Monday, July 18, 2011

The strange ethical paradox of mass slaughter from the air

The July-August issue of The National Interest carries a good review by Richard Overy of Martin van Creveld's most recent book, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. This passage was particularly striking:
[N]o Allied commander would have sent his troops into Hamburg with orders to machine-gun thirty-seven thousand of its inhabitants. It would unquestionably have been a war crime. But Allied aircraft killed just that number in July 1943, and there has never been even the merest suggestion that those who ordered the raid ought to have stood trial after 1945 (though there is now a widely held view that this was a war crime). Indeed, bombing killed hundreds of thousands in horrible ways. What made this kind of airpower different?
Overy hints at a few stale rationalizations, from the all-justifying horrors of the Nazi regime to the absurd suggestion that civilians were not expressly targeted by the bombing campaigns, to which the very psychological-philosophical foundations of Douhet's own airpower theory gives the lie.

So: how is it that William Calley is so reviled for the killing of 22 Vietnamese civilians while Harry Truman is largely forgiven for the killing of perhaps 200,000 Japanese civilians? Why is tactical atrocity punished while strategic atrocity is applauded?

32 comments:

  1. I had a professor in grad school who wrote a manuscript on the ethics of the Hiroshima bombing that may be of interest to you. Picture here: https://picasaweb.google.com/112421419220963429262/Hiroshima?authkey=Gv1sRgCMHut86b0pP2ngE#5630793393950776530

    To my knowledge he hasn't published it yet, but if we ever catch up I'll loan you my copy. It is really thoughtful.

    The prof's bio is here: http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/wintersf/?PageTemplateID=81

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  2. Clausewitz Book 8: "No war is commenced, or, at least, no war should be commenced, if people acted wisely, without saying to themselves, What is to be attained by and in the same; the first is the final object; the other is the intermediate aim. By this chief consideration the whole course of the war is prescribed, the extent of the means and the measure of energy are determined; its influence manifests itself down to the smallest organ of action."

    and,

    "If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form."

    WWII was the definition of an absolute war requiring absolute means....because the policy behind it was absolute: the unconditional surrender of the enemy. The enemy, unlike in limited counterinsurgency wars, needed to be completely crushed necessitating absolute surrender. I know there is valid study out there questioning the effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaigns but it was an acceptable use - by all belligerents - at the time.

    In any event, we can't look at Truman through today's moral lens in the prosecution of his war in his time and place. We have different standards today just as the standards of WWI tactics and operations made generals of WWII shudder.

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  3. kotkinjs1 -- As much as I appreciate Clausewitz, I'm not sure he's terribly instructive on this question (and further, I'm not sure I agree with the way you've applied his writings here). For one thing, Clausewitz wasn't an ethicist but a theorist. For another, if his theories do in fact justify "absolute war" in order to facilitate the enemy's total surrender, then why should "absolute war" at the tactical level not be similarly acceptable? Why would it be less appropriate for those 37,000 German civilians to have been machine-gunned by infantry battalions?

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  4. I don't think they're justifications as much as warnings; he was warning of us the probable extremes encountered when attempting to achieve absolute aims and getting to those absolutes before we realize it and can step back for a breather. The theory only says that absolute policy will require absolute strategy to achieve those ends....and if you are aware of that and comfortable with it, then at least you know the kind of war you're entering. Something Truman knew full well.

    But absolute war at the 'tactical level' was inappropriate (without speaking to the morality of it) simply due to logistics. X-number of B17 crews and their support was far cheaper and less riskier than an air bone invasion with enough troops to and ammunition to achieve the same tally. And at the end of the day, that's the risk analysis Truman used in Japan, no? An armed invasion versus the cost of 1 atomic-armed B29.

    In any event, it was the required policy of the time, absolute, unconditional surrender. That kind of policy necessitated an absolute strategy of bringing the war to the enemy population. At least that's what the military planners at the time thought was suitable, feasible, let alone acceptable. They didn't see any other way and looking at the expected casualty lists of an invasion of the home islands, can anyone blame them?

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  5. You're having a different conversation than I am. Few people doubt the military effectiveness of the atomic bomb (or the firebombing campaigns, for that matter); after all, its use achieved the national objective of unconditional surrender.

    The question at hand isn't whether maximalist means are well-suited to the accomplishment of maximalist ends. That's a whole different subject, and one for which Clausewitz is apt. Here we're wondering why the large-scale targeting of civilian populations from the air is more ethically defensible and popularly tolerable than the killing of noncombatants by small arms. As Overy quite clearly points out, few people would have excused a commander who ordered his riflemen to execute 37,000 German civilians; their death by bomb was almost an unremarkable commonplace.

    I don't believe it's your contention that an atrocity is no longer an atrocity if it's militarily effective. Even if an otherwise unacceptable act can be sometimes justified by the avoidance of a less palatable alternative, the invasion-versus-firebombing choice didn't hold in Europe -- the invasion happened anyway, and was always going to.

    So we're back where we started: why is it ok to deliberately kill civilians with a plane, but not with small arms?

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  6. "why is it ok to deliberately kill civilians with a plane, but not with small arms"

    Maybe because once you are close enough to kill civilians with small arms, you are also close enough to subdue them without killing. In 1943, the only way to directly attack civilians in Germany was from the air.

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  7. First, I suppose if you pose the question thus: why is it ok to deliberately kill civilians with a plane, but not with small arms?, it's never ok to deliberately kill civilians.

    So let's examine the extreme reverse of this question: should a liberal democracy sacrifice its existence to a totalitarian belligerent if preserving that existence requires the deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of the belligerent's civilian population?

    To speak more directly to your point:

    The My Lai Massacre was neither a tactical device calculated to achieve any cognizable military or political objective nor was it self defense. This is the first of many distinctions between inflicting massive civilian casualties, not as the actual intent of the mission, but rather as the byproduct of a grossly inefficient but technologically achievable means of striking war making capacity from long distance.

    With respect, you posit My Lai vs Ending WWII as having moral equivalency.

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  8. amhendrick -- Maybe because once you are close enough to kill civilians with small arms, you are also close enough to subdue them without killing. In 1943, the only way to directly attack civilians in Germany was from the air.

    I hope you won't find this rude, but I think that explanation is absurd. I suppose what you mean to suggest is that aerial bombardment of civilians is a means to exert control over their behavior from afar, without actually asserting physical control. (Douhet thought you could bomb civilians into making their government quit the war.) But firebombing in Europe didn't exactly succeed in subduing anyone. And the Japanese population was ready to quit the war long before the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet the fight continued on.

    What's more troubling is that this view seems to be premised on the belief that it's reasonably simple to exert behavioral control over a subject population through means other than physical compulsion or outright destruction, so long as you master the territory. But what if it isn't? What if "you are also close enough to subdue them without killing," but that just doesn't work? Is it then acceptable to machine-gun noncombatants?

    Somehow we keep pivoting back around to questions of military effectiveness, which wasn't exactly the intent. But since it's continually been brought up, this seems a good time to note that strategic bombing is a fraud. 37,000 civilians were killed in Hamburg in one month to no real tangible military end. Douhet was wrong. So we can just go ahead and throw out the "we had to do it to win!" rationale; we no more had to firebomb Dresden than to machine-gun civilians. (The argument for the atomic bombs is, of course, more complicated.)

    So again: what's the difference?

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  9. this seems a good time to note that strategic bombing is a fraud. 37,000 civilians were killed in Hamburg in one month to no real tangible military end. Douhet was wrong. So we can just go ahead and throw out the "we had to do it to win!" rationale; we no more had to firebomb Dresden than to machine-gun civilians.

    And this was well known and widely accepted as true at the time, yet the US/UK et al went forward anyway, wantonly inflicting mass civilian casualties for no better reason than they could?

    Please.

    I don't think any responsible historian claims the strategic bombing campaign was entirely ineffective; rather, it simply fell well short of its intended goal of bombing the German population into submission. No one has the calculus that would permit a reasonable approximation of how much longer the war would have lasted and what allied casualties would have been without bombing war making capacity.

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  10. McKinneyTexas -- Welcome, neighbor! (I'm a fellow Collin County-ite, though not there anymore.)

    First, I suppose if you pose the question thus: why is it ok to deliberately kill civilians with a plane, but not with small arms?, it's never ok to deliberately kill civilians.

    I'm not sure this supposition is correct. My argument isn't that it is intolerable in all cases, only that the popular distinction in this specific case is inappropriate.

    So let's examine the extreme reverse of this question: should a liberal democracy sacrifice its existence to a totalitarian belligerent if preserving that existence requires the deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of the belligerent's civilian population?

    That's a perfectly reasonable thought experiment, but it's one that doesn't apply to Hamburg or Dresden or really even Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (To indulge this tangent for just a moment: I'd argue that it is not only acceptable but morally imperative for a representative government to choose the lives of its citizens over those of another state in the almost incomprehensible scenario where a choice between the two was both clear and necessary. But that is so far from the reality of World War II or any other known conflict as to make such philosophical parallels absurd.)

    To speak more directly to your point:

    The My Lai Massacre was neither a tactical device calculated to achieve any cognizable military or political objective nor was it self defense. This is the first of many distinctions between inflicting massive civilian casualties, not as the actual intent of the mission, but rather as the byproduct of a grossly inefficient but technologically achievable means of striking war making capacity from long distance.

    With respect, you posit My Lai vs Ending WWII as having moral equivalency.


    It's very simple to quickly dispose of comparisons between My Lai and Hiroshima, of course. The point of this post is precisely to draw moral equivalency between the two -- not necessarily to say that they are exactly morally equivalent, but to explore the reasons why one is considered more moral than the other.

    Calculations of military utility obviously inform this distinction, but then what of the fact that a great deal of aerial bombardment accomplished precisely nothing? You suggest that the tens of thousands of civilians who were killed by airplanes during WWII were all simply the victims of imprecise weapons, but this is clearly incorrect; even the U.S. government abandoned that fiction long ago. This wasn't mere "collateral damage": Douhet and his fellow airpower zealots premised their theory of strategic bombing on the belief that they could manipulate public will (and hence government action) in the target population by terrorizing it. Some would argue perversely that this in fact constituted a more humane form of war, intended as it was to make hostilities sharp and short and to spare the suffering of an extended conflict.

    But: it doesn't work!

    And again, I gave the My Lai example to present the question in stark terms, but Overy's thought experiment is a much better one. If it's ok to try to bomb civilians into submission (ostensibly in pursuit of the military objective of popular panic and an eventual suspension of enemy operations, or even the overthrow of his government), then why isn't it ok to machine-gun them into submission? Let's imagine that we're working toward the same supposedly existential purpose in both cases. If absolute savagery can be justified in the service of a maximalist objective, then why not lesser, scaled-down forms of atrocity? Why not decimation? Why not the razzia? Why not coercive rape?

    I simply can't believe that you're arguing all means are justified so long as they're in pursuit of maximalist objectives.

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  11. And this was well known and widely accepted as true at the time, yet the US/UK et al went forward anyway, wantonly inflicting mass civilian casualties for no better reason than they could?

    Please.


    No, of course not. Our planners continued to plan and order bombing missions both because they had few other tools at their disposal and because they had high hopes for their success. But if I pulled all the military-aged men of an occupied town out of their beds, stood them against the wall, and put bullets in them in an attempt to pacify the area by cowing the rest of the population into submission, I could reasonably be held to account for whether those actions were either moral or militarily effective. Why should not the same be true for things that actually happened?

    I don't think any responsible historian claims the strategic bombing campaign was entirely ineffective; rather, it simply fell well short of its intended goal of bombing the German population into submission. No one has the calculus that would permit a reasonable approximation of how much longer the war would have lasted and what allied casualties would have been without bombing war making capacity.

    You keep focusing on the targeting of "war making capacity," but Hamburg and Dresden and Tokyo were not firebombed to cripple "war making capacity," nor was that the target of the atomic bombs... unless, like Douhet's acolytes, you believe that "war making capacity" is fundamentally based in the morale of the civilian population.

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  12. There is no moral equivalency. I think splitting angels fails to embrace responsibility, as we all should. Ironic because the posts make a show of extending responsibility or increasing the profile of moral culpability, but in fact they dilute it and help keep it an abstraction.

    That's not because there isn't a war-crime argument to be made about B-29's over Tokyo, or predators over Yemen--there is. It's because this dichotomy imagines that Calley is the worst we can be, that Calley ordering the slaughter is the safest perspective to theorize about what is wrong and what is right.

    Calley's actions had no tactical value in fact or in his (or his superiors') understanding at the time. That makes it a particularly raw category of slaughter, but does little or nothing to parse the question of where the crimes begin or end.

    Since then a justification has been provided--the civilians were harboring and succoring the Vietcong, sent a message, cut a supply line, etc. No credible evidence exists that this was true, or even considered possible at the time, except among the most deluded strategists. More importantly, there was an assumption that this (and the other actions like it) could be kept hidden from the political side. Calley was just the one who became unequivocally visible.

    I believe that even offering My Lai as a point of comparison is offensive. The prosecution of that war, and of all wars, included many large-scale tactics that were fatal to civilians just as certainly as the bullets from the Armalites of Calley's platoon and all of C Company. It's an artificial distinction that somehow you have to see the whites of their eyes to make it worthy of discussion or comparison to something else.

    Even the most callous bombings in World War II had tactical purposes that were persuasive to the strategists of the time. And of course there was no notion that these things would be secret; the raids were reported accurately in the press. Much has been made of the Dresden attack as an experiment in causing the "firestorm", so perhaps that's the least justifiable of them (even accounting for the cultural drift of Slaughterhouse-5).

    Even so, and even excepting the dehumanization of the enemy and the random or total nature of the destruction, there were clear non-secret military purposes in play. German manufacturing and labor processes were very durable despite the bombing. Bomber losses were very high even after nearly complete air superiority from bases in Europe starting in '44. The German AAA was very effective and there was real doubt that even high altitude bombing could be maintained at a rate that would degrade German military effectiveness at all. For example, despite all the losses and the raids the Allies never really finished off Ploieşti; it was still working when the Soviets arrived. That was frightening to planners, as was the tenacity of resistance and the losses even before the Bulge.

    Japan is an even clearer case. You do not even have to make some kind of case of distorted morality or poor intelligence. The Japanese had demonstrated--indeed, published--their plans for homeland defense. Honest planning of ground campaigns on mainland Japan expected a million casualties (and would have involved quite a lot of whites-of-their-eyes civilian slaughter as well.) Much of Japanese industrial work had been moved into civilian areas, even private homes. The entire society had been militarized.

    It isn't a matter of defending any particular tactic; it's a simple admission that there is no complex sequence of arguments that makes a valuable case about the place where war crimes begin, and the precious negotiation on that question obscures our culture-wide responsibility.

    ice9

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  13. ice9 -- Appreciate your comments. They're worthy of a more thoughtful response, but for now you might be interested in this.

    While Secretary of War Stimson speculated an invasion that could cost 1 million American lives would be required to assure Japanese surrender without use of the bomb, other senior U.S. leaders thought continued firebombing and blockade could be effective. This latter viewpoint was supported by the results of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, conducted in 1946, in which "sixty-four percent of the [Japanese] population stated that they had reached a point prior to surrender where they felt personally unable to go on with the war."

    The Survey's Summary Report asserted that "certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." The emphasis here is mine.

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  14. but then what of the fact that a great deal of aerial bombardment accomplished precisely nothing? You suggest that the tens of thousands of civilians who were killed by airplanes during WWII were all simply the victims of imprecise weapons, but this is clearly incorrect; even the U.S. government abandoned that fiction long ago. This wasn't mere "collateral damage": Douhet and his fellow airpower zealots premised their theory of strategic bombing on the belief that they could manipulate public will (and hence government action) in the target population by terrorizing it.

    Two thoughts here.

    First, that "a great deal of aerial bombardment accomplished nothing" is a hindsight assessment and thus inapplicable to the forward-looking ethical premise of whether and when and to what extent can enemy civilian casualties be justified? An argument can be made that the invasion of North Africa, Italy and much of the Pacific Theater were unnecessary in hindsight. The question is whether, not just Douhet, but the consensus generally, was that bombing civilians intentionally was a valid strategy calculated to end the war?

    An interim clarification: bombing of civilian targets other than war industries is defensible--horribly tragic and repugnant, but defensible--if the target has significant transportation, logistic or administrative capacity supporting an adversary's war making efforts. That said, I think Dresden was recognized early on as a mistake. The vast majority of the Allied bombing missions were more justifiably targeted under the then-prevailing ethos.

    Second item: you misinterpret my comment regarding imprecise weapons. Civilians live in close proximity to the industrial, logistics, administrative, transportation and political hubs of any adverse entity. Each of these are valid targets of existential warfare, which is what WWII was. The only means of attacking these targets from long distance was mass attack, high altitude bombing. Highly inefficient and causative of massive civilian casualties.

    If you simply want to argue that bombing civilians for its own sake as a means of compelling surrender is wrong, fine, you win. But the strategic bombing campaign against Japan and Germany was much more than that.

    Final Note: I am from Houston. Last name is McKinney. My handles causes confusion.

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  15. McKinneyTexas -- I am from Houston. Last name is McKinney. My handles causes confusion.

    Roger, my fault.

    Last things first here:

    If you simply want to argue that bombing civilians for its own sake as a means of compelling surrender is wrong, fine, you win. But the strategic bombing campaign against Japan and Germany was much more than that.

    I'll stipulate that in some instances, it was about more than that. I'm even willing to stipulate that there is some justification for attacking targets that are not expressly military, as the line between "war making capacity" and everything else that powers a society is a very, very fuzzy one. (Are farms a legitimate target because they grow the food that powers the war effort?)

    But surely you must also accept that at least some portion of the strategic bombing campaign -- to include the notious firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the employment of atomic weapons -- that had almost nothing to do with any "war making capacity" beyond popular will and commitment to the fight.

    (As an aside, "existential war" is a bit of post-hoc rationalization too, isn't it? Would we have continued fighting to extinction if either the Germans or the Japanese were in possession of a super weapon, or would we have accepted terms if offered? There's the old saw about the chicken and the pig, you know? We were involved, but Russia was committed.)

    We keep squirming away from this, but let's go back to Overy: why should the death-by-shooting of thousands of civilians be intolerable while their death-by-bombing is acceptable? You seem to be saying that the justification is in the war aims, but that doesn't account for this difference.

    Are you telling me that so long as the ground commander who ordered his men to machine-gun 37,000 civilians did so in the fervent, honest, and at least somewhat plausible belief that he was expediting the end of the war, that action would be similarly acceptable?

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  16. Thank you Gulliver for airing these important--and often suppressed--questions.

    To me the fundamental question to ask someone who supports the Hiroshima & Nagasaki attacks has always been: Would you be equally ok with US forces landing on the ground and putting a bullet in the head of 100,000 men, women and children? I fail to see the difference. (And, not to be crass, but I even wonder if those who suffered the longterm radiation and burn effects wouldn't have preferred to die instantly that way.)

    I'm no professional military historian but have read much about the Hiroshima decision. Here are few pertinent facts that have also always troubled me and I'd be interested in the response of those who really know this history.

    -One factor in choosing Hiroshima, apparently, was NOT military/strategic value, but its status as a "virgin target." In other words (as repugnant as this sounds) there were some in the military AND the Manhattan Project who really wanted to measure the damage this new weapon could do for the future. (A previously bombed site wouldn't tell as much about the A-Bomb's unique potency.)

    -This issue of "civilian morale" is germane here in that morale was another big target. Destroying a military installation would have had strategic value, but (so went the thinking) might not have turned the populace against the Emperor.

    -Speaking of the Emperor, I have always found it shocking that after all the insistence on "unconditional surrender" as the reason we had to incinerate 200,000 civilians...we still let them keep the Emperor! Wasn't that supposed to be a major US demand?

    -We can't talk about the political motivations behind the A-bomb decisions without talking about Russia. Yes, the military was understandably worried that a land invasion would cost massive troop casualties. But higher-ups in Washington must have also been concerned about how much TIME an invasion would take--i.e. time in which the Soviets were getting closer and closer to Tokyo. We know Truman admin. was already planning for the postwar balance of power. Clearly there must have been some who favored a swift albeit horrific path to Japanese surrender over a Red Japan. In a post coldwar world now, I feel it incumbent upon us to ask: were 200,000 civilian Japanese casualties worth this chess game between the Superpowers?

    -Finally, about that hypothetical US Invasion.I have never found this a satisfactory justification. First, sorry to be crass again, but soldiers die. I say this as someone whose father actually fought in WWII (in Europe) and clearly I'm glad he made it back home. But when I think of the ordinary men women and children going about their day at 8am one sunny August morning, I feel their loss a lot more tragically than soldiers (albeit drafted soldiers) fully aware of the risks of battle. Yes, in war we must ultimately protect our people over "their" people. But if there are to be any ethics to warfare at all, the sanctity of civilians just has to be put ahead of "combatants."

    -And I've always been skeptical of any arguments of how many US soldiers "would have" perished in a land invasion. Any such claim clearly is a guess, right? Let's be honest--NOBODY knows what "would have" happened. With Japan already declining, troop morale and/or effectiveness may not have been at their intense Iwo Jima levels....Who knows how LONG such a ground campaign would have had to take to compel surrender? Strong initial victories--accompanied maybe by A-Bomb threats (like the "demonstrations" proposed by some Manhattan Project physicists)--might have persuaded the Emperor to make the same deal he ended up making with MacArthur anyway.

    I hope those who disagree with me on these points will at least admit that these bombing decisions were at best incredibly "grey" morally, not black and white. If we are not to condemn Truman, neither, I believe, can we unquestioningly salute him.

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  17. But surely you must also accept that at least some portion of the strategic bombing campaign -- to include the notious firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the employment of atomic weapons -- that had almost nothing to do with any "war making capacity" beyond popular will and commitment to the fight.

    We need to decouple Dresden from Tokyo from Hiroshima/Nagasaki. I spot you that Dresden was recognized as a mistake early on. Tokyo was the nation's capital. Yes, a fuzzy line, but it was not gratuitous. Hiroshima/Nagasaki both had military/war-making/war-supporting value. And, they did end the war. The 1946 Survey was after the fact guessing with Hiroshima/Nagasaki very much on everyone's mind. Of course, people would say, after having been defeated, "yes, we would have quit without having been nuked."

    Are you telling me that so long as the ground commander who ordered his men to machine-gun 37,000 civilians did so in the fervent, honest, and at least somewhat plausible belief that he was expediting the end of the war, that action would be similarly acceptable?

    No, you are moving goal posts. There is a fundamental moral difference between arbitrarily massacring 37 thousand civilians and bombing strategic targets with civilian causalities as collateral damage. One has a legitimate military objective, the other does not.

    Now, if you are asking the philosophical, never-to-be-seen-in-the-real-world question: if we could save 500,000 military casualties on both sides by the arbitrary sacrifice of 37,000 civilians, which is the right call? Well, if that's the question, I don't really have an answer.

    You started off with My Lai and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. I made the clear distinction. Calley had no purpose to his actions, Truman did. And, as it happened, it did end the war. In that case, the end justified the means.

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  18. Would you be equally ok with US forces landing on the ground and putting a bullet in the head of 100,000 men, women and children? I fail to see the difference.

    Well, here's the difference: two massive, never-before-seen-in-human-history explosions ended a war that started in the early 1930's and produced millions of casualties. The Japanese had been wantonly executing civilians for at least 10 years, with no good result (that is, good from an imperialist conqueror perspective, since the Chinese, Filipinos etc kept fighting).

    You're right: no one knows what would have happened had things been done differently. But, we do know what did, in fact, happen. And the casualty projections for an invasion did have a basis in fact.

    War is an inherently amoral enterprise at best. Our ethos today is not what it was then. Judged by the standards of the day, and particularly by the standards of our opponents and one of our allies, we were definitely the good guys.

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  19. Thanks for the reply, McKinney. But to be fair you didn't really answer my question. Would YOU be equally ok with the bullet in the head scenario? Your answer simply explains why you're ok with the A-Bombs being used. But I am simply asking, would you use the same reasons to back up a "take no prisoners" ground attack on those 100,000 civilians? I am assuming you would since you believe the ends justified the means. So why not these other--more down and dirty--means?

    Basically I share with Gulliver some confusion over why the A-Bombs were any "better" way (morally, that is, not more effective) to kill 100,000 enemy civilians than hand to hand combat. So I would respect your arguments MORE, McKinney, if you believed that BOTH scenarios were EQUALLY justifiable.

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  20. My lai cost excess lives, the atomic (arguably) saved lives by ending the war sooner. Thats the main difference that i see.

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  21. "I hope you won't find this rude"

    No, I don't find it rude, and I hope you don't think I am callous. You asked an interesting question. I do think there is a difference, and I am simply trying to work through the distinction.

    The point I was trying to make is this:

    In 1943, if the allies want to destroy the city of Hamburg’s ability to support the German war effort, the only way to do so was by bombing. The Allies couldn’t have rounded up civilians to be shot until 1945 when the city was captured. At that point, the city and its people are no longer part of the war. The war is over, at least for Hamburg. The people there no longer have the power to resist. I think it is immoral to kill people who don’t have the power to resist.

    If somehow the Allies could have used special forces to infiltrate the city in 1943 and kill civilians, would that have been immoral? I don’t know, but it wasn’t really an option.

    Some clarifying points: First, it makes a difference when we’re talking about WWII. That was a different kind of war than Vietnam (at least from the American point of view). Second, as far as I know, German civilians didn’t really offer resistance once their cities were taken by the Allies (perhaps because they had been so thoroughly defeated, in part, by bombing). So the question of insurgencies aren’t an issue with WWII. Finally, although civilians don’t have the power individually to resist bombing, they do collectively, as the Germans did through fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire.

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  22. McKinneyTexas -- I'm sort of running out of steam here on making the same points over and over, but let's give this one more go.

    You continue to insist that the targets of strategic bombing -- including Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- were chosen for their material contribution to the enemy's war effort, this despite the fact that it is plainly at odds with the historical record. I linked to this before, but let's try another excerpt:

    When the war with Germany ended prior to the successful fielding of the atom bomb, President Truman set up what was called the "Interim Committee" to advise him on whether or not the weapon should be used against Japan. The members of the committee (among them the presidents of Harvard and MIT) unanimously recommended on 01 June 1945 "that the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers' homes; and that it be used without prior warning." (p. 25)

    And another:

    The committee that drew up a possible target list for the bomb expressly avoided those cities that had been previously subjected to American firebombing, as the effects of prior raids would make it difficult to evaluate the destructive impact of the atom bomb. (p. 25)

    The atomic bomb was intended to terrorize the enemy into immediate surrender, simple as. The point was not destruction of military facilities or degredation of industrial capacity, but fearsome and terrifying mass death.

    The specific technology of killing should be irrelevant here if both are applied in pursuit of the same objective.

    After all of this, your argument suggests to me that the real value of aerial bombardment is that it allows its apologists to pretend as if its primary objective was in fact simply an unfortunate coincident effect.

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  23. The Playgoer -- To address some of your questions in the 1:27 comment, check out this link.

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  24. A number of interesting questions and responses here. I hope y'all don't mind my interjecting a few of my own.

    To begin, it is my understanding that a sort of "rule of thumb", and quite possibly part of the Geneva Conventions, is that a certain amount of non-combatant loss is acceptable if it comes about as part of a reasonable military goal. Another is that while it is wrong to target civilian targets, if the "enemy" makes military use of them, then they become legitimate targets. So, while it would normally be wrong to shell a hospital, if a combatant places artillery on the roof, then the hos[ital becomes a legitimate target. But, it would be improper to blow up the entire hospital building if the guns on the roof could be destroyed by other means and with *reasonable* losses (combatants are not required to sustain massive casualties because of the other side's "misbehavior").

    I concede there is a lot of vagueness in the preceding. But in an attempt to apply it to the discussion at hand, I'd suggest the following: Strategic bombing (at least WRT the Americans) was always presumed to be trying to hit a legitimate military target (factories, railways, etc.).

    The area firebombings in Japan were justified on similar grounds. It was argued that surrounding the major factories were numerous small workshops supplying them with parts, and that some work was even done in homes. Therefore, firebombing was the most efficient means of destroying this infrastructure.

    Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had legitimate military targets within them. It's a fair question to ask if they required area bombing.

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  25. This so-called "ethical dilemma" regarding Truman's ending of WW2 is simply a counterfactual.

    1) Do the research on Operations Zipper and Tiderace. Over 1 million British troops would have been lost - immediately - due to the horrible selection of beach. The troops landed anyway; the Japanese who were standing in full battle dress waiting to ceremonially surrender had to send out assistance so that the Allied forces could make their way up to the Japanese positions.

    2) Japan had given zero indication of any desire to surrender prior to the bombs. The fighting on Iwo Jima was ridiculously intense - and there is no reason to presume that anything would have been different regarding an invasion of Japan. Do the research on Olympic and Coronet - at a minimum, America loses 1M soldiers.

    "Had Olympic come about, the Japanese civilian population, inflamed by a national slogan - "One Hundred Million Will Die for the Emperor and Nation" - were prepared to fight to the death. 28 million Japanese had become a part of the National Volunteer Combat Force."

    3) Truman's job is to end the war as quickly as possible.. to end the deaths of US servicemen.


    If you want to condemn Truman for dropping bombs, your job is to explain why you are willing to accept the loss of millions in order to save thousands.

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  26. Unsympathetic -- This so-called "ethical dilemma" regarding Truman's ending of WW2 is simply a counterfactual.

    Surely you recognize the irony in making this statement and then proceeding to traffic in counterfactuals, right?

    You're of course entitled to your own opinions, your own analysis, and your own estimates, but your fervent belief cannot make those things into facts. You can trot out sources that support your pre-formed conclusion, and I can give you plenty of sources that make conflicting statements (both contemporary and modern). So don't rock up at the tail end of a thread that includes more than two dozen thoughtful comments and suggest that we all just ought to take a look at the facts.

    This post didn't start off being about the atomic bomb, about misinterpretations of Clausewitz that demand ceasless escalation to total war, about utilitarian military ethics, or about 1946 counterfactuals. It started off as an exploration of the curious psychological tic that lets us view the mass killing of civilians as a permissible coercive policy tool so long as it's done with air weapons and not a man's personal weapon. That's it. So no, I don't think it is my job to explain the philosophical foundations for the general social consensus that civilian life is privileged over combatant life.

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  27. I will take a crack at your original question, but bear in mind that I'm my only source.

    (Originally, I was going to trot out a tired "red button vs. whites of their eyes" approach; although I think the distance between the shooter to the target plays a role in whether we believe an act constituetes a war crime)

    Ultimately the cause of atrocity is a question of information and it's perception, and you can think of it best by picturing the offending act as creating an object, let's say spherical that is also shiny and black. The size and color of this object is a function of the brutality of the act, the distance to target, the "newness" of the technology used to create it and so on. Thus, if I corner an Afghan family in their mud hut and carve them up with my Ka-bar, I create a handful of fairly significant shiny black balls, whereas if I shoot a Taliban fighter off of a ridge, that ball is a little smaller. If I flatten a few tents in the desert with a cruise missile, that ball is quite small. The downside (if you're the offender) to this is that these balls are re-created as the information is passed among individuals, and may be why we see less atrocity as the internet speeds things up. The upside is that we also get to view these little black balls through a variety of filters that have the potential to lighten the blackness a little bit and make those balls easier to handle. Those filters come in the form of popular explanations of Truman's decisions, such as the loss of a million Americans, swift end to the war and so on. Calley doesn't get alot of filters because there aren't many things that happened to his Platoon that provide a very good excuse to mow down a village (I'm simplifying, I know). Calley's atrocities are also shared by everyone who read's the Time article, or watches the history channel show about My Lai, etc, so the collective weight of all those balls outweighs Truman's.

    Danielw350

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  28. Because strategy trumps tactics, and the victor writes the history.

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  29. Because strategy trumps tactics, and the victor writes the history.

    Well that's cute (and totally meaningless).

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  30. If you really want to rile up some people, take a look at military reading lists and see how many of the books on them include things that will make your local JAG, really, really unhappy. Not to mention very unCOINlike behavior. I mean, Marines pulling gold teeth out of the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers, double taps, shooting prisoners (Oh say HI! Band of Brothers, he only made LtCol) and various other deeds that are run the gamut from ignored, to endured, to encouraged to celebrated. In fact, you could make a weekly column of pick your favorite line that just happens to supposed to be read by every LCpl or Spc.

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  31. The atomic bomb was intended to terrorize the enemy into immediate surrender, simple as. The point was not destruction of military facilities or degredation of industrial capacity, but fearsome and terrifying mass death.

    That was certainly the primary goal. Picking unbombed cities makes sense because there is no point in making the rubble jump. That said, it is also true that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had military value. Bombing those cities was not the same as rounding up 100,000 civilians and executing them (shooting them in the head).

    And to respond to the other question: the difference between a head shot and a nuclear explosion is that the latter intimidates the national leadership into surrender. I thought this was obvious.

    Further, the issue from the beginning is what distinguishes Lt. Calley from Harry Truman. The answer is: Calley's acts had no military or political purpose whatsoever, they were wanton murder of unarmed civilians. The difference between wanton murder of unarmed civilians a la Calley and ending WWII is the intent and goal of the military action employed. Ending a war, even with horrific localized casualties, can be--and in this case, was--superior to prolonging a war and incurring much higher casualties on all sides.

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  32. I find it interesting that we are comparing Calley vs Lancasters over Hamburg, or B-29s over Japan, and not the more contemporaneous B-52s over Cambodia or Laos.

    Acting with the consent of one's chain of command has something to do with the differences here, too. Ultimately the buck for Hiroshima did stop with Truman, and the decisions over WW2 strategic bombing were made with the full knowledge and consent of America and Britain's elected leadership. That makes it difficult (without repudiating that leadership root and branch) to condemn the bombers. You couldn't just jail or execute Harris or LeMay.

    The documentary evidence shows that opposition to continued aerial terror operations in Europe had been growing as the intelligence made increasingly clear that the Germans couldn't be bombed into surrender. What made sense as the only way an embattled Britain could strike any blow at all against Germans in 1942 was rightly seen as tantamount to evil by late 1944. You can certainly argue that this should have been known even sooner, and once it was known to his superiors, Arthur Harris and Bomber Command should have been more decisively reined in, with Harris probably fired.

    The USAAF refusal to participate in terror raids in Germany, and continuing to use what they considered "precision" bombing against military facilities, is to their great credit. However, LeMay's aggressive firebomb terror raids against Japan pre-Hiroshima do much to take that moral victory away, however, and in the context of "great war crimes of the 20th century" are perhaps even harder to defend morally than Bomber Command's many excesses.

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