Monday, June 18, 2012

"Thank God for the atom bomb"?


Libby Sternberg has a fine post in which she uses the passing of writer Paul Fussel to reflect on the agonizing decision in 1945.

Were we right to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The justifications for doing so are strong. We insisted on unconditional surrender and occupation of Japan, which was a reasonable insistence, given our experience with a resurgent Germany following WWI. Yet Operation Downfall (the planned invasion of Japan) would have entailed almost inconceivable numbers of casualties. There would have been between a half-million and a million American and allied battle deaths. Upwards of ten million Japanese would have died, mostly civilians, not only from battle but from starvation and disease caused by the quarantine of the Japanese islands. Furthermore, mass killing of Japanese civilians was already underway. The saturation bombing of Japanese cities with conventional bombs had already killed several times the number of civilians who were killed in the atomic bombings. And Japan was unequivocally the aggressor in the Pacific war. Our participation in the war was a just reaction to aggression.

My father was a gunner on a bomber in the Pacific war, and would have been involved in the invasion of Japan. He may not have survived. He was a member of the occupation forces after the Japanese surrendered, and he developed a life-long love and respect for the Japanese people. Yet he told me that he supported the atomic bombing, as a tragic but necessary way to save Japanese and American lives.

The arguments in defense of dropping the atomic bombs on Japanese cities are clear and credible.

Yet they are utilitarian, and it is there that I disagree.

The problem with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that civilians were the deliberate targets. That is also the problem with the conventional bombing of Tokyo and Yokohama and Toyama and Dresden and Frankfort and Cologne. And of course deliberate targeting of civilians was done in the bombing of London and Warsaw and Frampol and Rotterdam. Destite the yawning ethical gulf between the Allies and the Axis, both sides targeted civilians. Did targeting of civilians achieve military goals, that would otherwise be considered defensible? Sometimes yes (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Sometimes no (London and Dresden).

The ethical breech is this: it is never ethical to do evil (intentionally kill civilians) in order to do good (win a war).  The magnitude of the good is irrelevant. For example, one may not save ten lives by killing an innocent person and harvesting all of his organs for transplantation. If the innocent person were to die accidently, it would of course be ethical to transplant his organs (with consent). But it would never be ethical to kill him in order to obtain his organs, regardless of how many lives would be saved.

Therein lies the problem with utilitarian ethics. It seduces us with an obvious good (organ transplantation or avoidance of battle deaths) by enticing us to commit evil.

If the evil is an unintentional and unavoidable by-product of the effort to do good, then the act may be ethical (principle of double-effect). If a pregnant mother has cancer, it is ethical for her to receive chemotherapy, even if it may kill the unborn child, because the intent is to save her life and the death of the child would be unintentional and unavoidable. If, on the other hand, the mother had eclampsia (high blood pressure and seizures associated with pregnancy), it would be unethical to abort the child, because killing the child is then intentional. It is never ethical to do evil as a means of doing good. This is the principle of double-effect, which is at the core of Catholic ethical teaching. An evil means never justifies an end.

The same applies in war. It is never ethical to intentionally kill non-combatants. Even the killing of combatants is ethical only if the purpose is to stop the enemy nation from doing evil, and no other way of doing so is feasible. Killing enemy soldiers out of revenge or hate is unethical. If civilian deaths in war cannot be avoided, the unintentional killing of civilians during a legitimate military engagement may be a tragic but defensible act. But the targeting of civilians with the intent of using that targeting to influence the course of the war is never ethical.

I will not make excuses here. Rejection of utilitarian ethics often means measurably worse outcomes. The refusal to condone torture of captured terrorists to obtain information is a clear example. It is undeniably true that torturing terrorists to gain information can save lives. Opponents of such torture have a responsibility to own up to the fact that acting on principle may cost other people their lives. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the utilitarian effect of saving millions of lives. And I have great respect for the leaders who made these agonizing decisions.

I admit that if my moral view against the atomic bombing of cities had prevailed, many more people would have likely died in the ensuing invasion, including innocents. But some things are just wrong, regardless of consequences. Utilitarianism is deeply flawed ethics.

Targeting civilians in war is always and everywhere immoral. It was certainly immoral in World War II.

14 comments:

  1. @Mikey,

    I'm glad you're a neurosurgeon and not an obstetrician. You seem pretty clueless concerning the treatment of eclampsia.

    The management is 1. Control the seizures. 2. Control the hypertension. 3. Deliver the fetus, usually by Caesarean section, even if premature, because a live mother, with or without a live baby, is preferable to a dead mother and a dead preterm fetus.

    Paul Ham has written a book 'Hiroshima Nagasaki' published this year, which I strongly recommend. It has convinced me that the bombing of both cities were war crimes.

    The crews of the planes dropping the bombs were under strict instructions only to release the bombs if they had clear sight of the targets. Which didn't happen with Nagasaki, the aiming point being missed and the bomb being dropped over the hospital, school and Christian area of the city (killing about 8,000 of the 12,000 Japanese Christians in the city).

    To give Pope Pius XII credit, he was one of the first if not first public figure to condemn the nuclear bombing.

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  2. Here in this lull it is puzzling for us to look back on this with 20/20 hindsight and say we may have done this or that. I also ponder these questions, Mike.

    The truth I have come to understand is the 'peace' in which we live blinds us to the adapting concious evil of warfare. War is like a living thing, in many ways. When I consider the manipulation of the ethics of 'moral' or 'just war' by our current enemies, I begin to understand the reasoning of the men who ordered such attacks (like the Atomic bombings).
    I can remember sitting on a ridge near our home with my dogs after returning from SWA. From there I could see the little river valley in which my town lays. Steeples, arched roofs, port buildings, and a couple of ships. On one green stretch sits an elegant old Victorian school. In the yard I could see the kids playing. Then it struck me. If I were still in theatre, that school would have been an ideal site to attack us from. We would have it on our 'grid' because our enemy understands us, and knows that it can fire with relative impunity from such areas.
    They know that most officers currently in NATO would never order a strike or attack on a school. They know we have an ethic they can use for cover.
    But is it true? Would they 'never' reduce such a target? I then thought of some of the bombing you mentioned in the post, Mike.
    How many strikes would we take on us, in our homes before we came desperate enough to do just that. To fire from schools, or worse still to fire on them. How many dead children in our arms would, how many screaming mothers, how many crippled fathers would it take to justify - in our war and hate blackened minds - the reciprocal response of killing their children. Not many or much, I fear.
    For those of us that have seen first hand (ie not on a screen or in a report) this wholesale death suffered by both 'sides' of a conflict, it is a nightmare scenario. It haunts us.
    But what of those who have not been witness to the suffering of the enemy? Would they be LESS likely to push a button or order an attack of such proportions? More likely?
    I suspect the latter. That suspicion is based on the idea that modern civilians are largely insulated, and at this point are second and third generation removed. They do not understand the motives of our enemies, they do not understand their methods, and most have no clue how to respond. All they understand is that 'progress' must not be challenged by 'backwards' enemies. The enemy is often referred to as if they were another breed or animal. Sometimes they are called just that: Animals.
    We saw exactly such a political reaction post 911. We STILL hear it all the time with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    One of the most painful experiences for a veteran like myself is to attend a school, just like the one above, and hear the teachers 'clean' explanations of our efforts and reasoning in the current conflict. You can hear it too, if you like: Just turn on the news. Whitewash and spin.

    This is the paradox of war: By sanitizing it we prolong and intensify it. By setting up rules to protect the innocent we give our enemies the road map to our 'weaknesses', and make those very elements a target.
    By setting limits in time and behaviour we give our enemy a schedule and a profile for attack. By trying to avoid the moral consequences of collateral damage and loss of personnel (ie drone attacks) we resort to assassination and create martyrs for the enemy cause.
    Non of this is understood by a normal, functional civilian. They are protected and insulated from these horrible contradictions.

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    1. CNTD

      This is seen as a kindness, but is it?
      I often wonder that if by 'protecting' our people we damage them. We destroy their collective empathy. By making 'peace' the goal, we invite war.
      These are very real issues we, as a culture and civilization face in any future conflicts and could prove VERY detrimental to any victory effort in a global conflict.
      In a culture were we are convinced we have the 'facts', 'science', and 'history' on our side - is there any room left for morality concerning our enemies? In a society convinced we seek 'peace' is their any room for the wisdom of the warrior?
      Great post, Mike. Really got me thinking, mate.
      Thanks.
      I hope that makes some sort of sense....

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  3. And if the government on the other side drafts everybody? Didn't Tojo's government have schoolgirls practicing with sharpened bamboo? Wasn't their slogan "100 million die together"? Are there any 'civilians' in that kind of state? If the other side has loaded a child down with a suicide vest (you know this because you watched them do it on a surveillance camera) and sent the child towards your unit, do you open fire on the child?

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    1. Those children you describe are victims of nationalist propaganda and/or religious indoctrination. Take North Korea for example; using nukes on North Korea would kill thousands of people who are already the greatest victims of the North Korean regime no matter how motivated they may seem.

      -KW

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    2. "And if the government on the other side drafts everybody?"
      Then you have a total war on your hands. World War II is an excellent example of entire states mobilized to war. 'Fight em on the beaches' was the call of my own people.

      "Didn't Tojo's government have schoolgirls practicing with sharpened bamboo? Wasn't their slogan "100 million die together"?"
      Correct on both accounts. The resolve of the Japanese people and the loyalty to their 'Divine' Emperor was a real factor in the decision to drop the atomic weapons. Apparently the Germans had made the same line of reasoning about Great Britain, but had never achieved the capability to deliver, thank God - literally.

      "Are there any 'civilians' in that kind of state?"
      Sure. The civilians are the people in the streets, no matter how indoctrinated, fanatic, or defiant of conquest. The normal folks.
      This is the curse of asymmetrical warfare.
      If you attack another country and reduce it's military potential the civilians may be inclined to respond in defence.
      Does that make them just targets for massive assault? Expediency and efficiency say yes. Morality and convention say no. What do you think, David?

      "If the other side has loaded a child down with a suicide vest (you know this because you watched them do it on a surveillance camera) and sent the child towards your unit, do you open fire on the child?"
      If there is no alternative, you would have to. The non-combatant is dead either way, and there is a slim chance that if non fatally wounded he could be defused or surrender. But, I would suggest your scenario presents an alternative. Use the money and materiel power spent on the video feed to insert human intelligence. Then you could reduce the high value recruiters and possibly save the child (and presumably more/future) from the recruiters - instead of watching the kid get shot in HD.

      Interesting thoughts, David. I, for one, would welcome more feedback and input.

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  4. Every rational person should be vigorously arguing for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In a world with a comprehensive nuclear weapons ban every nation would be highly motivated to ensure rouge nations do not develop, and absolutely do not deploy what are truly the only real weapons of mass destruction.

    The use of the atomic bombs against Japan may very well be the most justifiable use of nuclear weapons imaginable. Our much smaller more lethal forces will not and can not face a scenario against a non-nuclear opponent where using nuclear weapons will save more people than it destroys.

    Our maintenance of a nuclear arsenal costs of many billions of dollars for weapons that have little or no utility. The existence of these weapons tempts the psychopath neocons with visions of smoking craters in Iran despite the fact a multiple nuclear bunker buster attack in Iran would spread fallout across South Asia into India potentially resulting in the deaths of millions over decades. Unfortunately Romney has surrounded himself with neocons. Electing this foreign policy neophyte would be a disaster, unless of course you like ill-advised unjust wars.

    -KW

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    1. "Every rational person should be vigorously arguing for the abolition of nuclear weapons."

      The problem with that, KW, is that nukes are a Pandora's Box. Once it's open, you can't close it again. It's been open since 1945.

      Even if it were possible to destroy every nuclear weapon the face of the earth, the knowledge would still exist. Some schemer would then conclude that he would could control the entire world's supply of nuclear weapons if he violated the ban and brought back the bomb.

      Imagine Iran, and only Iran, have nuclear weapons. Or al Qaeda, and only Qaeda.

      And in the end, it's really not possible to ban the bomb. The Indians and Pakistanis are not giving up theirs, neither is China. Even if they claimed to have forfeited their nukes, it would be just about impossible to verify compliance. How can we say with any certainty that a nuclear weapon doesn't exist somewhere in a bunker in Siberia? Or in the Tibetan Himalayas?

      Alas, a nuclear free world is but a dream.

      Joey

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    2. I presume KW is livid with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

      You are, right KW?

      JQ

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    3. KW,

      "Every rational person should be vigorously arguing for the abolition of nuclear weapons."
      Why stop with nuclear weapons? Why not gunpowder or TNT? What about conventional high yield / fuel weapons and missiles? What about the next generation of scientific wonders being dreamt up in labs across all the alliances and in the non-aligned nations. Cheaper, more efficient, GREENER ways to kill and depopulate enemy territory.
      KW, you of all people should see that this kind of 'progress' is irreversible. As Joey noted this is a Pandora's box (it was a vase actually).
      Maybe the Djin out of the bottle would work too?
      No matter the expression - the idea is the same. There is no going back.
      There has not been for centuries.

      "In a world with a comprehensive nuclear weapons ban every nation would be highly motivated to ensure rouge nations do not develop, and absolutely do not deploy..."
      Motivated by whom? By what incentive or punitive measures? Enforced by what body and what military force?

      "[...]what are truly the only real weapons of mass destruction."
      Nuclear weapons are one of an arsenal of weapons that can destroy massively. There are plenty of conventional and classified weapons that can deal the same kind of death and destruction that the atomic attacks on Japan did. You have mistaken the dragon you wish ton slay, KW.
      This is a Hydra, not a Snake.
      Some may even say a windmill....

      "The use of the atomic bombs against Japan may very well be the most justifiable use of nuclear weapons imaginable. "
      It was certainly a choice based on reason, and there was immediate justification in the military sense. Could there ever be such a scenario that presents itself again? That is an unknown.

      "Our maintenance of a nuclear arsenal costs of many billions of dollars for weapons that have little or no utility."
      Their utility is in their potential. The cost is a separate issue.

      "The existence of these weapons tempts the psychopath neocons with visions of smoking craters in Iran despite the fact a multiple nuclear bunker buster attack in Iran would spread fallout across South Asia into India potentially resulting in the deaths of millions over decades."
      Nuclear bunker busters in Iran? Eh? I think the idea is to prevent Iran from developing the potential to produce (and export) their own arsenal. Nobody is anywhere near suggesting a massive (or any!) nuclear strike on Iran.
      Goodness!

      Here's a though, KW: We need a weapons defence grid that makes us invulnerable or nearly so to nuclear attack - THEN we can begin to think about disarming 'rogue nations' (I call them 'enemy') and reducing the presence of these weapons globally, with no real threat of a nuclear retaliation by them or their erstwhile allies.
      Simply put: You can only truly reduce the use of a weapons system by making it obsolete. Only then will we see what comes next out of Pandora's box.

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  5. I think KW wants to uninvent nuclear weapons.

    It's and interesting proposition. Would the world be better off without them?

    It's also a moot point. You can't uninvent nuclear weapons, or anything else for that matter.

    They're here. Rogue states are just that--rogue. They won't abide by any agreement that prohibits nuclear weapons. They procure them secretly, stash them away.

    The Torch

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    1. The Torch,

      You're right. Nuclear weapons can't be uninvented. Although they are very expensive and difficult weapons to acquire. First you have to acquire the nuclear material, then enrich it to weapon grade and then construct it into a bomb. Even after all of that, if you want to use it, you'd need some method of delivering it.

      If I were a psychopathic leader of a rogue state or terrorist organization, I'd personally go for biological weapons. Much easier. Not much more than high school expertise and facilities required. And the delivery systems have been perfected. Just infect travelers at any international airport and the rest would be done for you.

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    2. Exactly, Torch. Cheaper, easier to obtain (extremely) and very easy to deliver provided you have a devoted/fanatic following.
      But KW does pose an interesting theoretical.
      Would the world be better off without them? Would the cold war have been a world war? Would Japan have surrendered, or Switched sides when the Soviets roled into Eastern Europe? Would Patton have gotten his way over the Germans (re-arm and march on Russia)?
      Would make for an interesting scifi TV show.

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  6. Japan was on the verge of surrender when the bombs where dropped there's no utilitarian argument for their use. Most Japanese cities were already destroyed due to extensive carpet bombing (also a deplorable practice) and naval blockades meant starvation was rampant. Morale in the government, army, and general population was extremely low.

    There was no army of brainwashed civilians considering most of the them were poor illiterate farmers who were more concerned with feeding their starving families than whatever that darned government was doing far away in Tokyo (which was burnt to the ground at this point) or some other major city.

    The atomic bomb served no purpose except to speed up the inevitable surrender that would have come with or without an invasion.

    There's two realistic hypotheses for its use:

    1. It was intended to scare the Soviet Union and thus get the US and its allies an upper hand in the future negotiations involving the Soviets.

    2. It's was the result of institutional inertia i.e after years of development nobody questioned the collective unspoken idea that the completed bombs aught to be used to justify their existence.

    The first option is unquestionably despicable and the second is just an excuse.

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