Your comments about the United States’ use of nuclear weapons during World War II tapped into a subject that I’ve been interested in for quite a while: the morality of warfare, especially in the modern era. Such overly destructive forces as Fat Man and Little Boy are very seldom seen as anything but destructive. Besides historians and academics, I assume most people would look at nuclear weapons as weapons of revenge, weapons of deterrence, or weapons of overkill. Nuclear weapons can surly be used as all of the above, but, as was the case in 1945, they can also be used as a last resort with a surprisingly humane outcome.
The use of the word humane in this context may cause some uncomfortable feelings to swell within people. Even I was initially hesitant to make such a statement, as the image of nuclear fire and fallout seem to be the very antithesis of humane. However, let’s compare America’s use of nuclear weapons to an example you mentioned in your previous piece. General Curtis LeMay carried out a brutal firebombing campaign across Japan during the United States’ Pacific Campaign. His bombing runs were especially effective because the majority of the Japanese infrastructure was wooden.
Now, imagine how many human beings were roasted within their homes by LeMay’s almost unrestrained bombardment. Figures I’ve seen put the number in the 220,000 range. Those deaths were caused by conventional weapons that were openly allowed and used against civilian targets during the war. If the war were permitted to continue under strictly conventional means, that number could have been doubled or even quadrupled. Then factor in the tremendous number of U.S. and Japanese soldiers that would have also died along with civilians. One must wonder whether a Japanese nation would even exist today if Operation Downfall was chosen over dropping the bombs.
So, when it comes to our use of nuclear weapons, which collectively killed about 110,000 Japanese citizens – mostly civilians – wouldn’t it appear that doing so was the more practical and even moral choice? There are other reasons that point to the bomb being the best course of action for both Harry Truman and the United States as a whole, but, right now, I’m only interested in the question of its morality. If you look at the numbers, it’s clear to see that using the deadly power of the atom saved lives – millions of lives. Shouldn’t that give it the humane high ground over the planned invasion? Well, I think that depends on how one measures the morality of war and military action.
Let’s say there’s two separate instances of violence, an Islamist terror attack in an American city and a U.S. drone strike in an Afghan city. Both of these attacks kill four hundred people, mostly civilians. Are these two military actions morally equivalent? If answered by someone that measures the morality of war by the amount of deaths alone, then they’d have to say yes. That doesn’t mean they’d believe that both should happen. They’d most likely think that neither should happen. And I may agree or disagree with them on that point, but I’d need further information. To me, it seems that one can’t fully assess the morality of a military action until the actor’s intentions are taken into account.
Recent history shows that attacks carried out by Islamist terrorists are meant to instill fear within their enemies’ populace, while the majority of attacks made by the American military are meant to kill those same Islamist terrorists. If this repeating pattern of intent holds up in our current comparison of hypotheticals, then I’d conclude that the American attack is more morally acceptable, despite the fact that it took just as many human lives. I know for certain that there are those who would vehemently disagree with me on that point, and probably even denounce me as disgusting for holding such a view. But again, I’d like to bring up the issue of intent. To the United States, the affected civilians were a case of unfortunate and, most likely, unavoidable collateral damage. To the Islamists, the civilians were the target.
The argument that intent is the key factor in matters of wartime ethics, however, is not an excuse to kill indiscriminately in the name of a “just cause.” There must always be an effort to minimize collateral damage whenever possible. It’s important that the United Sates doesn’t forsake its principles in the pursuit of winning the war. Maintaining overwhelming righteousness in the face of overwhelming maliciousness is the only way we can achieve total victory over our enemies. Although, as I’m sure the majority of people are aware, it’s impossible to fully eradicate the practice of war or completely spare innocent life during times of conflict. It’s a sad reality of both human nature and the lethal inaccuracy of even the most advanced pieces of military technology.
If we return to the issue of the atomic bombs used in Japan, after considering the factors discussed above, we see that the morality of Truman’s decision is clear in most areas and muddy in others.
The muddiness is a result of the bombs being deployed against cities, which had almost no military presence or application. However, as I previously alluded, LeMay was already targeting civilians in a more brutal fashion. We had already found ourselves amidst a barbaric conflict. Our hands were, unfortunately, already dirty and our bayonets already purposely coated in the blood of civilians. At this point, it seems we couldn’t fully redeem ourselves or turn back. Our only option was to end the war as quickly as possible.
This is where it becomes clear that using the bombs was more ethical than defaulting to conventional invasion. In this instance, The United States’ intent and goal of minimizing the loss of human life line up perfectly. Our intent was to end the war immediately, and, by ending the war, we would not only spare many thousands of American lives but indeed conserve many millions of lives on the side of our enemy. To call this course of action a choice is to insinuate that the alternative was equally viable. There was no choice, because the wellbeing of people on both sides and the principles of the United States demanded that the bombs be used.
With all of that said – and in the interest of bringing this ethical issue full circle – it’s possible for one to wonder what the most moral option is for the United States in relation to the North Korean nuclear threat. Although it seems that most of the world has quietly and quickly moved on from the issue, there are still several questions lingering in the ether. Do we act militarily, or do we continue to exercise strategic patience? What’s our intention? What are we willing to sacrifice to fulfill our goals?
It seems to me that our intention is to strip North Korea of its nuclear arsenal, and prevent our current difficulties from ever arising again. Some might say that our overall intentions are to topple the Kim regime, unite the two Koreas, and liberate the subjugated North Korean peasantry. I’d say those are secondary goals at best. The deposing of the Kim Dynasty is an impossibility without the cooperation of China, a united capitalist Korea is a Cold War wet dream, and I honestly doubt the world’s concern for the North Korean people is a very pressing issue. No, we want to eliminate Kim’s nuclear trump card in order to spare U.S., Japanese, or South Korean citizens the possibility of death by nuclear attack.
So, what are we willing to sacrifice to bring about our desired result? Well, the immediate and easy answer to that is: as little as possible – AKA: nothing. Neither the United States or its involved allies want to risk a single life of their own people to take the offensive against North Korea. To be the aggressors in this situation would directly conflict with our intended solution to it. If we attack in the name of saving lives, we sentence millions to death.
It would seem that our most moral option in this matter is truly our only option. For probably the first time ever, I agree with the now ex-White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, when he said:
“There’s no military solution [to North Korea], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”