in theory and practice. For some ethicists, that's an argument from authority. They treat just-war criteria as an unquestionable standard and starting-point. However, for a Protestant like myself, just-war criteria need to be scrutinized. 

10. Just-war criteria include:

• proportionality

• just cause

• last resort

• immunity of noncombatants

• reasonable prospect of success 

I think these are valid considerations. However, there's often a gap between criteria and reality. Concrete circumstances dictate our actual options. Circumstances force choices on us. Sometimes the criteria make sense, but sometimes the criteria are artificial or infeasible. 

I think the criteria can be useful up to a point, but they shouldn't be universalized. The criteria can be arbitrary on their own grounds. And one criterion may conflict with another. For instance:

i) Last resort may conflict with proportionality. What if a first strike saves more lives?

ii) Likewise, immunity of noncombatants may conflict with proportionality. What if a decapitation strike saves more lives? 

iii) Reasonable prospect of success may be prudent if you can predict the outcome. But that can lead to the conundrum of making decisions before you know the results. 

That criterion is more germane to offensive wars than defensive wars. Don't start a fight you can't win. But what if you didn't start the fight?

Likewise, what if the cost of losing is so onerous that it's better to fight even if the odds of winning are low?

11. A further complication is the relationship between just-war criteria and the double effect principle. Does the double effect principle sometimes warrant actions that just-war criteria deem to be unwarranted? Take the immunity of noncombatants. Does the double effect principle justify civilian casualties as a necessary side-effect of achieving the strategic objective? 

Critics like Elizabeth Anscombe balance just-war criteria with the double effect principle. But is that truly consistent, or is that a makeshift accommodation that redefines one or both sides? 

12. For critics like Anscombe, the priority is to avoid evil rather than prevent evil. Even if nuking Japan saved more lives (on both sides) than the alternatives, they'd still oppose nuking Japan. 

For other ethicists, the priority is to prevent evil rather than avoid evil. So that's a basic dividing line when we assess the ethics of warfare. And that's not confined to debates over nuking Japan.

13. Critics like Anscombe say you should never use evil means to achieve a good outcome. I agree. But that begs the question of whether the means in question are evil. Yet that's the very issue in dispute. 

By the same token, it equivocates over "evil". By definition, we should not commit evil. But doing harm is not equivalent to doing evil. Killing is not equivalent to doing evil. 

14. Critics like Anscombe say killing the innocent as a means to an end is always murder. But it's unclear why we should accept that maxim. For instance, why is it murder to kill the innocent as a means to an end, but not murder to kill the innocent so long as that's not a means to an end? What makes the means-ends relation rather than innocence the moral differential factor? 

15. Critics typically focus on the immunity of noncombatants. But that's a complex issue:

i) On the face of it, it's arbitrary to say naval ports and munitions plants are off-limits. Likewise, military technology may depend on a handful of innovative scientists. If you can assassinate the scientists, you may save hundreds of thousands (or millions) of enemy combatants–not to mention your own soldiers. What makes that tradeoff morally illicit?

By the same token, a military dictator is not a combatant. He just gives the orders. But if he's assassinated, it may spare the lives of hundreds of thousands (or millions) of enemy combatants–not to mention your own soldiers. What makes that tradeoff morally illicit?

ii) What if you attack a soft target because that's the most effective way of achieving the strategic objective? Your aim is to defeat the enemy and end the war. You attack the enemy at his point of weakness, not his point of strength. You attack him indirectly by going after supply lines or support services. You do that both because it's easier and more expeditious. 

iii) I don't think that the immunity of noncombatants is a worthless principle. But the arguments for making noncombatants a protected class overgeneralize. Here's a better way to frame the distinction:

a) It's prima facie wrong to target noncombatants. It's wrong to target noncombatants if more selective methods are available.

b) As a rule, combatants are more dangerous than noncombatants. They generally pose a more immediate threat. But that's not absolute.

c) We should distinguish between wartime activities (e.g. munitions plants) and peacetime activities (e.g. farming). Even though many peacetime activities incidentally support the war effort, these activities would take place apart from war. 

d) I'd recast just-war criteria like proportionality and immunity of noncombatants in terms of avoiding gratuitous harm. That's a sounder principle. In situations where targeting noncombatants or disproportionate force inflicts gratuitous harm, that is morally illicit. 

There are, however, situations where targeting noncombatants and using disproportionate force does not inflict gratuitous harm. Rather, that's a rational tactic in the absence of superior alternatives. 

16. One objection that Anscombe raised to nuking Japan is that we didn't give the inhabitants advance notice. But a problem with that objection is that warning them would give Japanese combatants an opportunity to evacuate and regroup. 

17. I've read that in Nagasaki, military production was in part a cottage industry. That makes it harder to maintain the combatant/noncombatant distinction. 

18. The strongest objection I've seen to nuking Nagasaki is that this was the center of Christianity in Japan. Christianity only had a toehold in Japan to begin with, and nuking Nagasaki decimated what little Christian presence there was in Japan. 

That, per se, is not an objection to nuking Japanese cities, but that particular city. 

19. Many war historians defend Truman's action. I find their arguments persuasive. However, my primary objective in this post has been on how to frame military ethics. I'm less committed to defending our action in Japan, although I think that's reasonable. For instance:


  1. 18. The strongest objection I've seen to nuking Nagasaki is that this was the center of Christianity in Japan. Christianity only had a toehold in Japan to begin with, and nuking Nagasaki decimated what little Christian presence there was in Japan.

    For those who don't know later this year Martin Scorsese is releasing a remake of the 1971 movie titled Silence which is based on Shusaku Endo's book by the same title. The book and movies are about the persecution of Catholics and Christianity in Japan during the 17th century. I saw the 1971 movie last week and wasn't impressed. I trust Scorsese will add his usual liberal Catholic spin to his version.

  2. Thank you for writing this Steve.

  3. As far as Hiroshima and Nagasaki are concerned:

    1. The Soviets had been planning to move into Manchuria in China (Manchukuo). They wanted a piece of Asia including Japan for themselves. So there was a significant time factor involved. If we hadn't dropped the bombs and forced a surrender from Japan, it could've been a much longer and drawn out end to WW2, and the Soviets could've occupied a lot of Asia by the time it was over. Asian geopolitics might have looked very different under Soviet occupation at the end of WW2.

    2. Also, my understanding is most average Japanese soldiers were largely committed to serving the emperor, as interpreted through the militarism of the Japanese leadership at the time. Bushido, etc. We had to destroy this emperor worship as well. However, we couldn't do so by directly attacking the emperor or military leadership since that would take a land invasion. The nukes were the next best thing, I suppose. The nukes led to a coup in the Japanese military leadership, and the new leadership immediately surrendered to the US.

    3. And, of course, the Japanese committed many atrocities such as Unit 731, the Burma Railway, the Rape of Nanking (where about 300k Chinese died, most of whom were civilians or soldiers who had already surrendered, and of course many, many women were raped), the Bataan Death March, Pearl Harbor as a surprise ambush, etc. It's conceivable more atrocities would've been committed had we not stopped the Japanese with the bombs.

  4. Regarding point #16, the US did drop millions of leaflets across Japan warning the Japanese that they were in danger. Granted Hiroshima wasn't listed, but the Japanese were given notice.