May 29, 2016

On the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of the hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years...has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity....I am therefore addressing this urgent appeal to every government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents. I request an immediate reply. - Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 1, 1939; on aerial bombardment of civilian populations.
We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war. - Harry S. Truman, August 6, 1945; on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
With the approach of Memorial Day, and indeed, many holidays springing out of WWII (or other conflicts), there is invariably a discussion of the use of atomic weapons by the United States against Japan, specifically in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war with Japan. Moreover, Pres. Obama's recent visit to the site has sparked a similar discussion.

Perhaps one of the most intelligent current defenders of the decision to undertake this bombing is Fr. William Miscamble, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. The (excellent) blog American Catholic has a link to the video here. As I understand Fr. Miscamble's argument, here are his main points:
  1. Current critics of Truman and America for dropping the bomb base their criticism on limited historical knowledge.
  2. One mistaken interpretation states that even though Truman knew that Japan was on the verge of surrender, Truman used them to intimidate the Soviet Union.
  3. Truman bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, industrial targets, to avoid an invasion of Japan.
  4. Such an invasion would cause too many lives - despite continuous American bombing, and over 3 million Japanese military and civilian lives lost, no movement towards surrender was made.
  5. The Japanese were determined to continue the fight, as evidenced by creation of a Home Island militia.
  6. The atomic bombs, while not convincing the military leaders, convinced Hirohito that defense was useless.
  7. Other options would have cost many more American, Allied, and Japanese lives - estimates at the time were over 1 million lives.
  8. The Japanese also planned to execute thousands of POWs in case of invasion.
  9. The atomic bomb was justified in that it ended the Pacific war with many fewer lives lost, shortened the Pacific war, avoided the need for a land invasion, and stopped Japan's predations of its Asian neighbors.
For an opposite view, here is a summary of GEM Anscombe's argument against awarding Truman an honorary degree in 1956, based upon his action in dropping the atomic bombs:

  1. The Japanese had already asked for a negotiated surrender, but the US refused, as it was set on unconditional surrender.
  2. The Japanese did not reply to the Potsdam Declaration calling for Japan's unconditional surrender.
  3. To kill the innocent as a means to an end is always murder; you may not do evil that good may come.
  4. An invasion of Japan would have cost countless more lives, the Japanese would have killed the PoWs, and many civilians would have been killed in "ordinary bombing."
  5. Killing the innocent, however, is not necessarily murder, even if a matter of statistical certainty. If military targets are attacked, you will end up killing innocent civilians.
  6. Even if drawing a line between murder and collateral killing is difficult, it must be attempted.
  7. The "innocent" in war are those who are not fighting and not supplying the military with means to fight.
  8. "Innocent" does not refer to personal responsibility, but to those not engaged in harming. Therefore, even conscripts may be "harming" and not innocent, unless they surrender.
  9. Indiscriminate bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not wrong because of the use of atomic weapons, but because it killed innocent civilians as a means to end the war.
If I could distill the seeming philosophy behind each of these arguments, I think it would be as such:

  • Fr. Miscamble: Because the alternatives were terrible enough, it was acceptable to drop the two bombs to cause civilian chaos in order to force an unconditional surrender of Japan. In general, if the only way to produce the good or necessary outcome is via an evil means, then one may choose the evil means to the good end.
  • GEM Anscombe: Because one may never choose evil means to a good outcome,  one cannot deliberately target innocent civilians in order to produce a good outcome. This does not mean that innocents may not die in war, only that they may not be targeted as a reason to produce a given outcome.
I generally lean towards the Anscombian reasoning in this situations. There are several reasons for this, which I will discuss here.

First, Fr. Miscamble (and presumably, Pres. Truman and others who supported the use of the atomic bombs) partakes of utilitarian reasoning, specifically consequentialism. This reasoning holds that the use of the bomb was morally acceptable because it would avoid bad outcomes (invasion, heavy losses, extension of the war) and bring about good ones (less loss of life, shortened war, etc). I have several difficulties with utilitarian reasoning. I have summarized some here, but Fr. Miscamble seems to lean towards one of the following:
Expectable Consequentialism: The morally right action is the action whose reasonably expectable consequences are best. 
Reasonable Consequentialism: An action is morally right if and only if it has the best reasonably expected consequences.
This requires the actor to weigh potential future consequences of an action in order to make a calculus as to whether it is acceptable to take an action. Therefore, Pres. Truman (as it was his decision, in the end) had to weigh the loss of life, length of war, and other factors, and decide whether the dropping of the bombs could be justified in producing the consequences of Japan's surrender. Whether or not deliberately targeting innocents is good or evil is irrelevant to the calculus, provided the outcome is sufficiently assured. Looking more carefully, it may also be irrelevant whether the action does, in actuality, produce the desired result. Provided that one has calculated the expected outcomes carefully enough, then what actually happens may be beyond one's control. Therefore, the action itself remains a good action. One can be faulted in this, I suppose, only for failing to calculate outcomes carefully enough.

Second, Anscombe seems to look more closely the action in and of itself, independent of consequences. This is consistent with Anscombe's ethics - "virtue ethics," which looks at the nature of the act itself, and holds that some acts are absolutely irredeemable. She notes in her essay Modern Moral Philosophy that:
But if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration - I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.
Therefore, for Anscombe, bombing innocents intentionally, in order to bring about Japanese surrender, is  tantamount to murder, because the action qua action is evil, and cannot be undertaken for any further purpose. Anscombe does not believe that being in a war changes the nature of good and evil actions, so the state of "being at war" does not suspend this ethical judgment.

Let me try a hypothetical here.

Let's say that a certain wanted and proven crime boss is holed upon on the top floor of a building, which he owns, and he is well-supplied with food. He is behind thick glass and armored doors. He is surrounded with well-armed thugs who have enough ammunition to repel SWAT forces, and taking the floor will result in the serious loss of police forces. He will not come out unless he is guaranteed absolute extradition outside of the United States, but there are well-founded fears that he will simply continue his criminal enterprises from whichever foreign country, so the only option is his absolutely surrender or death. The crime boss has a wife and children for whom he truly cares, and these people have been placed in police protective custody pending outcome of the situation. He is known to be the head of a large and active drug network, which is responsible for many killings, and will likely continue to be until he is neutralized in some way.

In such a situation, which are the morally acceptable options?

1. The police can invade the floor, and risk heavy losses.
2. The police can bring down the entire building after warning the other inhabitants and giving them a chance to depart.
3. The police can wait for the crime boss to come out, risking a long siege / stakeout.
4. The police can attempt to bribe the crime boss out in some fashion.
5. The police can bring the crime boss's family out to the front of the building, and threaten them with execution if he does not capitulate.

For various reasons, I find 1, 3, and 4 to be morally acceptable. I do not think 2 and 5 are acceptable. However, in terms of consequentialist reasoning, if it is generally believed that the crime boss has a weakness for the lives of his wife and children, could they be executed, one at a time, until the crime boss capitulated? As long as it produces an acceptable outcome of capitulation, what would prevent this reasoning?

In this post, I have attempted to summarize Fr. Miscamble's and Anscombe's reasoning accurately, and to provide a hypothetical which seeks to apply their reasoning to what seems like a similar situation. I welcome discussion of the points of view, and where I might be incorrect in my understanding of their positions, or where I have faulty logic.

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