My post on the anniversary of the use of nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where I unequivocally stated that it was a barbaric and inexcusable act and a war crime, generated some heated pushback and I urge people to read the comments there. I started to respond but realized that it was becoming rather long and decided to make it into a follow-up post.
The argument that those who support the bombings seem to be making seems to based on the following calculus: “It is acceptable to deliberately kill X innocent civilians to avoid the deaths of Y people later, provided the ratio of Y to X is greater than some number N.” Strenuous efforts are then made to argue for a very large Y in order to arrive at some value of N that that is presumed to make the act justified.
But my point is that the argument itself is immoral irrespective of the size of X and Y and N and so am unmoved by these arguments. It seems to me that the argument proposed is a very dangerous one that is used either by people who view the deliberate killing of innocent people (especially foreigners) with remarkable equanimity or by those who do not share that deplorable mindset in general but seem to find it acceptable in this particular case.
Let us take that calculus and apply it in other situations. It would, for example, justify the death penalty because one could argue that executing someone is justified because it could deter others from committing future hypothetical murders. One could argue in favor of torture because torturing someone, even unto death, is justified because it might hypothetically save the lives of others. One could argue that it is justified to wage preventive war against other countries because of the possibility that they might initiate a war in the future that leads to greater casualties.
Seasoned observers will recognize these arguments as the ones given by people like Dick Cheney for his appalling acts and his doctrine of preventive war, although preventive war and torture are both war crimes.
The point is that committing an act that will definitely result in the death of an innocent person because it might hypothetically save lives in the future is wrong. And most people recognize that it is hard to justify such an act, as can be seen from studies done with the trolley problems. Even when the ratio of Y to X is as large as five, people find it hard to justify the act and for good reason. It is difficult to accept the idea of taking someone’s life to save other people’s lives. If we do accept it, where will it end? For example, we know that every day, people die because of the lack of availability of donated organs. Why would we not kill some random person and use their harvested organs (heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, etc.) to save the lives of many people?
Put in those terms, people are repulsed by the thought, even if the person killed is a prisoner on death row or serving a life sentence for some heinous crime. So why is the same argument used in this case? Or if it is different, in what way?
One way of justifying the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing is arguing that the people of those cities are not innocent. People may be assigning collective guilt to all Japanese because that nation was at war with the US and thus everyone can be considered as combatants. This is, of course, wrong. There is a reason why the targeting of civilian populations even in war is considered a war crime.
Another possibility is that something that seems repulsive when framed in terms of small numbers somehow becomes acceptable when framed in terms of hundreds of thousands as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps when we think of small numbers, people seem real and we can imagine it to be someone we know. But large numbers are just statistics and we become numb to them.
Another possibility is the tribal mindset that views Japanese life as worth less than American ones. After all, the X lives lost were entirely Japanese while many of the Y lives would be Americans and thus assumed to matter more.
Yet another possibility is that the nuclear bombing of the cities has been made into a clinical act. There is something about visiting destruction from the air on a massive scale that seems to make it less of a heinous act, especially if people can be shielded from the scenes of carnage down below. This was done with the nuclear bombs and we saw similar acceptance of the massive destruction done to Vietnam by the US bombing on that country. Recall how in the early days of Shock and Awe in the war on Iraq, our media exulted in showing our ‘smart bombs’ destroying targets without showing what happened to the people at the receiving end. This was why in Vietnam the sight of the naked Vietnamese child running crying down the street after a napalm attack shocked people. It made them realize that these are real people, children among them, who we have ordered to be killed, not dry numbers to be inserted in our equations for X and Y. This is also why Chelsea Manning was punished so severely. The video she released of US troops gleefully gunning down people from the air, including children, made us aware that there are real, ordinary people at the receiving end.
Finally, let us take a role reversal. We know that ISIS seeks to eliminate all US and western forces from the Middle East region in order to make easier their creation of a caliphate. Suppose there is a high-level ISIS meeting at which strategies are being proposed. The traditional commanders warn that it is going to cost a lot of their troops in a long-drawn out effort to drive out the well-equipped and trained US forces. One person then makes the following suggestion: “Why don’t we capture a few westerners and then periodically kill them in the most barbaric way and put the videos on the internet? This may scare them enough that they are unwilling to risk their people being captured and thus get them to reduce their presence, making our military task easier. Sure, a few innocent people will die but isn’t it better since we may save many more lives in the long run? In addition, the people who die will be westerners but the lives saved will be mostly ours.”
I don’t think anyone would accept that as a moral argument and for good reason. The idea of using innocent people as disposable pawns in a military strategy is morally reprehensible. There is a good reason why it is a war crime.