Hiroshima and the “Easy” Thing to Do

The just war ethic cannot justify the intentional killing of some innocents for the sake of defending the lives of other innocents because the lives of the innocent are the actual point of war. We go to war on behalf of the innocent men and women wronged by some act against their nation. We fight that war by the morality able to name that wrong as a wrong, and able to express that wrong by the means employed in its vindication.

August 6 and 9 mark the seventy-fifth anniversaries of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The lead-up to these dates has been marked by somber reflection and moral re-analysis of the U.S.’s decision to use atomic weapons for the first and so far last time. By the most conservative estimates, at least 100,000 Japanese civilians died upon the bombs’ detonation or shortly thereafter. Americans at the time overwhelmingly approved of—even welcomed—President Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons to accelerate Japanese surrender.

Some colleagues of mine and I were recently arguing about this decision. One of them called “easy” the view I defend, the standard moral view expressed famously by philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, that choosing (or “intending”) to kill innocents (civilians or noncombatants) as a means to one’s end is always immoral. On these grounds, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were murderous. I was struck by my colleague’s claim and will explore that here. For certainly, part of the fame of Anscombe’s view stems from her courage in speaking out against the bombing and the subsequent awarding of a degree to President Truman, who by her account was guilty of war crimes. Anscombe’s was an extreme minority view, and for her to express it publicly as a young female faculty member was an act of impressive fortitude. Nothing seems “easy” about going against your university administrators and peers as they prepare to praise and honor the leader of your country’s greatest ally.

But I suspect that was not the “easy” my colleague meant. He meant instead that it was morally easy—too easy or simple—for academics detached from the task of making difficult political decisions to conclude we should never choose to kill innocents as means to our ends. Deeper reflection, harder reflection, will show the tragedy of situations presenting themselves to us where there is no good moral answer and we must be prepared to do things that violate one moral principle for the sake of another. “Easy” here then means “insufficient” in terms of moral analysis in a world of bad choices. If one did more difficult or complex moral analysis, one would see the wisdom of the decision to bomb.

We are given, then, to imagine the moral philosopher who sits at her desk and thinks, “Oh, choosing to kill innocents toward an end (however worthy)? Can’t have that!” Her work done, she proceeds to rise from her chair until she is then invited to reconsider her analysis for its insufficiency and superficiality The situation is more complex, and she is counseled as she’s eased back in her chair, “Do look at it again.”

For example, did Truman really “choose” to kill innocents? In his short essay, “The Atomic Bomb,” Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “It is a simple matter to condemn the statesman who made the decision to use the bomb” before wondering “whether they were not driven by historic forces more powerful than any human decision.” Historical forces—which are well-known to most of us and were known at the time by Anscombe and Niebuhr—compelled Truman’s use of atomic weapons. Truman himself viewed the bomb’s use as “necessary” in a historical sense. History had lined up in a way presenting him with no choice but to bomb the Japanese into submission. He faced no real alternatives, and facing such, had no choice. David French’s article “Remembering When We Were Strong: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Moral Necessity of a Nuclear Strike,” likewise evacuates human choice from the dropping of the bombs: “The Japanese rejected [the Potsdam Declaration], the atomic bombs followed roughly two weeks later, and the war ended.” No agent, no agency, no choice: the bombs fell like an unwelcome rain upon Japanese citizens, and we don’t condemn the rain for falling. On this account, there was no decision about whether to use the bomb, but only about how it was used. Nothing could miss the point more than condemning Truman for doing something inevitable.

Despite some contemporary and contemporaneous realists who believe that historical explanation provides moral justification, Niebuhr disagreed; instead, he judged the atomic weapon’s use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki a failure of U.S. imagination. He writes: “We can criticize the statesman, however, for lack of imagination in impressing the enemy with the power of the bomb without the wholesale loss of life that attended our demonstration of its power in places where the loss of life would have been minimal.” Recognizing, in other words, the deep challenge facing Truman, Niebuhr refused to acquiesce to historical determinism. Alternatives always present themselves to the imaginative statesman who refuses to do the immoral. While Niebuhr certainly means more than this, for instance, we could have chosen not to bomb Nagasaki. Bombing Hiroshima could demonstrate the power of atomic weapons and the American resolve to employ that power. There was, in other words, no moral justification to use atomic weapons in the way we did even if one concedes its historical necessity. “Wholesale loss of life” does matter.

Another way to question the prohibition on choosing to kill the innocent is to play with the usual notion of innocence baked into the just war principle of noncombatant immunity. Following traditional moral analysis, the principle distinguishes those “taking direct part in hostilities” from those who do not. “Innocence,” our philosopher will be told, can be extended to combatants on the just side. Many soldiers are conscripts and good folks who led civilian lives prior to the conflict, and the mere wearing of uniforms shouldn’t expose them to military targeting. Soldiers would prefer to be home. They have or may have neither responsibility nor enthusiasm for the war. Such men are innocent despite their uniforms and their participation in the harms associated with war-waging.

Inserting the tip of the wedge between taking part in hostilities and vulnerability to direct attack leads to its total cleavage. Led to consider some combatants “innocent,” our philosopher will be invited to consider some civilians “guilty.” The whole of society will be described as “militarized” and therefore apt objects of attack. Some civilians will be described as “enthusiasts” and “instigators.” Of course we are aware these arguments did great work in thinking about Japan, and I do not here dispute the historical bases for characterizing the Japanese as militarized enthusiasts for war. Not because I believe this cannot be disputed, but because it’s unnecessary to the argument. Even given the historical claim that Japanese civilians were enthusiastic supporters of their nation’s cause, the claim is irrelevant to the moral understanding of the use of force in war. Enthusiasm for one’s country during war is common, and I imagine many soldiers in every war find themselves less enthusiastic than those not facing down the realities of war’s brutality. Indeed, in the U.S. we often pride ourselves on our support of our military and its efforts. But enthusiasm for war does not make civilians vulnerable to attack. Their enthusiasm doesn’t make them “guilty” in the relevant sense.

Such arguments questioning the prohibition of choosing to kill civilians evoke George Orwell’s famous May 19, 1944 “As I Please” column, where he questioned civilian immunity and said that, by counter-population bombing, “the suffering of this war has been shared out more evenly than the last one was.” Orwell feared that efforts to “humanize” war by such laws of war made wars more likely. He was concerned that young men bore the brunt of war’s suffering while its champions and jingoes sat home cheering behind law’s shield.

We can share these concerns with Orwell and others but nonetheless recognize they are not morally determinative. Such concerns may cloud our thinking, but clouded thinking presupposes moral clarity in reality. The prohibition of choosing to kill (or even harm) civilian life stems from basic morality and is present in the justification for war. Methodist theologian Paul Ramsey refers to the justification of war and its limitation (often referred to as the ad bellum and in bello aspects of just war) as “twin-born.” He writes, “The same considerations which justify killing the bearer of hostile force by the same stroke prohibit non-combatants from ever being directly attacked with deliberate intent.” The move to defend the innocent by recourse to war prohibits the targeting of innocents on the other side. And this is not new! In the sixteenth century, Spanish theologian Francisco Vitoria understood the paradox involved in licensing the killing of some innocents for the sake of others: choosing to kill your enemy’s innocents would lead to both parties having their own actual just cause for war, as two parties of innocents legitimately defended against violence made unjust because directed at innocents.

And “innocent,” for Ramsey and Anscombe and the tradition upon which they drew, means “all those who are not fighting and not engaged in supplying those who are with the means of fighting.” Neither international law nor morality draws the line of vulnerability to attack based on the subjective views of people, but on their relationship to war-waging. What matters is their activity: the justification for war itself resides in a response to the activity, the wrongdoing, of a belligerent nation. That nation must have done (and not merely “thought” or threatened or prepared to do) something wrong. We respond to people based on what they do. The shift from action to attitude would be a dangerous one indeed that would license total war, which of course just war seeks to prevent.

No party to these arguments denies the difficult choices political leaders face in these situations. But once you agree to add up numbers of civilians that your weapons may kill, you’ve already begun traveling the road toward which decisions to kill them will seem “inevitable.” Defenders of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki rightly point out that by 1944 we were well down that road, having engaged in fire-bombing to kill innocents in London, Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, and so on. As Churchill said to Niels Bohr in May 1944 in an effort to reassure the physicist about the bomb, “I cannot see what you are talking about. After all this new bomb is just going to be bigger than our present bombs. It involves no difference in the principles of war.” By then, of course, choosing to kill civilians was a commonplace of the war and “this new bomb” seemed different only in its efficiency and devastation.

But that we had abandoned morality does not license its continued neglect. The just war ethic cannot justify the intentional killing of some innocents for the sake of defending the lives of other innocents. “The lives of the innocent,” wrote Anscombe, “are the actual point of society.” We can amend her insight: the lives of the innocent are the actual point of war. We go to war on behalf of the innocent men and women wronged by some act against their nation. We fight that war by the morality able to name that wrong as a wrong, and able to express that wrong by the means employed in its vindication. The moment “complexity” tempts us to embrace the wrong in pursuit of our own cause, we unleash forces beyond our control, including the power to rationalize departure from moral principle by appeal to historic necessity. In the case of atomic weapons, it comes as no surprise, then, that defenders of the “decision” to use them in Hiroshima and Nagasaki do so by disemboweling the act as a decision at all. The analyses present technological and historical logics suggesting inevitability and the irrationality of seeing things in any other way. Truman faced no choice and therefore made no decision: 100,000 militarized Japanese citizens were the price necessary to pay for the end of the war. Truman could have not done otherwise, our philosopher will be told. He faced “no serious and persuasive alternatives.” Unlike Niebuhr, then, who condemned the decision for its lack of imagination, or Anscombe who recognizes that sometimes goods must be sacrificed if no moral means present themselves, the bomb’s defenders portray its use as beyond reflection. (Thus, by writing this, I will be asked to posit “alternatives” that I and my colleagues know have been a priori excluded as irrational.)

But the truth, of course, is that abiding by moral principle in difficult situations is the hardest thing and demands the deepest moral reflection. Abiding by principle requires moral courage and political imagination. Those like Anscombe who defend the principle must seek some means other than the fracturing of principle even under the greatest pressure. They must employ moral imagination where others point to “necessity.” Orwell was correct when he wrote that principles are “never kept when it pays to break them.” History teaches us that over and over. As he suggests, the easiest thing, the commonest thing, is to live by principle when the cost is low, and to sacrifice principle when the cost is high. The hardest thing is to keep your principles even when it pays to break them, and that is one enduring lesson of these two early August days.

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