Are civilians legitimate targets or aren't they?

Jonathan Wilde summarizes comments made by Bill Whittle that sum up the defense of Harry Truman's decision to drop the bomb:

  • The US made some effort to warn the Japanese citizens about what was coming.
  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, in some ways, military targets.
  • Conventional bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have cost as many lives, if not more, than the atomic bombing.
  • Dropping the bombs killed fewer people than not dropping them would have killed on both the American and Japanese side.
  • The Japanese citizenry were probably not ready to surrender anytime soon before the bombs were dropped.

I have my own take on this issue that I don't want to share. However, I ask that you read these points and just try to evaluate the quality of the arguments made.

Ask, for example,

  • Does it really matter whether a warning is made? Would a Japanese citizen have taken this seriously or even have the power to heed this warning?
  • How can a city be "in some ways" a military target? Is Seattle a military target because Boeing still has facilities there?
  • Let's say dropping the bomb actually saved lives. Do we want to set the precedent where this is an estimation that is made unilaterally by the country with the bomb? Can't this argument be used to justify pretty much any action in any war by countries other than the US?
  • Assuming the Japanese were not willing to surrender anytime soon, did they present a clear, proximate threat to the United States?

Ok, maybe Whittle's defenses aren't the best available. This is a relatively intelligent blog though, right? We should have something better show up in the comments. Let's see.

1. Armchair judges, sipping their beverages, declaring "murder!" this and "murder!" that.
Econ: I understand that this is a fair criticism if the judge is missing some of the relevant details due to being on the armchair. What exactly is the detail that's missing in this case though? (Keep in mind that the decision itself was an armchair decision. It was made by a grown adult in Washington who had the time to think about his decision.)

2. It is a terrible mistake- and unjust, to boot- to judge the actions of people in the past by the standards of the present.
Econ: How different were the standards in 1945? Was intentionally targeting civilians a permissible action?

I ask you: why are the arguments in defense of dropping the bomb so bad? Why are we all taught that it was something that we had to do and that there was no other choice when it seems that there clearly were? (I think I first got this indoctrination in 6th grade.)

More than that, why do we say with no uncertainty today that purposefully targeting civilians in unconditionally wrong when in fact there seems to be a glaring condition under which almost all Americans think it was the right thing to do? It seems like we either need to say targeting civilians is cool in some rare cases or that we goofed.

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Morality is not black and white

Some actions are clearly wrong and others are clearly right. In war, many actions fall somewhere in the middle and often there are no good options. This is one of them.

Ideally, it would always be possible to surgically strike only military targets. That makes the moral standing more clear. However, in practice that is often not possible. Deliberately striking large population centers that have little military value is firmly against moral norms. Cities can be "in some ways" a military target when they have a mixture of significant military value and civilians.

Hiroshima, for example, contained the headquarters for the Second Army, the Chugoku Regional Army, and the Army Marine Headquarters. The city also had large depots of military supplies, and was a key center for shipping. (info from Wikipedia)

People can argue back and forth about whether the advantages of the bombings outweighed the moral costs. They have argued for decades and I imagine they will continue to argue for decades more. However, I hope we can all agree on some relative comparisons. For example, bombing a city with military value is morally better than bombing a city with no military value and more civilians (such as Tokyo).

I agree that there is a

I agree that there is a judgment to be made here, but I'm not sure how close to the middle this really falls. I don't think anyone is arguing that the city had *no* military value. I do think the argument is being made though that the wholesale destruction of the city knowingly killed massive numbers of civilians. To be able to argue that this is in the middle ground, I think we would need to see a MilitaryCasualties:CivilianCasualties ratio. I imagine 9:1 would put this in the middle ground. I am guessing (blindly, I admit) that the ratio is closer to 1:9 though.

I think it's fair to ask,

I think it's fair to ask, also for standards by which this decision can be made fairly in the future. Sure, morality isn't always black and white. However, that doesn't mean that anyone can do whatever they want. Commendation and condemnation do have their place, and we ordinarily make rules for when to do that.

Ideally, it would always be

Ideally, it would always be possible to surgically strike only military targets. That makes the moral standing more clear. However, in practice that is often not possible. Deliberately striking large population centers that have little military value is firmly against moral norms. Cities can be "in some ways" a military target when they have a mixture of significant military value and civilians.

Why do you deliberately hide the option of *not* striking.

In practice, it's often not possible to get the old lady's purse unless you whack her. Ideally she would give her purse, but if she doesn't, mugging her is the only choice. It's very easy for people to say that mugging is wrong and see everything in black and white, but how do they suggest we get the old lady's purse?!

Burning innocent children at

Burning innocent children at a few million degrees isn't a moral gray area, no matter how you look at it.

Cold War Considerations

I heard at some point the theory that we were trying to knock the Japanese out before the Soviets could move their forces east and get in on the action.

This'd make the bombings worse, because they'd be a geopolitical powerplay, but at the same time might we have ended up saving Japan from being a soviet satellite for the length of the Cold War? If so, that should be counted among the benefits of the bombings.

I don't think this clears anything up, but it's another consideration to take into account when deciding whether the bombings were within the bounds of civilized behaviour.

I'll Play devil's advocate here

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the atom bombings were okay because they were successful at stopping the war. War is hell. War sucks. Why are people getting so upset about "collateral damage"? If we are fighting against the people of Japan, then why not go after the people of Japan. We might have lost less American lives if we had just started our campaign by fire-bombing Tokyo. You don't win wars by playing nice, you win wars by ruthlessly destroying your enemy.

Having said that, I think war should be avoided. Kids get angry and have a fist fight, adults get angry and talk things through. We should be more civil. It would also help if the US military did not go galavanting around the globe pushing people around.

There's no moral duty to win

There's no moral duty to win a war.

The Japanese attacked the US in the first place because they were threatening to interfere with its conquest of southeast Asia. A principled taxpayer could have done the same

(Although history shows it would have been highly counterproductive, this is *not* an advocacy of violent acts)

Was this collateral damage?

Was this a case of collateral damage though? Collateral damage is incidental to the real attack. In this case, the real attack was on the people of the city. The fact that there were some military targets of value there is incidental, frankly.

If we are fighting against the people of Japan, then why not go after the people of Japan.

If you buy that, then I admire your consistency. Personally though, I feel it's a bit creepy to go after children, women, and men for the decisions made by their politicians.

Are we all utilitarians now?

As something of a side note, do you notice how utilitarian we become when we all become when talking about Truman's decision? This is a libertarian blog where we sometimes except pretty horrible wrongs in the name of sticking to the principle. Are we also in favor of confiscatory taxation when the government *really* needs the money? And we are all in favor of nationalized health care, right? After all, otherwise we won't have universal access. We regularly reject utilitarian arguments like these in favor of principle. Why do we skip over principle here?

Yes

Everyone is a utilitarian once you make the body count large enough.*

Cf. Thomas Nagel, in War and Massacre:

While not every conflict between absolutism and utilitarianism creates an insoluble dilemma, and while it is certainly right to adhere to absolutist restrictions unless the utilitarian considerations favoring violation are overpoweringly weighty and extremely certain -- nevertheless, when that special condition is met, it may become impossible to adhere to an absolutist position.

That said, I think you're right to point out that there is does tend to be a bit of hypocrisy at DR when this subject rolls around. There is far more willingness to sign abandon deontology for utilitarianism when it's time to bomb the Japanese (it's all about saving lives!) than there is when it's time to invade the South (eh, slavery would have ended anyway, besides, there's a principle involved!).

*NOTE: I'm a utilitarian all the time. I also happen to think that the utilitarian arguments in favor of using nuclear weapons against Japan are really crappy. They all presuppose the morality of insisting upon an unconditional surrender. But there really isn't any particularly good argument that the U.S. had a right to make such a demand of Japan. That makes Arthur's mugging analogy a pretty good one.

Speaking only for myself...

...the arguments against the Civil War are pretty much all "utilitarian":

* In just about every part of the world, slavery ended peacefully without a war. There are good reasons to think the same for the USA.
* 600,000 people died.
* Perhaps most importantly, secession was rendered obselete. I'm making a consequentialist, not a "principle-ist" argument here: for a polycentric type like me, the results for the next few hundred years were bad.

* The Civil War was the

* The Civil War was the murder innocent people

You don't need consequential arguments to oppose the Civil War.

In just about every part of

In just about every part of the world, slavery ended peacefully without a war. There are good reasons to think the same for the USA.

This is a bit quick, no? In much of the Caribbean (all the French colonies, for example) slavery ended when slaves revolted, and several South American countries kept slaves until they lost wars.

More to the point, though, the British did decide to abolish slavery peacefully. But Wikipedia also tells me that the British navy was tasked with repressing the slave trade, regardless of the national origins of the slavers. I suspect that a great deal of the "peaceful" abolition of the 19th C actually owed rather a lot to not wanting an ass-kicking from the Royal Navy.

Not really

Everyone is a utilitarian once you make the body count large enough.

If I had to kill myself and the people I love (a few hundred) to save the billions of the world, I would not save the world. I would save me and mine. Make the billion a trillion, I would do the same.

If it's a choice between one stranger and a thousand strangers, then sure, I'll favor the thousand over the one, but that hardly shows that I'm a utilitarian, since in this dilemma every criterion other than number has been excluded, leaving me no choice but to use the otherwise unimportant criterion of number.

How else do you analyze an act of war?

Where exactly is the deontological argument here? Can you make a deontological argument about the bombing that isn't messy enough such that all utilitarian considerations are completely excluded?

This is a libertarian blog where we sometimes except pretty horrible wrongs in the name of sticking to the principle.

This particular libertarian blog has more utilitarianish bloggers than most.

Where exactly is the

Where exactly is the deontological argument here? Can you make a deontological argument about the bombing that isn't messy enough such that all utilitarian considerations are completely excluded?

I did. Burning innocent children is wrong.

Scenario: a badly burned and mutilated Japanese child who survived the blast but is dying of cancer walks into the White House. He asks Truman (in perfect English since this is a thought experiment).

- Did you order the bomb to be dropped, did you give the order to murder my family and my friend
- Yes I did

The child then proceeds to strangle Truman. Truman objects. YOU, the judge step in the scene and see a conflict. Who is in his right?

(Once again this is a thought experiment, do not try to replicate. I do not advocate violence, it's dangerous and useless)

Morality and war

The child then proceeds to strangle Truman.

Make it go the other way, have Truman not drop the bomb and have an American soldier's grieving father strangle Truman (where the soldier died in the aftermath of not dropping the bomb). The connection may not be as direct but you can be sure many will have no trouble seeing causal connection.

What would be your defense of Truman?

If you would still agree with the strangler then your position is not about the morality of that particular choice (to drop or not) but about some larger choice, such as the choice to go to war at all, the choice to insist on unconditional surrender, the choice not to dismantle the state, etc.

In your example Truman

In your example Truman didn't do anything, not doing something cannot be a crime, we're constantly not doing things. If the soldier was a conscript, the son may very well avenge his father, but that's a different question.

Not born yesterday

In fact Truman did many things, and inaction at one moment can create fault by allowing the consequences of previous action. Simple example. You are driving down the street and you decide to stop acting on the steering wheel. The car careens into a pedestrian. Inaction in the moments preceding the death creates fault by allowing the effects of previous action (driving in the first place).

Only newborns have no previous action. Everyone else does, and thus is potentially responsible for the consequences of failure to act in a given moment thereby allowing the natural consequences of previous action to occur.

Your action is to run your

Your action is to run your car into the pedestrian. I agree that if you look at the finest detail, there's no difference between inaction and action, but this is essentially a beard argument. The sentence "I didn't do anything !" remains meaningful in a courthouse.

Besides, I simply don't see how what Truman did in the past could make *not* killing innocent children a crime.

Not a beard

Because a commander who sends his troops in has a duty to them that could very well be violated through inaction, even over a span of days or weeks.

The sentence I didn't do anything is a valid defense most of the time because most of the time prior action did not create an obligation to, as it were, keep steering. But the commander of troops has many pre-established obligations to them that can very well earn him blame if he fails to act.

Ok you made your point

Ok you made your point clearer.

Indeed, one may have responsibilities (not duties). When I take the road, I am responsible of my vehicle, if I am hired as a lifeguard, I must pull people out of the water, etc.

However, the people I have a duty too cannot expect me to commit a crime. Holders of government debt know they will be repaid with money taken by force and have no legitimate claim on the principal. Similarly, if I buy a painting from a thief and find out it has been stolen, I cannot force delivery by the thief.

Needless to say, I disagree

I ask you: why are the arguments in defense of dropping the bomb so bad? Why are we all taught that it was something that we had to do and that there was no other choice when it seems that there clearly were? (I think I first got this indoctrination in 6th grade.)

I went through the phase of believing that what I learned in school about the bombing was brainwashing and that it was simply propoganda to defend the welfare-warfare state, etc.

As I sit here now, it seems that some of the arguments on both sides of the argument are awful. It seems to me to be one of the greyest areas of moral decision-making. I'm skeptical of positions on both sides that make the decision appear easy (I'm the same way with abortion).

I found Whittle arguments compelling; that's why I posted them. However, I've also read of plenty of criticisms about the state of the Japanese mindset that disagree with Whittle's citations. You can find arguments completely contradicting each other from various people in high-up positions in the government and military at the time. Eisenhower was one such opponent of the bombing.

Over time with the aid of hindsight, I come to believe that the second bombing was unnecessary. However, I'm glad I wasn't the one making the decision in Truman's shoes: Push the button and a shitload of people die. Don't push the button and a shitload of people die. Either way, some part of humanity will remember me as a war criminal.

Push the button and a

Push the button and a shitload of people die. Don't push the button and a shitload of people die.

How about dismantling the government ?

F'real?

I'm sure that was a viable option in August 1945.

And even if somehow Truman managed to pull that off, a shitload of people would have died.

Who exactly would have died?

Who exactly would have died?

I went through the phase of

I went through the phase of believing that what I learned in school about the bombing was brainwashing and that it was simply propoganda to defend the welfare-warfare state, etc

Oh yeah, and I'm sure Japanese school teach children they really had it coming.

Intention matters.

I think the people who were intended to be killed matter. Purposefully killing 1,000,000 soldiers is not as bad as purposefully killing 500,000 civilians. One makes you a great warrior. The other makes you a great war criminal. By setting up the utilitarian argument to only look at the number of lives lost, of course we would pick the 500,000. Still, there is something more just in a war that targets soldiers than in one that targets civilians. Both wars will likely still kill a lot of civilians, but I'd sure rather live in a world in which countries are required to fight wars against military targets than one in which civilian targets are perfectly fair game.

I think even the strictest of utilitarians would agree with that selection. Unless I'm wrong. But that's never happened before.

Libertarian means being free to use arguments as one chooses

I was under the impression that Truman chose to kill the children of Hiroshima as a means of saving the children of most other cities of Japan. (ignoring everyone else for the sake of the children)

Saving them all was not a choice, so Truman made the choice he considered right at the time. And then he died, and left it to the living to judge his actions.

Which we do until we ourselves die. Then others come along and judge our actions and words. And so on.

Self righteous pomposity over someone else's decisions in the absence of meaningful decisions of one's own, is a waste of everyone's time.

Let's close the blog!

So we might as well end all discussion about anything anyone has ever done ever?

Libertarian means being free

Libertarian means being free to use arguments as one chooses

Uh yeah, sure. That doesn't make the arguments correct or convincing though.

Self righteous pomposity over someone else's decisions in the absence of meaningful decisions of one's own, is a waste of everyone's time.

The point is not to judge Truman, it's a case study to gain superior insight in the morality of our own decisions.

Was this supposed to be sarcastic?

I'm not actually sure whether this message was meant to be taken seriously or not.

No sarcasm. I did mock

No sarcasm. I did mock your claim that "Libertarian means being free to use arguments as one chooses" but I did so directly, not with sarcasm.