Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pacifism and total war

Gen. Curtis LeMay made some hair-raising statements about war. Among other things, he's credited with saying:

If you kill enough of them, they stop fighting. 
Killing Japanese didn't bother me very much at that time... I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.... Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier. 
As far as casualties were concerned I think there were more casualties in the first attack on Tokyo with incendiaries than there were with the first use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The fact that it's done instantaneously, maybe that's more humane than incendiary attacks, if you can call any war act humane. I don't, particularly, so to me there wasn't much difference. A weapon is a weapon and it really doesn't make much difference how you kill a man. If you have to kill him, well, that's the evil to start with and how you do it becomes pretty secondary. I think your choice should be which weapon is the most efficient and most likely to get the whole mess over with as early as possible. 
If you are going to use military force, then you ought to use overwhelming military force. Use too much and deliberately use too much... You'll save lives, not only your own, but the enemy's too. 
I had blood upon my hands as I did this, but not because I preferred to bathe in blood. It was because I was part of a primitive world where men still had to kill in order to avoid being killed, or in order to avoid having their beloved Nation stricken and emasculated.

I haven't bothered to verify these quotes from primary sources because the objective of this post is not to assess Gen. LaMay's character. I cite them because they express a certain outlook which I'd like to assess.

What's ironic about these quotes is that LeMay shares the same premise as the pacifist. Both agree that war is immoral. But LaMay takes that in the opposite direction. For LaMay, war is both immoral and inevitable: an unavoidable evil. Given that dilemma, the best way to wage war is to get it over with as soon as possible. Use overwhelming force. Don't hold back. By taking more lives in the short-term, you save more lives in the long-term. 

His position is not amoral. He believes that since there are no moral options in this situation, the best course of action is to win by any means necessary so that it doesn't take any longer than necessary. The sooner it's over with, the better for all parties concerned. 

From what I can tell, Gen. Sherman had the same philosophy, although I think he liked killing more than he let on. 

The extremes of pacifism and total war meet in Curtis LaMay. Pacifism generates an ethical dilemma. If you tell a man like him that warfare is intrinsically evil, then the effect is not to restrain him, but to remove any moral restraint whatsoever. He infers that since there is no right thing to do in this situation, ruthless efficiency is the tiebreaker. It's a short step from pacifism to pragmatism. 

1 comment:

  1. How, then, does one end a bloodbath, particularly when the distinction between soldier and civilian is blurred as in many modern conflicts? LeMay may have been a prgmatist, but the Japanese would not surrender despite his bombing campaign and catastrophic combat losses, and the people stood behind the war. Nonetheless there was no organized brutality against civilians by the US occupying forces, which is a lot better than the South received at the hands of Sherman, who also condoned brutality towards the "contrabands." LeMay's position seems to be that war presents a tragic moral choice best solved by choosing the greater good/lesser evil.