Posts tagged Tokyo

Wartime Logic

Suppose that you have — somehow or another — conclusively proven that there is just no way to have a modern war without bombing cities and massacreing innocent people.[1] That leaves you with a hard incompatibility claim between moralism and militarism — so if you go around morally condemning military tactics (like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say, or the firebombing of Tokyo) because they killed innocent people, then you’d end up having to condemn any modern war at all as immoral, no matter who fought it or how it was fought.

Many people, when they reach this point in the argument, want to shove it at you as if the incompatibility made for an obvious reductio ad absurdum of any kind of moralism about military tactics — Oh, well, if it’s always immoral to bomb cities then you couldn’t have any wars. That’s why it must not always be immoral to bomb cities. I honestly don’t know why so few of the people who give this argument ever even seem to have imagined that their conversation partner might take the incompatibility as an obvious reductio ad absurdum of any kind of militarismOh, well, if it’s always immoral to kill innocent people, you can’t bomb cities, and if you can’t bomb cities, you can’t have any wars. And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t have any wars.

Also.

  1. [1] Actually, I think this has been more or less conclusively proven. And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t have any wars.

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“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:

One man’s reductio

Here’s widely-published, reportedly libertarian columnist Walter Williams on the need for political will in the War on Terror:

Does the United States have the power to eliminate terrorists and the states that support them? In terms of capacity, as opposed to will, the answer is a clear yes.

Think about it. Currently, the U.S. has an arsenal of 18 Ohio class submarines. Just one submarine is loaded with 24 Trident nuclear missiles. Each Trident missile has eight nuclear warheads capable of being independently targeted. That means the U.S. alone has the capacity to wipe out Iran, Syria or any other state that supports terrorist groups or engages in terrorism — without risking the life of a single soldier.

Terrorist supporters know we have this capacity, but because of worldwide public opinion, which often appears to be on their side, coupled with our weak will, we’ll never use it. Today’s Americans are vastly different from those of my generation who fought the life-and-death struggle of World War II. Any attempt to annihilate our Middle East enemies would create all sorts of handwringing about the innocent lives lost, so-called collateral damage.

Such an argument would have fallen on deaf ears during World War II when we firebombed cities in Germany and Japan. The loss of lives through saturation bombing far exceeded those lost through the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

— Walter E. Williams (2006-08-23): Will The West [sic] Defend Itself?

I’d like to thank Mr. Williams for helping to illustrate an important point about logical inference.

Two of the most important rules of inference are the modus ponendo ponens (pq. p. ∴ q) and the modus tollendo tollens (pq. ~q. ∴ ~p). Something that people often don’t realize is how the very same reasoning could be used to set up either a modus ponens or a modus tollens in the last step. Here’s an example drawn from real life. Walter Williams argues:

  1. If there were something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today, there would have been something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (lemma)
  2. There was nothing wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (premise)
  3. Therefore, there must be nothing wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of victory today. Q.E.D. (M.T. 1, 2)

But someone or another just might use the same line of inferences that Williams drew in order to establish a different conclusion:

  1. If there were something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today, there would have been something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (lemma)
  2. There is something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today. (premise)
  3. Therefore, there must be something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. You dick. (M.P. 1, 2)

For some people’s argumentative purposes the Allied war effort in World War II is not so much just as the paradigm for justice itself; like the meter stick in Paris, it doesn’t even make sense to say that it is just, because the possibility that it even might have been less than just is simply unintelligible. Those who have a less reverent view of the single most destructive total war in the history of the entire world may not share the same premises. And thus may draw quite a different conclusion. I’m just sayin’.

I’d like to thank the War Party for offering yet another opportunity for an important lesson on informal logic.

Update 2006-09-02: Commenter Adam B. pointed out that the full Latin name for modus tollens is the modus tollendo tollens, not modus ponendo tollens as I’d originally written. This has been fixed in the text.

Further reading: