Some questions never die, not because they haven’t been answered fully and definitively, but because those who ask them:
- Appreciate their nuisance value;
- Have an agenda to which they lead;
- Reject the answer for personal reasons.
One such question, which is posed to me every year at about this time, is this one:
That’s not the usual wording, of course. Nor is the questioner neutral on the subject. He’s already decided on the answer – i.e., that it wasn’t – and is determined to press the question upon anyone who disagrees. It’s much like the behavior of Helen Thomas, who pestered the spokesmen of President Bush II with questions about the Middle East that embedded the assumption that the “Palestinian” irredentists are the good guys.
Nevertheless, as the question resurfaces at least once per year, it’s well to know how to cope with it...and many conservatives, especially young ones, don’t.
First, a brief quote from one of my novels:
Christine and Malcolm cleared away the Sunday breakfast dishes and reseated themselves at the kitchen table. Malcolm stared at his coffee mug as if studying it.
"We have talked," he said, "about all the strategies known to man for dealing with an armed enemy. We have talked about every aspect of deadly conflict. Every moment of every discussion we've had to date has been backlit by the consciousness of objectives and costs: attaining the one and constraining the other. And one of the first things we talked about was the importance of insuring that you don't overpay for what you seek."
She kept silent and listened.
"What if you can't, Christine? What if your objective can't be bought at an acceptable price?"
She pressed her lips together, then said, "You abandon it."
He smirked. "It's hard even to say it, I know. But reality is sometimes insensitive to a general's desires. On those occasions, you must learn how to walk away. And that, my dear, is an art form of its own."
He straightened up. "Combat occurs within an envelope of conditions. A general doesn't control all those conditions. If he did, he'd never have to fight. Sometimes, those conditions are so stiff that he's compelled to fight whether he thinks it wise, or not."
"What conditions can do that to you?"
His mouth quirked. "Yes, what conditions indeed?"
Oops. Here we go again. "Weather could do it."
"By cutting off your lines of retreat in the face of an invasion."
"Economics. Once the economy of your country's been militarized, it runs at a net loss, so you might be forced to fight from an inferior position because you're running out of resources."
"Excellent. One more."
She thought hard. "Superior generalship on the other side?"
He clucked in disapproval. "Does the opponent ever want you to fight?"
"No, sorry. Let me think."
Conditions. Conditions you can't control. Conditions that...control you.
"Politics. The political leadership won't accept retreat or surrender until you've been so badly mangled that it's obvious even to an idiot."
The man Louis Redmond had named the greatest warrior in history began to shudder. It took him some time to quell.
"It's the general's worst nightmare," he whispered. "Kings used to lead their own armies. They used to lead the cavalry's charge. For a king to send an army to war and remain behind to warm his throne was simply not done. Those that tried it lost their thrones, and some lost their heads -- to their own people. It was a useful check on political and military rashness.
"It hasn't been that way for a long time. Today armies go into the field exclusively at the orders of politicians who remain at home. And politicians are bred to believe that reality is entirely plastic to their wills."
Since Waterloo there have been no examples of the political leadership of a belligerent nation being part of its forces in the field. Those who order armies into the field stay home. Seldom does a ruling-class politician even have a child in his nation’s army. The severance between decision and consequence, between authority and responsibility, could hardly be more complete – and it’s a great part of the reason so many nations are so willing to go to war over any and every issue, no matter how trivial.
The United States, despite its large military and its ubiquity, has displayed more restraint about warfare than other historically dominant nations. There are many reasons for this, but the “citizen soldier” aspect of American military power should not be overlooked. Even a politician who has no blood stake in a contemplated war will have constituents to face, some of whom will have family members in the fight, come election time. He’ll have to persuade them that his decision to go to war was right and necessary. That’s not the case with the satraps of many other nations.
The only way to give an autocrat a blood stake in the war he contemplates is to make it thinkable that he could be one of its casualties. Nuclear weapons, particularly the sort that can be delivered ballistically, do exactly that. Thus, nuclear weapons “democratize” the battlefield for the first time since the Age of the Warrior-King.
Concerning World War II, Japan, and America’s use of A-bombs there, the morality of those actions cannot be predicated on a simple consideration such as the killing of innocents. Innocents are killed in every war. Indeed, a nation that conscripts its young men has guaranteed it, even if it negotiates “scheduled” battles with its enemy and arranges specific, limited venues for them in the style of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Europe. Yet the most moral of nations will go to war under some circumstances, for there are considerations that can make peace the worse choice morally.
We love peace, but not peace at any price. There is a peace more destructive of the manhood of living man, than war is destructive of his body. Chains are worse than bayonets. – Douglas Jerrold
When contemplating the bombing of Japan, President Truman took dramatic steps to preserve the lives of Japanese subjects, including any soldiers or munitions makers in the target zones. He commanded saturation leaflet-bombings, informing the residents of the target cities of what was to come and exhorting them to evacuate, several days before the actual strikes. Here’s what one such leaflet said, translated from the Japanese:
Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or a friend. In the next few days, four or more of the cities named on the reverse side of this leaflet will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories, which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique that they are using to prolong this useless war. Unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s well-known humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.
America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique, which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace, which America will bring, will free the people from the oppression of the Japanese military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan. You can restore peace by demanding new and better leaders who will end the War. We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked, but at least four will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.
The reverse side of the leaflet named several cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The last such leafleting occurred on July 27, 1945: eleven days after the “Trinity test” and ten days before the A-bombing of Hiroshima. That was surely ample time for the residents of that city to get out of the target zone. Perhaps some did. Yet note that many did not. Nor did the destruction of Hiroshima persuade all the residents of Nagasaki to evacuate. On whose hands does their blood belong?
The estimates the Joint Chiefs prepared for President Truman on the cost of a ground invasion of Japan’s Home Islands were horrifying. The smallest casualty estimate was 300,000 American lives; the largest were on the order of 1,000,000. Ground invasions on a strategic scale are guaranteed to kill innocents, whereas the residents of the target cities had the option of saving themselves through evacuation. Assuming the JCS estimates to have been honestly arrived at, the A-bombings, which took about 200,000 lives in total, were the less bloody alternative, at least in retrospect.
Moreover, a Commander-In-Chief is supposed to hold his own nation’s interests above others, in particular above those of an enemy combatant. Were Truman to have made the opposite choice, American casualty totals for World War II would have doubled for that reason alone. Given that the elimination of Japanese militarism, which had committed gigantic atrocities wherever it ranged, could not be brought about by any other means than Japan’s unconditional surrender, Truman’s decision was morally more defensible than the alternative presented to him.
Add this as well: Even as Emperor Hirohito broadcast the surrender of Japan to the United States, troops loyal to Tojo and the militarists were storming the radio station in an attempt to prevent the broadcast. Tojo’s support was non-trivial even after the A-bombings. Kamikaze pilots were still targeting American warships. A Japanese submarine had succeeded in sinking the USS Indianapolis only days earlier. A substantial fraction of the Japanese people were prepared to fight to the death rather than surrender, at what ultimate cost in blood no one can say.
Viewed from that perspective, the A-bombings were the most moral, most humanitarian strokes possible at the time.
It became clear in the aftermath that the A-bomb, as terrifying as it was and is, remained a finite, even survivable weapon. Paul Nitze, in his analysis of the destruction involved, came to the conclusion that a saturation bombing by several thousand B-29 sorties would have had an equally devastating effect:
Nitze found the bomb’s physical effects surprisingly easy to gauge. Unlike [John] Hersey, he even discovered some cause for hope in the seemingly boundless wreckage and debris of the aftermath....The Survey’s unstated conclusion seemed to be that the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb, terrible as it might be, was still finite—and survivable. Nitze believed that he was able to measure the devastation exactly, in the process making the specter of the bomb comprehensible. Exclusive of radiation effects, the damage done to Hiroshima, he calculated, had been equivalent to that of conventional bombs carried by 150 B-29s. For Nagasaki his calculation was 210 bombers.
[Gregg Herken, Counsels of War]
But of even more striking significance was what Nitze discovered about the effect on Japanese attitudes:
To Nitze the greatest surprises in the Survey came with the measurement of the atomic bomb’s psychological effects. He discovered, for example, that civilian morale had not suffered an immediate collapse in the two cities after the bombs fell, despite the suddenness and near-totality of the destruction. The Survey noted how Nagasaki’s prefectural government the day after the bombing had called for “a rehabilitation of the stricken city and an aroused fighting spirit to exterminate the devilish Americans.” [Ibid.]
Apparently the effect on the government in Tokyo, a city that had suffered several saturation-bombing raids by B-29s and was essentially defenseless against them, was somewhat more pronounced.
The question will continue to be asked for the reasons given in the opening segment. They who are determined to invalidate the bombings morally will not rest, for their objection is essentially amoral. What they desire is to invalidate war itself, at least as practiced by the United States in pursuit of American goals. The specific weapons involved are ultimately of no consequence, except as they can be used to further the object of horrifying Americans into an unshakable pacifism.
But that the bombings were moral acts, performed under a sincere conviction that they were the best hope of compelling a Japanese surrender, there can no longer be any doubt.