“It was a different time,” or: moral standards, part 2

At Distributed Intelligence 2007-08-06, Andrew Perraut has an interesting post considering the atomic massacre at Hiroshima in light of just war theory. He argues:

I’m not sure how anyone could argue that this was clearly justified, [as claimed elsewhere by Bruce Bartlett] since it seems, rather, prima facie unjust in the absence of strong countervailing reasons to drop the bomb. If the very existence or sovereignty of the United States would have been compromised by not destroying Hiroshima, perhaps that would be enough, but was that the case? And was it the case that only by deliberately targeting the civilian population we could save ourselves? The second questions is the most important, and most defenders of the decision gloss over it, because there isn’t a good answer. If detonating Fat Man over an isolated military installation would have convinced the Japanese government to surrender, Hiroshima looks less like a military/scientific triumph and more like a war crime.

— Andrew Perraut, Distributed Intelligence (2007-08-06): Hiroshima and Nuclear Weapons

I’d add only that, all things considered, I can’t possibly see how the very existence or sovereignty of the United States is worth a damn compared to the lives of 140,000 innocent people. How many real, individual people could be killed or maimed or otherwise ruined in the name of preserving the lines and colors on a map? If the only way to preserve the United States were the unprovoked, deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, then I’d say that the lives of those people are infinitely more important, and the abstract entity known as the United States properly ought to die.

That said, I’d like to turn my attention to the comments. A commenter named Michael says something very odd in his reply:

That’s not to justify it morally. But, looking at the time, World War II was so brutal and bombing was simply the allied answer to Axis atrocities on the ground and at sea. The firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, as thorough as the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki attest to this. It was a different time and the traditional rules of war had been largely thrown out the window (interestingly we still observed proper treatment of POWs even then).

Of course, it was a different time in 1945. But Hiroshima happened only 62 years ago. This kind of argument might get some kind of grip if we were talking about an event so long ago that it happened in a radically different civilizational context — say, 600 or 6,000 years ago. I would still find it bogus, but I could understand where the arguer was coming from. But we are not even talking about that. We are talking about something that happened within living memory. Paul Tibbets, the man who flew the Enola Gay, is still alive today. Thomas Ferebee, the man who actually dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, died only 7 years ago. As of March 2005, Tibbets expressed no remorse over his acts, saying If you give me the same circumstances, hell yeah, I’d do it again. Sure, time is always passing and things are always changing. But just how soon in the past does something have to be for the war apologists of the world to allow plain old straightforward moral evaluation of the act or the people involved in committing it? Are we next going to throw up our hands about My Lai, or Abu Ghraib, or something that happened last Thursday, on the grounds that It was a different time?

Further reading:

10 replies to “It was a different time,” or: moral standards, part 2 Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Sergio Méndez

    Nice to see you back charles. And for the post, you are totally right. Among all the excuses for the attack this is the most ludicrous (and anyways, we didn´t have many contemporary right wingers who wanted to nuke Afghanisthan after 9/11?)

  2. NavyHelo

    Talk to WWII vets who were in Japan right after the bombs.

    Check out a broad spectrum of written historical opinion by Japanese and American writers on the right and left of this issue.

    Then put yourself in Truman’s shoes: “Do we drop a bomb on one of the few cities that has not been damaged so far by conventional bombs, so the Japanese populace and the Japanese leaders would no longer by cowed by the military fanatics into believing a fight to the death was rational?”

    -we will never know for certain, what would have happened without the bombs- I do know what I would have done had I Truman’s knowledge AND the horrible knowledge of the resulting deaths then AND the atomic legacy since them; regretably, I clearly would have dropped the bombs.

    ** By the way, NONE of the above comments should be interpreted to justify any CURRENT slaughter by US/NATO military forces.

  3. Fernando Atrio

    How many real, individual people could >be killed or maimed or otherwise ruined >in the name of preserving the lines and >colors on a map?

    War is not simply about preserving lines on a map, at least not to those who risk their life while doing it.

    Times can change enough in less than 65 years [http://www.doug-long.com/einstein.htm].

    And since you are so fond of numbers see this [http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP3.HTM]

  4. Rad Geek

    NavyHelo,

    Then put yourself in Truman’s shoes: Do we drop a bomb on one of the few cities that has not been damaged so far by conventional bombs, so the Japanese populace and the Japanese leaders would no longer by cowed by the military fanatics into believing a fight to the death was rational?

    No.

    You pose this as if it were a difficult question. But it should not seem even remotely difficult. Under almost any textbook definition of the term, dropping atomic bombs on civilian centers in order to make a psychological impact on the (surviving) populace and leadership of a country is terrorism. Terrorism is neither justifiable nor excusable, and particularly not acts of terrorism that involve the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. This ought to be clear to anyone with a shred of principle against the killing of innocents.

    The question is, what leads you to think that there is a complicated question here? What stops you from seeing the deliberate massacre of 220,000 innocent bystanders for the obvious evil that it is?

    Fernando:

    War is not simply about preserving lines on a map, at least not to those who risk their life while doing it.

    Maybe not, but I didn’t say that that is what war is … about. I said that that’s what the very existence or sovereignty of the United States is about. If you want to risk your own life for that, in a war or by any other means, you are welcome to do so. On the other hand, you have no right to go around killing innocent third parties in order to do it, which is what happened in the United States government’s starvation blockade and repeated aerial massacres of Japanese civilians.

    I am also well aware of both Rummel’s work and the atrocities committed by the government of Japan during the 1930s and 1940s. But I do not see what this has to do with the question. The United States government dropped an atomic bomb on civilian centers in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hundreds of thousands of people killed by the bomb were overwhelmingly Japanese civilians, not soldiers and not government officials.

    If you go on a killing spree, that’s a terrible thing, and I have every right to try to make you stop, by force if necessary. But your actions give me no right to go around wiping out your cousins or neighbors or some other group of innocent third parties with some remote connection to you, in the hope that my slaughtering those innocents will somehow contribute to stopping you. Whatever my aims, that is still murder. And murder is still wrong.

  5. Fernando Atrio

    I am also well aware of both Rummel’s work and the atrocities committed by the government of Japan during the 1930s and 1940s. But I do not see what this has to do with the question.

    Me neither, but perhaps that’s because i wasn’t answering a question i was trying to pointing out that:

    “the abstract entity known as the United States”

    Is filled with people, filled with innocent people, and what will happen?, to those people if it dies the way you suggested. That, is my question to you.

    Whatever my aims, that is still murder. And murder is still wrong.

    Yes, well murder is unlawful by definition.

  6. Leia

    Is filled with people, filled with innocent people, and what will happen?, to those people if it dies the way you suggested. That, is my question to you.

    It’s a silly question. Bombing Hiroshima was not essential to saving the lives of the millions of innocent people in the U.S.

    RadGeek, here’s a slightly less silly question for you: what do you think of the argument that Japanese civilians weren’t “innocent” because they were engaged in “total war,” and were therefore legitimate targets?

  7. Rad Geek

    Fernando:

    If you want to talk about the fates of real people, instead of the shifting colors on a map, then you are going to have to take into account all of the people in question. This tends to undermine any chance of legitimizing the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Even if you could save some other innocent people by engaging in this sort of massacre, that is neither a justification nor an excuse for mass murder on such an inhuman scale.

    Incidentally, please note that this point has nothing in particular to do with the law, either. It has to do with basic principles of justice, which are prior to and more important than any law crafted by human beings.

    Leia:

    I think the argument is completely bogus. The Japanese government decided to wage total war, but their wicked decisions do not make Japanese civilians, who had nothing in particular to do with those decisions, fair game for retaliatory slaughter.

  8. Fernando Atrio

    Incidentally, please note that this point has nothing in particular to do with the law, either. It has to do with basic principles of justice, which are prior to and more important than any law crafted by human beings.

    All values are a human creation, and law should be a rationalization of those values. There are military courts because you can’t equate regular crime with crimes ocurred in a war setting. So, you can judge the matter bearing in mind the context in which took place and what the stakes where, if after that there is no justification, as it seems to be the case with Hiroshima it’s a war crime and it should be condemn as such. But it doesn’t help to dissociate, the abstract entity from the living, breathing nation.

· September 2007 ·

  1. Rad Geek

    Fernando:

    All values are a human creation, and law should be a rationalization of those values.

    I don’t think the first claim (that all values are a human creation) is true. In any case it is a controversial claim and you have provided no argument for it. I maintain that there are at least some cases in which moral value is independent of the will, the psychology, and the actions of any single person, and also of any group of people. Justice demands that there are some ways in which you simply cannot treat your fellow human beings, no matter what the law says. (The Nazi regime’s efforts to impoverish, ghettoize, enslave, and finally exterminate European Jews were all duly authorized by German law. But so what?)

    As for the second claim, that law should be a rationalization of those values, I simply don’t know what you mean by rationalization. If you mean an underlying reason for those values, usually it seems that the direction of explanation ought to be the other way around (laws, when justified, are justified because they reflect some underlying ethical value, not vice versa). If rationalization means something like making the values general, consistent, impersonal, or something of the sort, then, sure, that’s something laws should do, but again, it means that the justification for the law is dependent on the prior justification for the value in question, and the law takes any merit that it may have from the merit of the underlying value. In either case, if the value itself is what’s being argued about, trying to bring the law into the discussion is just going to be begging the question.

    There are military courts because you can’t equate regular crime with crimes ocurred in a war setting.

    It’s true that military courts exist because the government applies different standards for just conduct to soldiers. But I think that’s an argument against the military court system, not an argument in favor of the different standards. Governments always want to apply a double standard in favor of their armed thugs, because if they succeed that lets governments get away with all kinds of things that they could never get away with otherwise. But I cannot find any justification for the double standard.

    But it doesn’t help to dissociate, the abstract entity from the living, breathing nation.

    There is no living, breathing nation. Nations are groups of people who share a common ethnic, linguistic, or political identity. Groups of people do not live or breathe. Only individual people do.

    Again, my point is that if you want to deal with things that live and breathe, you will have to talk about individual people. Including the hundreds of thousands of innocent individual Japanese people who were murdered by the terror bombing.

— 2008 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-02-14 – Refuge of Oppression #5: Twofer Tuesday edition:

    […] GT 2007-08-07: It was a different time, or: moral standards, part 2 […]

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