the imaginative conservative logo

by Ryan MauldinNagasaki bombing

A Reader’s Response to Made in America: Massacring the Innocents of Nagasaki:

As much as I respect the sentiments driving such writings—and certainly in spite of the respect in which I hold both you and Dr. Kirk—the act of ending the war swiftly through the bombings instead of drawing the brutalities of war into the very homes of the entire Japanese island, instead of only constraining it to two prominent cities, seems to me more merciful amidst the gritty reality of a world torn by war and fanatical execution of fatalistic philosophies through the “sword.” I’ve always found it intriguing that much is made of the atomic bombing of these two nuclear warheads, yet virtually nothing is ever said of the far greater carnage wreaked upon the Japanese mainland by weeks and weeks of firebombing, which killed many more people, to the measure of several orders of magnitude.

Is it the sheer power of the single weapon that draws such a visceral reaction? Certainly the principle of application between the atomic and conventional weaponry was very similar, if not identical. And the added corollary of the entire argument, a corollary almost as untouched, is the extent to which the concept of total war affects our thinking of who is and is not properly considered a combatant. Who is more responsible? Those who make the bullets with the intent of their being used to kill or those who shoot them and actually do the killing? It is a simple fact that in warfare (and to an extent also in politics, as I am learning through campaign management) the effort is fed primarily by the economic capacity of a country. That is not a savory thought, but it is certainly a very real one, and ignored at the peril of sanity.

The economy of the United States was certainly its more powerful weapon in the war against both Germany and Japan. With its capacity to maintain its own civilization—and several besides—at the same time as sustain a worldwide war effort, the United States turned its entire populace into a warmaking machine. The small businesses provided the economic understructure upon which and along with which the large businesses manufactured materiel, and this led to the arming of an entire worldwide army, an army which would not have existed without the economy of the civilian. We no longer live in those romanticized times when warfare was one king and his hundred knights marching out to match another king and his hundred knights on a battlefield isolated from the civilian population and immune to its need for economy. When wars were battles and lasted a day—or even when an entire campaign lasted a year and could be maintained by the personal finances of a lord—then warfare was isolated, simple, and unencumbered with the brutal and undesired reality that is the mix of high-powered and long-range armaments arrayed through millions of troops across a thousand mile front.

In the latter, it is impossible to isolate the war from its civilian surroundings or the facts of technology. Churchill lamented this new warfare in his observations of battles in the Sudan (The River War)—but he recognized with characteristic pragmatism the fact of its emergence and the passing of his preferred older, chivalric way.
We are left wondering, then, how to prosecute a just war in the world in which we live instead of one in the world in which we wished we lived. I certainly have not answered this question satisfactorily in my own mind on a theoretical level. At best—maybe this is the best we may attain?—I am left with the very Kirkian notion of relying upon the wisdom of our ancestors in dealing with situations as they arise, applying our principles as best as may be done to the situation that is forced upon us by the dictates of unthinking war and human strife, having mercy where possible and enforcing decisions of life and death where principles of mercy and justice or mercy and mercy conflict in necessary reality.

When you are left with the decision between destroying two cities at once on the one hand, or on the other systematically destroying an entire island, city by city, house by house, soldier by soldier, and—yes—civilian by civilian (as most certainly would have happened, given our experiences on Okinawa and other Japanese-maintained islands), which is the more righteous choice? Is there even a righteous choice? Or are we simply to believe by faith in the righteousness of God while recognizing the terrible reality of sin on earth played out through human struggle? I would welcome your thoughts if you have time to offer them. This has turned into a much longer piece than the two paragraphs that were intended, but Nagasaki bombing is a subject that I’ve thought on often yet not ever discussed with much depth or precision. And, as so often happened, the origins of the internal debate arose through a combination of classes at Hillsdale, including your own on Kirk, as well as those of Victor Davis Hansen and others.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Ryan sent this reply to me privately. I have his permission to reprint it, as it’s very much worth reprinting. Ryan was, simply put, an excellent student at Hillsdale. He’s now an equally excellent citizen of this republic and a fine Texan. He’s currently the campaign manager for Erwin Cain, Republican candidate from Sulphur Springs for the Texas State House. Ryan is just also a truly great guy, and I’m proud to be his friend.

Again, please note: I’m reprinting this—again, with Ryan’s permission—but without copy-editing it. If there are typos, please blame me (Brad) and not Ryan. Additionally, Ryan’s views DO NOT necessarily reflect those of Erwin Cain. —Brad Birzer

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
24 replies to this post
  1. The reason "the bomb" gets more attention than firebombing is because the former is the ultimate "kill em all let god sort em out" weapon, the power to annihilate an entire city with one implement. With firebombing there is at least a semblance of a chance of escape. And escape many did, though tens of thousands perished in many attacks. And the numbers for firebombing are particularly unreliable (Dresden's deaths, for example, have been reduced from an estimated quarter million decades ago to less than 25,000 today–still a shocking number). And, of course, one should not assume that those opposed to the bomb are okay with firebombing.

    You are correct in noting that the real question underlying the use of atomic weaponry (and all weapons of mass destruction, whether biological, nuclear, or incendiary) is that of total war. Does realism require us to embrace, even as a necessary evil, total war? I do not believe so.

    It is not simply technology or "economic reality" dictating total war. It is the way we think about the world.

    Our inability to distinguish particular aims from absolutes makes every struggle a total war that must be won absolutely.

    It should not, moreover, be surprising that in an age of nationalism we seek to destroy nations rather than armies. It is nationalism, not economics, that demands that every citizen be a combatant, that there are no innocents or rules in war. That the Jap working at the bank and therefore fueling the economy is as guilty as the Jap working in the bomb factory, who is in turn as guilty as the soldier.

    Or, to be a little more contemporary, that the towel-head who isn't actively helping us is as guilty as the towel-head planting the IED.

    Economics and science did not require the atomic bomb. We chose it.

    As for the estimated deaths that a mainland invasion would have cost on both sides… well, they are just that: estimates. There is no way of knowing with any degree of certainty what would have happened in such an invasion. To begin with, the Japanese had already spent the fiercest of their blood on those islands and seas. You cannot know what kind of fight was left in the young and old left.

    Moreover, there is an unquantifiable element in fighting for your own land. Perhaps, as with the Russian front, the fighting would have deeply intensified. But there is at least some reason to believe that, as with France in the summer of 1940, the fierce resistance of the islands may have broken soon after the first Allied soldier set foot on the mainland. The dropping of the atomic bombs was most significant not for any strategic purpose but because it completely destroyed the Japanese myth of invulnerability. Despite powerful Chinese neighbors for thousands of years and Western interest for centuries, the Japanese had independently controlled their main island for millennia in a way that no other southeast Asian nation had. It is possible or even likely that the presence of foreign troops on the mainland, rather than stirring a fevered final resistance, would have had the same catastrophic effect on Japanese resistance that the bombs did, and with far less destruction of innocents and civilians.

    Any beyond any of that, not all deaths are morally equal. The man who kills one banker in a heist gone wrong rightly bears more guilty than the soldier who kills thirty enemy soldiers in war. The idea that we would do better to kill twenty innocents of another nation than risk one of our own soldiers is horrifying and repugnant.

  2. But the argument was not that it was better to kill twenty innocents of another nation than to risk one of our own soldiers. The argument was that it was, perhaps, better to risk the civilian populations of a couple of cities than the civilian populations of the entire country, as it was a well-known fact that the warlords who ruled the Japanese government were already training and propagandizing the citizenry to defend "to the last man" – in effect, turning civilians into combatants.

    It is true that the speculation on the cost of a mainland invasion is just that – speculation – but was not speculation in the dark. The aforementioned firebombings had been raining devastation on Japanese cities for months as part of Gen. Curtis LeMay's calculated campaign of mass destruction. The cost in life was well into the hundreds of thousands, with one night's bombing of Tokyo having a death toll that surpassed Hiroshima.

    Regardless of the moral legitimacy of this action (a discussion well worth having), the fact that the Japanese government persisted in the war despite such catastrophic losses gives a good clue into their psychology – in summary, they were going to continue the war no matter what it cost the Japanese population. In light of this, it was not only reasonable but predictable that they would expend their own citizens as cannon fodder to fight off an invasion – at heavy cost to both the invaders and the civilians.

    The difference between the incendiary bombs used for the firebombings and the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was psychological. Once the "super-weapon" had been used, the Japanese could say "who can fight such a weapon?" without losing face. They could surrender with their "honor" intact (as such things matter to men who were willing to herd women and children onto bayonets). Thus, in the perverse logic caused by the compounding of human sin, it could be argued that the atomic bombs were in the end a mercy to both the invaders and the citizens of Japan, by providing a mental escape hatch for the madmen who had seized the nation.

    This does not mean that any of this is worthy of celebration. It simply means that it is possible that the atomic bombs were the best of a very bad job.

    (for further information about the firebombing campaign against Japan, I'd recommend Martin Caidin's excellent /A Torch to the Enemy/. Not comfortable reading, but it gives one perspective on the greater struggle.)

  3. This response was written before PrinceOfTheWest had posted his, so I apologize for any redundancies. Some of our responses do touch on similar points, though I think that Prince stated them better than I have.


    Dr. Birzer, thanks for posting this–as well as the original post that started the discussion in the first place. Mark, good to hear from you as always.

    I would offer several counter-considerations, as I believe that you miss the core problem, which is that severance from real circumstance…

    Your first argument, that perception of the ability to escape is a major determinant of moral action, lacks some substance. Perceptions are not realities when we speak theoretically about moral absolutes. Secondly, does not the fact that many escaped from the firebombing parallel quite perfectly the fact that many escaped the atomic bombing as well? Surely there were many thousands saved by the fact that the winds blew one way and not the other, just as many were saved by accidental adjustments in flight patterns with conventional bombers. Thirdly, there was never an assumption that there was approval of the firebombing–but only neglect in the minds of most thinkers, which does often amount to a kind of approval, but that is not necessitated by my argument. Again, why focus so much on the atomic bombs when conventional weapons were dropped on Tokyo and dozens of other cities with near impunity? The principle of application was the same–but the real effect was actually greater.

    Next you argue that it is not the fact of military technology and economy but rather our chosen philosophies that dictate total war as absolutist ideology. If you do not believe that economy matters, then I suggest that you go anywhere in the world and try to execute a war in the absence of a large economy. Economies are weapons. That is an inescapable reality. (I learned that, actually, from Mark Helprin in the Art of Strategic Analysis when we looked at the way economies are evaluated in determining wartime strategy and predicting military outcomes.)

    It is not simply "the way we think about the world," because the world does not change as a result of our wishing it to be different. That is a military lesson taught beginning with Sun Tzu and continuing all the way through to Rommel, and shown even by our own abysmally pathetic experiences in the entree to the Second Gulf War (which occurred, at least in great part, because of our thinking having been divorced from reality). As an aside, the ability to realize reality apart from our wishes and perceptions is also one of the first lessons to be learned when considering investments in the stock market–and the lack of this realization one of the principle downfalls of amateur investors.

    I would encourage you, also, not to mistake total war as a recognition of tactical and strategic reality (the definition from which I was arguing) with the concept of total war as animated by absolutist ideologies, and so having exclusively absolutist aims. Furthermore, you must confront the inconvenient fact that the nations we were fighting–both Germany and Japan–were far more absolutist and nationalistic than the United States at that point in history. The result of this reality was that absolutism in warfare was the situation in which we found ourselves and not the desire which we brought to the battle ourselves. Witness the Spanish War and other military skirmishes previous to this one that did not result in the same kind of absolutist view.

    Regarding the "raghead" comment–there are too many differences in situation to discuss here. Suffice it to say that the two are not parallel in circumstance and so cannot be so easily correlated.

  4. As far as the relegation of estimates to simple theoretical exercises–that is very easy to say on an internet blog three quarters of a century later but very difficult to say in the time of decision. And, I don't mean to be pert. But, when you are a commander charged with the lives of many hundreds of thousands, you cannot so easily brush off considerations of their life and death. Second in this consideration is that, while the Japanese had indeed spilled the blood of many of their crack soldiers, there were still many thousands and thousands of elite soldiers left on the mainland. Following this, we know quite well what kind of fight was left in the young and old. There is a reason that a few short months before Nagasaki when we bulldozed an island garrison, killing a quarter million soldiers and inhabitants in the minuscule space of just 464 square miles, that we only captured a few thousand combatants. That was the island of Okinawa–a bloody, bloody mess where parents ceremonially executed their entire families rather than allow themselves to be captured. While there is a possibility that you are correct–that their perceived invulnerability would have been shattered by an invasion–it is neither the more likely scenario given the experiences of every other Japanese encounter nor the proper consideration for a commander in that situation when considering the fact of the death of the soldiers in his command. It is also quixotic to imagine that not at least as many civilians and so-called innocents (so-called, in spite of their own self-perception) would have died in a conventional battle. The vastly more likely scenario would have included far more than the 200,000 combatants and civilians killed in the atomic bombings–again, remember that as many as 150,000 civilians were killed in 464 square miles alone at Okinawa on top of 100,000 combatants. How many would die if we invaded an island of 146,000 square miles?

    An aside: Shattering the belief of invulnerability was a highly strategic move, as psychology plays a large part in strategy, so must say that I do not understand your relegating it to some side category of psychological experimentation, or however else you would classify it.

    Your final comment, that not all deaths are morally equivalent, is admitted without qualification or reservation. Your conclusion, however, does not follow the premise because it is not weighed against other realities. We do not exist in a vacuum and there are no perfect options. Civilians–and many thousands–were going to die whichever choice was made. If the firebombing submission strategy was maintained, as Curtis LeMay was more than happy to continue, then hundreds of thousands of people, both military and civilian, would have died. If the atomic bombs were dropped, two hundred thousand would die. And if an invasion occurred, the civilians would have joined the fight whether by choice or because compelled, like they did or were in every Japanese engagement to that point–and many hundreds of thousands would have died. And if we had simply ignored the problem, then many hundreds of thousands of Chinese and American citizens would have died from the ongoing onslaught of Japanese Nationalistic Imperialism. Which would you choose?

    We do not get to choose between the pure and the impure in war. War is messy. War is brutal. War is horribly inhumane. But war is also the reality in which we sometimes find ourselves and so we must deal with that reality as it is presented to us. We cannot wish away the hard choices given us by the sinful impulses of mankind. We must confront them and execute our duties to God, to morality, and, yes, to our families and our native lands in as best a manner as may be done. That is our plight.

    And may God have mercy on our souls if we are ever forced into similar decisions.

  5. Good counter-considerations. Some of my own follow.

    War is indeed messy. Invading islands is messy. But I'm not sure that the annihilate-a-city shortcut is an acceptable way to cut through the mess. America was right to enter the war, but our choice to do so ought to have been accompanied by a determination not to massacre cities in pursuit of victory. That tends to sink one's moral high ground down a bit.

    Have you ever noticed that those who talk most boisterously about the hellishness of war seem to be the ones bringing the freshest of hells to bear? It makes one's actions the fault of an abstraction. "War, and not I, destroyed the South" and so on. We use the messiness of war and the nobility of ends to excuse inexcusable means.

    You speak of moral absolutes being immune to perception and imply that such morality is objective, yet you also essentially argue that massacring non-combatant families is an acceptable tactic in certain circumstances.

    I, on the other hand, happen to think that all moral absolutes are, for us, manifested in circumstances, and that our perceptions are definitive elements of those circumstances. It is perception that distinguishes first-degree murder from manslaughter from justifiable homicide. To deny perspective when talking about moral absolutes is essentially to leave reality in favor of abstraction. And yet for all my relativity, in a sense, I cannot find circumstances to justify the annihilation of a city.

    Speaking abstractly about absolutes has a place so long as we recognize that pure objective abstraction does not exist for us. Assenting to loving one's neighbor as a moral absolute is not the point. Loving one's neighbor is. Talking about the wickedness of murder is not the point. Not murdering is.

    It is perfectly right that we focus on atomic bombs primarily, as they are the ultimate incarnation of the indifference of total war.. The atomic bomb is the ultimate blind weapon, the ultimate destroyer of peoples without condition. You cannot drop one selectively, and apart from the elimination of large population centers it serves little point.

    Though let me be clear: firebombing cities is wicked.

    I did not say economics and economies do not matter. Only that it is our thinking that shapes our economies, and not economics that determines us. Factories did not pop up of their own accord, imposing economic realities on our lives. We build them because we dream them.

    Technology is not discovered. It is invented. We built an atomic bomb because we desired one. We wished to have one, and we did. Had we and others not wished for it, we would not have had it. When we say, "They would have built one anyway so we had to first," realize that they say the same thing and are as correct as we are. It is true, but it isn't true enough. We wanted it. And we got it.

    You bring up the stock market. Are not stock prices driven by perception? If a company is perceived as successful, it's stocks will go up. If it is not, it's stocks will go down. And often these perceptions create success or doom a company. Is BP a different company now than it was six months ago? Not really. But our perception of the company has changed.

    This is surely an oversimplification, but the idea that objective laws govern the stock market is no less silly.

  6. "…the nations we were fighting–both Germany and Japan–were far more absolutist and nationalistic than the United States at that point in history. The result of this reality was that absolutism in warfare was the situation in which we found ourselves and not the desire which we brought to the battle ourselves."

    Assuming this is true, you are still suggesting that is German and Japanese nationalism and not, you know, economic realities beyond human control that created the necessity of total war. Beyond that, you are basically saying that because they were wicked we were therefore compelled to be as wicked as they. Again, this takes the wind out of one's sails of superior morality.

    And the idea that we Americans had kept our noses clean in prior military conflicts is not entirely true. Sure, the Second World War represented a culmination of sorts of nationalistic wars, bringing populations more fully into war than ever before. But the First World War was no stroll in the park, and one need only study some early-20th-century American progressives to find plenty enough nationalism and absolutism to satisfy any Beck or Hannity. And even if weren't mowing down the locals in our backyard in Cuba, we certainly did a decent job of mass butchery in the Philippines, and of targeting women, children, and innocents too frequently in the Indian Wars.

    "Your final comment, that not all deaths are morally equivalent, is admitted without qualification or reservation."

    I think it stands alone rather well.

    "We do not exist in a vacuum and there are no perfect options."

    Is asking that we not annihilate whole cities of persons, of Image Bearers, in a single moment demanding perfection?

    May God indeed have mercy on the souls of any who choose to preemptively murder hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilian, as an acceptable alternative to conventional war. They'll need it.

  7. I have trouble understanding how this discussion does not reduce to the prudential judgment of an historical moment. Ryan raises some formidable questions about how we define and address conflicts that arise in a world so saturated with "worse vs worse" situations. Mark makes important observations about the value of human life and the need to avoid the callous posture of a broad brush, applied to a dehumanized enemy.

    But with all those distinctions, could not either author be persuaded, depending on the circumstance? If we could use our time machine to play out both scenarios, and learn that far more japanese civilians died at the hands of American soldiers, as collateral damage in a conventional war etc., like Ryan suggests, would Mark still argue that conventional war is morally superior course of action? Getting choopped in two by a mortar shell is morally superior to being radiated to death, or incinerated? If 400k would be killed in a conventional campaign, we should still spare the bomb?

    Likewise, Ryan, if Mark's historical contra-factual were proved accurate–the japanese would have surrendered without comparatively little fight–wouldn't you agree that it would have been a far better method?

    (Mark, I can see you arguing that a conventional war which nonetheless killed 400k civilians would be morally superior because it's likely that many of the dead would have become combatants, and therefore legitimate military targets. To keep it short, there's at least two counters to that claim 1) that civilians forced into military roles by an invading army are still not true military adversaries, even if they take up the sword. Every man will defend his family when impelled, but that doesn't make it a just fight; 2) it seems implausible that such a huge number would become direct combatants. Many would be in combat service support roles, which raises the question again of the link between economy and combat and the possibility that the difference between CSS and economy is one of degree and not of kind. )

    Mark and Ryan, if you both admit my first two paragraphs, then is it fair to say this argument turns on either rejecting or accepting the strategic judgment of the commanders at the time? Mark, you say they were wrong, the Japanese would not have fought to the last man; Ryan, you say they would have done that. But it's a disagreement about circumstance, not principles.

    I raise this because it seems important to ask if we are really discussing first principles of moral conduct, or just voicing opinions as to the quality of generalship in various times and places. To the discussion of first principles, I say press on; to the latter, I would urge a posture of mercy and humility, of avoiding too-harsh judgment from the cool arm-chair of historical reflection. It is one thing to have accurate historical data, theology, and peaceful contemplation to aid your judgments, but quite another to have moments or days in which actually to make a decision and live with the consequences.

    Let us be humble and merciful to men who must make such terrible judgments.

    Jason Gehrke

  8. Jason,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I am possibly riding a horse a little too high in this thread. While the decision to bomb the cities was inexcusable, it is certainly forgivable. And let me never deny a man mercy or forgiveness, lest it be denied me, though I will not excuse the inexcusable lest others excuse me straight into the clutches of hell or the Tucson Police Department.

    That said, I think you are missing the point in a couple ways.

    It's not a numbers game.

    It is the distinction between the incidental death of innocents and their deliberate murder. You say, essentially, a death is a death, and Mr. Nagasaki Resident won't care if he dies because my mortar accidentally took out his apartment or I nuked his city. Let me reiterate my still-standing-nicely-alone statement: not all deaths are morally equal. Mr. Nagasaki Resident may not care, but there is a distinct difference in my bloodguilt–before the Lord God, and before men. This is not ivory tower thinking. It is moral reality. To deny it is to jump right into godless amoral inhumanity.

    So, yes, I will say again that the incidental death of a thousand civilians in wartime is, while more tragic, also less wicked than the deliberate murder of one. It's the distinction between a soldier and a criminal, and it's a distinction that was apparently lost on the decision-makers.

    But beyond that and underneath that is this matter of uncertainty, which you would like to brush aside as a pesky particular that keeps us from getting at real principles. That's not the way human reality works. We don't experience abstractions. Uncertainty is inevitable, and we are justified (or not) with that uncertainty rather than through hindsight. The basic condition that the decision-makers *could not know* precludes moral justification for their actions. There really is no such thing as a preemptive strike. There are only first strikes–albeit, ones with more justification and others with less.

    Consider the "furtive movement shooting" in which a police officer shoots someone he believed was going for a weapon. The culpability of the officer comes down to what the officer knew at the time. If the officer was justified in believing that his life was in imminent jeopardy, the shooting is justified. This remains true even if the other man were pulling a wallet instead of a gun. The subsequent proof that there was no danger cannot condemn the officer in hindsight. The poor fellow is dead whether he was holding Benjamin Franklin or Smith & Wesson, and if he were holding the esteemed inventor, he is tragically dead regardless of whether or not his previous actions justified the officers reaction. But the officer's guilt changes.

    Uncertainty is a significant reason why preemptive strikes in general and nuking cities in particular are almost always morally wrong and unreasonable. Uncertainty is one reason why good ends never justify wicked means.

    So let me be clear: even if God can play out some sort of counter-factual game in which a land invasion causes millions of American deaths erases Japan would be erased from the memory of men, we human beings would remain unjustified in our decision to nuke the cities. This is not only because intentional murdering innocents is wrong no matter how you slice it, but also because we aren't God. Barring some fundamental change in human knowledge (divine revelation, for example, or the kingdom of heaven), we are stuck with our own epistemological limits.

  9. I think we're losing sight of the point of war: victory. A reasonable chance of victory is the only reason to enter a war (viz St Augustine), and it's the only outcome that justifies the sacrifices, deaths, and waste of life.

    As far as comments about Japanese resistance to invasion crumbling, it strikes me as being too similar to the woman who marries an abusive ex-con because "he'll change," all evidence from past action to the contrary. Myopic hope in the face of overwhelming evidence is folly, especially when the lives of thousands hang in the balance.

    Given our options, one of which was more likely to lead to an early victory with minimal loss of life for Americans, and the other of which was more likely to lead to hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese deaths at some point in the distant future,* Harry S took the option more likely to lead to victory sooner. Yes, it's the terrible arithmetic of war, but its arithmetic that must be calculated by decision-makers. To do otherwise is irresponsible (*in light of our recent and current experiences with insurgencies run by less sophisticated groups that lack the wholehearted backing of the civilian population, can you imagine the insurgency that would have been organized by the people who revered Miyamoto Musashi?).

    The choice of cities was unfortunate if we wiped out the civilians most likely to help us in the post-war peace, but would it have been less evil had we obliterated the center of Japanese Shintoism? This side of Judgment, isn't a Catholic soul of the same worth as any other?

    Finally, it is a mistake to think that "total war" is simply a product of the evil modern age. Economics have always driven war, remember Cicero's aphorism, "Nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam." Even maedieval battles usually involved Nobleman A (who derived his taxes to support his knights from his estate, let it be noted) fielding 200 knights to destroy Nobleman B's 100 knights and take over his fiefdom. In these scenarios, it would be naive to imagine that being conquered was easy on the peasants. "Parole" may have been good enough for knights, but it didn't extend to the smallfolk and their wives and children.

    "Limited war," if it ever truly existed, was shortlived and only in certain locations. As students of Thucydides, Homer and the Old Testament authors, one should have the historical perspective to know this. Even the Psalmist writes of the Babylonians, "Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!" It doesn't get any more unlimited than that.

    Technology and advanced economies didn't create total war, they merely gave humans greater destructive powers. I'm not advocating for amorality in war or pursuing victory through needlessly brutal means. Placing limits on our warmaking is an important part of our cult and culture, and one that we lose at our peril. But against an enemy that had defended herself tenaciously and would have fought on the beaches, on the landing grounds, etc, victory sooner and with less blood spilled was worth the destruction of a city. This mortal coil isn't called a vale of tears for nothing.

  10. Mark,

    please take this kindly. I don't think you are careful in considering the real thrust of my argument.

    My argument is not simply a numbers game; and I did not ignore your point that "not every death is morally equal." You can see this because I anticipated a response on the basis of that claim, with the parenthetical paragraph addressed to you.

    There I wrote: "Mark, I can see you arguing that a conventional war which nonetheless killed 400k civilians would be morally superior because it's likely that many of the dead would have become combatants, and therefore legitimate military targets."

    Perhaps this should have been more clear. "Because all deaths are not morally equal, I can see you arguing etc."

    What follows those words is an argument that there is not necessarily a moral distinction to be made from killing "civilians" who are forced into conventional combat by an invading force, and dropping a bomb. In either case, you force war upon "innocent civilians," who are no match for you in the long term.

    Therefore, in both conventional and nuclear war the real question is: "are these people innocent civilians or are they combat service support troops." If the answer to that question is, "innocent civilians," then in either case, the deaths are morally repugnant. As I said above, "every man will defend his family when he must; that doesn't make it a just fight." If they are CSS troops, then the only question is: "How do we minimize the taking of life in the long term?" 'Stop the killing' is moral objective.

    Perhaps my previous elucidation was too subtle.

    The point is that the real determination about ethical questions requires judgment about historical circumstances, guided by first principals. But no one here disagrees on first principles: massacre of innocents is horrid; minimizing death on any ground is a real objective etc.

    Therefore, the real question here depends on your judgment of the circumstances at the time, one that must be made at the time. You tacitly admit this when you raise an ethical hypothetical, the police shooting scenario, to explain your position: the morality of the shooting depends upon the judgment of the police officer, whether he was correct or not. When evidence shows that the man shot had no gun, you do not take up the bold moral language and call him a murder. You say he made an error of judgment, a tragic mistake.

    I am suggesting that at minimum, you extend the same truthful reasoning to our brave men, who made tough decisions with no less keen a moral sense than you. To call Nagasaki genocide and place our noble warriors in the same category with Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler, looks much like hubris–especially when you do so by ignoring the careful calculations of the heated moment.

    In refusing to account for the judgment of the men at the time (ie. the japanese people were a highly trained, motivated fighting force, prepared to defend the homeland for years; the people in Hiroshima were more analagous to soldiers in garrison than civilians in Hillsdale; the years long insurgency would have forced tens of thousands of children into war etc), in not addressing the historical problems themselves, you side-step the heart of the matter and then pass judgment upon actions apart from circumstance, in contradiction of your own ethical method, as evidenced by the "police shooter" scenario.

    One must know and judge the details in order to decide what is moral and immoral action. So why isn't this blog post one long history lesson?


  11. One further point:

    You speak of "uncertainty" as to the circumstance, as though my argument claims that the generals were uncertain. I have never suggested that. The Generals at the time claimed to be quite certain as to the posture of the Japanese people, their fighting capability, and the likely outcome of a years long insurgency against a conventional force.

    This begs the question even further: were they right or wrong? No one arguing for the relative justifiability of the nuke pretends to be uncertain, and therefore opting for the most self-serving outcome. They claim to be totally certain, and take action on the basis of that knowledge.

    The point being again: You must grapple with the facts of history before you brand good men murders.


    PS. The idea that "the distinction between soldiers and criminals" was "lost upon the decision-makers" is totally preposterous. Absurd.

  12. CMB, by your standards is anything not acceptable in the pursuit of victory? What if we knew that raping the enemy's woman would bring him to his knees? Fair game? If not, then why is murdering his wife and children and neighbors okay?


    We have likely reached an impasse. Nevertheless, one more attempt.

    "What follows those words is an argument that there is not necessarily a moral distinction to be made from killing 'civilians' who are forced into conventional combat by an invading force, and dropping a bomb. In either case, you force war upon 'innocent civilians,' who are no match for you in the long term."

    On the one hand you are killing someone holding a gun and intending to shoot your or your fellow soldiers. Whether they are forced into it is not your moral concern, just as you may legally (and morally) kill a man who attacks your children, even if he does so under someone else's compulsion.

    On the other hand you are blowing up tens and hundreds of thousands of people making dinner, listening to the radio, trimming their hedges, reading books, napping, doing pretty much anything but attacking you. Whether they might later have been combatants is not relevant. We don't get to decide how the enemy faces us, but we do get to decide when and where to attack them.

    Frankly, if you can't see the distinction between killing someone while he points a gun at you and killing someone while he mows his lawn, then we have absolutely no common ground on this issue.

    "But no one here disagrees on first principles: massacre of innocents is horrid; minimizing death on any ground is a real objective etc."

    Frankly you sound like a 21st-century abortionist. "No one is pro-abortion, we're all for the reduction of abortions," and so on. We absolutely disagree on first principles. Your first principles say it's horrid but also morally acceptable to massacre innocents if it minimizes other deaths. My first principles say the wholesale massacre of innocents is not only horrid but unequivocally wrong, no matter what ends you might be serving.

    My uncertainty point was not related to the level of confidence or certainty of the generals. They may have been very confident, but unless they were privy to God's knowledge their confidence was misplaced. The man who kills an unarmed man because he might do harm at some later date has committed murder. We may understand. We may even sympathize. We ought to forgive. We may not excuse.

  13. "You tacitly admit this when you raise an ethical hypothetical…"

    Except that in the case of the bombings no one thought the people of Nagasaki were enemy combatants. There was no mistaken identity in Nagasaki. If the police officer had shot a gang member he knew was unarmed because that gang member would likely engage in violence at a later date, the officer would go to jail for murder. Rightfully so.

    I did not call Nagasaki genocide. It wasn't. It was mass murder. There's a distinction.

    "…the people in Hiroshima were more analagous to soldiers in garrison than civilians in Hillsdale"

    This is utterly absurd. By your standards the British would have been justified in slaughtering every American town in 1776, we were justified at My Lai, the Soviets were more than justified at Katyn Forest, we would be justified to annihilate any town that's a Taliban stronghold, and anyone anywhere who has ever massacred a population of innocents in an occupied country is justified.

    The distinction lost on the generals was the distinction between incidental deaths and intentional killing of civilians. It happens to be the distinction between a soldier and a criminal. A soldier may be excused the death of a civilian when it was accidental due to the messiness and unpredictability of war. But when he deliberately kills a civilian, knowing full well that the person he is killing is unarmed and not engaged in hostile action against him, he is rightfully convicted of murder.

    Unless that soldier is a general or a president and he kills not one civilian but hundreds of thousands, in which case we laud his brave decision to slaughter a city because, dammit, that takes stones.

  14. Mark,

    You wrote:

    "On the other hand you are blowing up tens and hundreds of thousands of people making dinner, listening to the radio, trimming their hedges, reading books, napping, doing pretty much anything but attacking you. Whether they might later have been combatants is not relevant. We don't get to decide how the enemy faces us, but we do get to decide when and where to attack them."

    This is the most historically blind portrait of the Japanese people I've ever heard. Maybe try again: sharpening their swords, training their children, preparing their bombs, mortars, and sand-bag defenses, paying homage to their divine emperor, and reminding their young man to enforce corporate suicide in the case of impending defeat.

    Under this circumstance, you really have to ask the question if you are dealing with a civilian population in the same way, or seriously trained militarized fighting force. That's the question you continue to skirt. Apparently, you assume it is impossible to militarize a population to the point that it becomes a legitimate military target. That's a serious question to be argued, perhaps it can be proved. But you haven't done the heavy lifting to make that an assumption.

    You wrote: "frankly, you sound like a 21st century abortionist…"

    That's just offensive. I won't even bother.


  15. One more thought, Mark:

    There seems something very flawed in a moral calculus that is disinterested in the actual body-count. Undoubtedly, you will go back to saying I have a numbers-counting, abortion doctor mentality. Please take this as an ancillary and important point that I regard as improperly neglected thus far.

    The moral calculus you have raised is entirely self-centered, self-justifying, and self-interested. You seem to be concerned only with the "divine blood-guilt" that you might bear. Which means that you seem quite confident in taking the lives of countless more civilians by "collateral damage," and soldiers by direct combat, so long as you have the moral abstraction to justify yourself:

    "Hey, God, Granny Jap was a combatant. Really she was; did you see that stick she was swinging at me? And Grandpa with that wicked Samurai sword and the hand-gun. They were a serious enemy threat, Man. And the children, the starving babies, the dead mommies? Well, it was an accident God. Collateral damage. What can I say? War is Hell. Didn't mean to, Jesus."

    The assumption of all our previous conversation is that we need to find the right abstractions upon which to declare ourselves righteous before the Throne, without any real consideration of the actual, bloody, human suffering that we cause. It's morally superior to wage a war that kills numerous civilians, so long as you can tell God their deaths were accidental.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer castigated this kind of abstract moralizing as false, precisely because it is utterly self-centered; it has no real love for the other person. (Please don't retreat to calling me an abortion doctor; that's so boring.)

    There's a real consideration here: can we claim to be acting "morally" when our decisions have no concern for what we ACTUALLY DO to another, Image Bearer?

    Your reasoning seems only to ask upon what abstract principles we can justify the slaughter of millions. That's a flawed moral thinking in my book..and Bonhoeffer's Ethics. You might enjoy it.


    PS. I'll ask you to attempt an hermeneutics of charity, remember that typing is work, and we do not enjoy the ease of conversation in clarifying ourselves.

  16. Jason,

    "This is the most historically blind portrait of the Japanese people I've ever heard."

    They may very well have spent time lecturing their kids on the resistance. They may even have sharpened swords, just as the British were doing in 1940. Most of the Japanese people in Nagasaki were attending to their lives in 1945 just as the British in London were five years earlier. It was a city, and the main industry of the city was ship- and not bomb-building. Your portrait of a goose-stepping garrison is hardly more realistic. Chances are the real truth is between goose-stepping and gardening.

    If a martial spirit of resistance makes a city a legitimate target of annihilation, than we have to conclude that Hitler would have been within the bounds of war to nuke London and King George III would have been right to slit every throat in Boston.

    As for my moral calculus, you may be on to something. I don't know if I would call it selfish, but there is a certain self-centeredness to my arguments about intentional v incidental deaths and even perhaps some unwieldy abstraction. It is possible that saying better a thousand war deaths than a single murder is selfish, but would you murder a child to save a city? Would you excuse one who did? We cannot choose for others but we can choose for ourselves. We cannot choose if the Japanese government forces their populace into arms, but we can choose if we kill them in their beds before they've ever taken up arms.

    When I say that intentionally killing civilians is wrong, this does not somehow mean that negligently killing swaths of civilians is thus okay in my book. It is, again, the difference between first- or second-degree murder and manslaughter. Saying that the former is worse does not make the latter peachy. I am opposed to excessive incidental civilian deaths on moral and practical grounds.

    I intended the abortion comparison to be a little shocking. I was not necessarily intending to offend, but, honestly, proclaiming that killing innocents is horrid while defending the annihilation of a city seems no less contradictory and even intellectually dishonest. I was more reacting to the idea that we're all agreeing on the basic moral points, which is basically what all the 'common ground abortionists' will say. Only it's not true.

    If I have been at all uncivil it is because I find your argument (not you personally) horrifying. I do not mean that as an insult to you, and as I say I risk at times mounting a high horse, but I simply cannot wrap my mind around any way to characterize Nagasaki as something other than mass murder. Understandable under the circumstances, but never excusable.

  17. I have been watching this thread with great interest, and find much to admire on several sides. May I offer three comments, intended to clear some air?
    1) The wars of the last century accomplished nothing other than the destruction of Western Civilization.
    2) The wars of this century so far have accomplished nothing except the destruction of the American economy.
    3) Military power is needed for two purposes: the first is to defend our borders against any kind of attack, and the second is to kill enemies who are trying to kill us. Anything else is either immoral or amoral.

  18. Dear Dr. Willson and Mark,

    You both inspire several thoughts, or streams of thought, in me.

    First, Dr. Willson: I think you are right on all three points. But your comment about Israel intrigues me. I'm not sure what to say to it. Can you fill that out a bit more?

    I do think you are right that all the wars since 1914 have served to diminish Christendom, with a visible singularity of purpose. I think this was by design. I think these are the "wars and rumors of wars" that Christ promised would portend His coming to judge the quick and the dead. They are a mark of "these last days" (Heb. 1) in which we live. And although "these last days" may go on another 3000k years, I do believe they are particularly spiritual in nature. That is, they represent an intensification of the Adversary's assault upon Christ in His Church.

    We can say this definitely because the modern wars accomplished uniquely spiritual (as opposed to political, economic, earthly) objectives. Beginning with the 30 Years War, they served to divide the Church against herself by crushing faith in the paradosis, in order to wrend the Church's Confession and make her one communion in the Sacrament of the Altar impossible. The wars of the 20th Century furthered the Devil's agenda to divide people from the body and blood of Christ poured down their throat for forgiveness, in a way that previous wars did not. For that reason, I think we are correct to say that they were truly wars mounted by the Devil against Christ.

  19. Continued:


    Thanks for your comments and for giving serious consideration to my previous post about our moral calculus. A few thoughts follow:

    You wrote: "but I find your argument horrifying…"

    You may find this somewhat furtive, but I have not actually rendered any judgment on Nagasaki pro or con, in this discussion at all. I have consistently attempted to convince you to step back from a position that is, in my view, too easy; I have argued that you need to pay more attention to the historical detail; I have suggested that (and still say) you and Ryan do not disagree on first principles. But I have very carefully reserved judgment on the particular point in question.

    With our last two posts, however, I think we've moved onto sufficiently common ground that it's a good time to offer my own opinion, which is something of a tertium quid.

    I object to the line of reasoning you have offered above, Mark, because it is at once too harsh and too lenient. I wonder if it is not so harsh, in order that it might be so lenient.

    To me, your judgment is too harsh because it fails to take into account just how wicked modern "conventional warfare" is. Certainly, atomic weaponry in itself has more power, bomb for bomb, than conventional weaponry. But we nonetheless can and have worked unspeakable destruction by means of modern "conventional weapons."

    You are outraged at Nagasaki because we used a weapon knowing the unavoidable effects of the so-called "collateral" damage. But if we had waged the most careful conventional air-ground attack, we would have done so, knowing that our actions would necessarily bring untold deaths of innocents, horrible suffering, and victory over the enemy. We know it will happen ahead of time; we know it.

    If the morality of human actions is not simply a numbers game, as you say, then I think these deaths are no less tragic and unjustifiable because they MIGHT be fewer; they are no less calculated. The bottom line is that in modern war, we take actions that we know will destroy "civilians" and "innocents", and we make those judgments because we find them unavoidable–not justifiable.

    I object to your argument because it seeks to justify and perhaps even sanctify "conventional war" by assuming clarity, moral rectitude, about the nuclear war. I think that's unreal.


  20. … In my view, this only ignores the terrible reality of the wars we wage in these last days. Again, that's because whether by one A-bomb or 100k 1000ilb bombs, we kill "non-combatants," "civilians," "innocents," every time we go to war with modern weapons–not to mention the enemy, Image Bearing, soldiers, whom we teach ourselves to hate and annihilate.

    There's just no justifying war.

    There's a reason so many soldiers return from "justifiable" combat, with guilty consciences. The law of God written on our hearts testifies to us that human beings were not supposed to take the lives of one another, that whenever we kill another man, we kill a brother, and that it is not supposed to be this way. Our conscience convicts us.

    But don't let me give the wrong impression. I am not saying that we should never go to war. There's no question that Hitler had to be opposed, that defending our families from Japanese assault was a moral obligation of our office under God's law as fathers, husbands, brothers, etc. If we stand by and do nothing to defend our families, friends, communities, our consciences convict us no less.

    I am no passivist.

    What I am suggesting, rather, is that our concept of sin should be far more robust. I believe that we are like St. Augustine, "dragged unwilling into the actions [we] choose (Conf. IX.)" We are forced against our will to do things that we do by our own power. Like the civilian who takes up arms to defend his home, we make ourselves the legitimate targets of God's judgment by actions we find unavoidable. Hitler and Japan forced WWII upon us. And yet, we did not (and perhaps could not) escape that conflict with our righteousness untainted.

    It's this conclusion that I don't think your moral reasoning allows for. You seem to assume that we can really justify the killing, depending on the circumstances–that we can be justified in our own actions. Consequently, your moral reasoning isn't really concerned with the real human cost, and is, in theory, comfortable with the killing. I find this horrifying.

    When we examine the countless acts of war on both sides, we find endless violations of every commandment at the individual level; we find ourselves saturated in a filthy baptism of sin.

    So just wage war by any means, then? No.

    1) Avoid war. Do everything we can to avoid war. Abandon the progressive internationalist agenda of the 20th century and the false religion of the Messiah Nation, and the gnostic eschatology that supported it.

    2) Since we can only avoid war occasionally, treat each circumstance on it's own terms. Do our best to save life in every circumstance; and never pretend that "collateral" damage can be justified. Deal mercifully in our judgment of our forebears.

    3) "Kill the people that are trying to kill us. Any less is either immoral or amoral."

    You may find this unsatisfying as a conclusion. I do too. But I think that's sort of the point also. I don't think we can be both satisfied with our actions and truthful, when we enter into the terrible realities. Ultimately, we find ourselves with Bonhoeffer, "ignorant of our own righteousness," doing what we can.

    In other words, the only definitive word we can speak about Nagasaki, or Vietnam, or Korea, or Verdun, or Belleau Wood, or any of them is "Kurie Eleison!"

    That's my view.


  21. Dr. Willson,

    I also like your three points. And I am also mystified by your Israel dig. John Lukacs has a few marvelous passages throughout his books about the unintended consequences of Hitler's actions, how Hitler's attempt to stamp out Judaism in Europe forever actually gave Zionists essentially free reign for the following half-century. And while I'm no fan of the neo-con pro-Israel lobby, I fail to see how anyone can lay the blame for the two world wars and what followed at the feet of Israel, Jews, or Zionists without stepping into some scary Bishop Williamson territory.


    Well, you have surprised me more than a little. I did note that you had not specifically advanced a position, which is why I more horrified by the argument proffered than by you, per se.

    You did a marvelous job of setting up these last two posts of yours. This is good: "I object to the line of reasoning you have offered above, Mark, because it is at once too harsh and too lenient. I wonder if it is not so harsh, in order that it might be so lenient."

    I did not and do not condone the tendency of "smart bombs" to not-so-smartly make their way into backyards and marketplaces. And, again, when I say that purposefully annihilating a whole city is worse than accidentally bombing a market, I do not mean that the latter is therefore good. But you may be correct in suggesting that an extreme focus on the former ends up making the latter look relatively decent.

    I do like your own three points, and the quite essential warning that every choice for war is a choice for death. But while you fear that my excessive emphasis on the nuke ends up excusing milder versions of civilian slaughter, I also fear that making war The Decision means that once you're in there are no bounds because you're in, right? It's like the college freshmen who've been taught that any underage drinking is absolutely wicked, and so once they make the choice to have a beer they might as well go ahead and drink a 30-pack in a night, right?

  22. Yes Jason, I was less than forthcoming on my comment about Israel. I mean two things by it: one is anecdotal, a woman I know was married for many years to a Palestinian Christian, whose life was made miserable. They lived in BETHLEHEM! The other is that most Americans don't recognize the depth of secular Jewish and/or committed Jewish hatred of Christ. It is not at all fashionable to bring such things up–and it has nothing to do with antisemitism–but if we are to understand things as they are in the Middle East we must call things by their names.

Leave a Reply