Hiroshima and 9/11

August 6th, 2004

Today is the 59th anniversary of the first use of an atomic bomb in war. It is a sad day for humanity. While contemplating the meaning and morality of Hiroshima, I came up with some surprising conclusions that will surely startle – and perhaps anger – you. I must say, I myself was taken aback by my conclusions. But they are the product of a solid logical sequence, and so must be given serious thought.

I was considering the fact that the A-bomb was a weapon directed at civilians, not military targets. Yes, there were some minor military targets at Hiroshima, but we all know that this strike was primarily directed at civilians, not a military target. Hiroshima had been set aside from targeting lists, preserved as a plump target for the bomb. It wouldn’t have enjoyed that status if it contained important military targets.

We have always held as a fundamental principle that war is fought between armies, and civilians are never to be targets. Civilians are to be protected or at least ignored, not targeted. Yet I am led to question that principle.

The prohibitions against attacking civilians stem from the 17th and 18th centuries. The horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, in which a significant percentage of the population of Central Europe was obliterated, convinced rulers that war must be fought in a more civilized fashion. Napoleon violated this stricture at a time when nationalism was just brewing, and earned the fury of an entire continent for the crime. By the 1850s, the rules against attacking civilians were widely accepted, although General Sherman tossed them out during the Civil War – a controversial act that inflamed opinion, South and North, against him. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the rules of war were formalized and civilians were protected; over the course of time, those protections were extended.

Where’s the end of ’proximate cause’?

We freely accept the slaughter of our military personnel in war because they are the proximate cause of danger to the other side. But we have long since accepted the notion that combatants need not confine their destruction to the immediately proximate threat (the soldiers). It’s OK to attack the enemy’s supply lines, because supply is crucial to modern warfare. It’s OK to attack his industrial capacity, because those factories are making the weapons. It should therefore be just as acceptable to attack the factory workers. And how about the people who make food for the factory workers? Shouldn’t the enemy’s farmers be just as valid a target as the factory workers or the factory?

In a modern economy, everybody is connected together. The guy who repairs photocopiers contributes to the war effort just as much as the guy who makes bullets. It’s impossible to find anybody who’s economically isolated from the warmaking effort. Any strike at any portion of the economy weakens the enemy’s ability to wage war. Therefore, any such strike is a legitimate exercise of military policy.

Yes, this is a slippery slope argument. But it’s a valid slippery slope argument because there is in fact no clear dividing line we can draw. Once upon a time, we could draw that line at military personnel, but modern warfare has long since established the principle that targets that aren’t strictly military are valid. In both Iraq wars, we bombed power plants, bridges, television stations, and other non-military targets because they supported Saddam’s overall war effort.

Ultimate cause

There’s another argument, even more powerful I think. What is the ultimate cause a war? The policy-makers who choose to wage war. From an ethical point of view, they’re more appropriate as targets. After all, the soldier who pulls the trigger is innocent in the sense that he didn’t decide to fight; he’s just following orders. And those orders came from the top. That’s where the ultimate responsibility lies. The most ethical way to win a war, then, would be to kill the people who decided to start the war in the first place.

In a place like Iraq before the latest Iraqi war, it’s easy to identify the warmaker: it was Saddam Hussein. He’s the guy who started all those wars; he’s the guy who should pay for the crime. But what about President Bush – isn’t he even more responsible for the Iraqi war than Saddam? After all, he’s the guy who started it.

Well, yes, assassinating President Bush would have been a legitimate military policy for Saddam Hussein to pursue. However, it wouldn’t have accomplished anything. Vice President Cheney would have replaced him, and Cheney would have pursued the war just as vigorously. Assassinating Cheney wouldn’t have accomplished anything either: another person would have replaced him, and then another, and another, and Saddam would never have gotten anywhere. That’s because this is a democracy, and the President doesn’t simply concoct policy out of thin air – he bases it on the wishes of the public. The people who voted for Bush are the ultimate cause of the war.

Democracy puts the people in charge of policy. If the people decide to make war, then are they not responsible for their actions? Should they not be liable for the havoc wreaked by a war they choose to enter? The notion of the “innocent civilian” is correct only in nation-states where the civilian has no voice in policy. If the citizens decide to make war, then are they not the ultimate cause of the war? And is not attacking them a perfectly reasonable and ethically appropriate course of action in such a case?

This line of reasoning suggests that the 9/11 attacks were militarily justified for an enemy at war with the USA over Middle East policy. It’s a conclusion that makes me gag – but it seems sound.

The horror of war

Ancient wars were basically genocidal. You simply killed most of the enemy, enslaved the rest, and took over his land. Nowadays, we’re more civilized. Besides, the killing task has gotten much bigger. When your enemy has millions of civilians, you simply can’t kill them all. And in fact, the power of the people to influence a government is what limits wars. Modern wars are not fought until the enemy is destroyed; they are fought until one side gives up. We clobbered the North Vietnamese militarily, but we got tired of the casualties and gave up the fight, so the North Vietnamese won. In order to win a war, you must convince the enemy’s body politic that they have lost. If they are determined and willing to accept huge losses – as were the North Vietnamese in the 1970s and Stalin was in World War II – then you’re going to have to inflict gigantic damage upon him. If they’re not so bloody-minded, as most democracies are, then it takes less mayhem to convince the enemy that the fight is not worth the losses.

But the important factor here is not the reality of the losses but the perception of that reality. Japan lost 120,000 people in the first atomic bomb strike, but the Japanese had already suffered much higher casualties in other battles. The firebombing of Tokyo alone was worse than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The island battles had each cost the Japanese tens of thousands of casualties. But the atomic bomb killed more dramatically than the battlefield. It’s easy to accommodate yourself to the steady dribble of casualties coming in every day; it’s a lot harder to accept a sudden thunderclap of death. The USA was traumatized by the deaths of 3,000 people on September 11th, 2001, but we lose at least that many people to traffic accidents every month. In the three years that have elapsed since the 9/11 attacks, we have lost 40 to 50 times as many people to traffic accidents as we lost on that day. We’ve lost that many people to household falls. We’ve lost ten times as many people to gunshot wounds. Yet we’re not traumatized by all these other deaths, because they’re business as usual. They’re not horrifying; they’re barely exciting enough to merit a few lines in the local paper.

Therefore, if you want to have a big impact on your enemy’s body politic, the last thing you want is a steady dribble of casualties. That’s pointless killing. In the modern world, you’ll never kill enough people to seriously impact your enemy’s ability to wage war, but you can kill enough people to demoralize him. But you want dramatic deaths, not mundane deaths. You want to behead people, blow them up, burn them, or otherwise kill them in the most dramatic way possible. Believe it or not, it’s the most humane strategy because it achieves the maximum political impact for each drop of blood spilled. War is, in essence, a matter of killing people. The best way to win a war is to kill the fewest people. So extract the maximum benefit from each person you kill. They’re all innocent, so get this bloody, ghastly business over with as soon as possible by making it as horrifying an experience as possible.

And maybe, just maybe, if people start to see war in terms of mangled bodies and screaming victims instead of high-tech weapons and waving flags, they’ll be less enthusiastic about it.