Hiroshima and the Laws of War

Hiroshima Aftermath
Hiroshima Aftermath

Earlier this month, the world recognized the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States military during World War II. And back in May, President Barack Obama (D) participated in a wreath laying ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Both events brought the 1945 atomic bombings back to the fore, and ignited a renewed debate about whether they were justified.

The answer is no. They were not.

I’m a patriotic American. I’m normally inclined toward a positive view of American foreign policy, and especially toward the actions of our military. But part of why I am a patriotic American is because the United States has been, more often than not, a moral actor on the world stage. In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, we went to great lengths to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, and consistently obeyed the laws of war. When it was discovered that some soldiers were violating these principles—like the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq—we prosecuted and punished them.

War is a regrettable reality of human existence, but it is incumbent upon warring nations to act according to some basic norms. Among these is an understanding that only military targets may be targeted, and that all parties must make every reasonable attempt to minimize civilian casualties. When one of the belligerent nations violates these norms, it does not authorize the others to do the same. ‘Two wrongs do not make a right.’ The principle of ‘total war’ that took hold on both sides during World War II was not, and is still not, morally defensible.

The fact that Axis forces repeatedly attacked civilian targets during the war did not make it acceptable for Allied forces to return the favor. Our participation in World War II was necessary and proper, and winning even more so, but certain actions—such as the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo—still stand as terrible moral stains upon our conduct. Soon after the war ended, the world adopted the Fourth Geneva Convention, which defined a number of protections for civilians during wartime. Had it been in effect during the war itself, and had the Allied and Axis powers been signatories, essentially every warring nation—the United States included—would have been guilty of countless violations.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo, were not limited to military targets. They were designed to kill combatant and noncombatant alike. They were designed to inflict terror. And therefore, they were violations of the laws of war, and immoral.

Perhaps in recognition of this, apologists have attempted to redefine what constitutes a military target. They argue that because Germany and Japan were themselves engaged in ‘total war,’ and because their national economies were largely dedicated to the war effort, that meant that every German and every Japanese person was a combatant. This convoluted logic doesn’t hold. We would not have accepted that defense if Germany had nuked Boston, or if Japan had firebombed San Francisco. Our economy was largely dedicated to the war effort too, and if all Germans and all Japanese were combatants, then so were all Americans. Our men, women, and children would have been fair game too.

Another argument used in defense of the atomic bombings of Japan is the claim that the bombings, by ending the war, saved thousands upon thousands of lives. This is a classic utilitarian argument. Its proponents are saying, in essence, that by doing a wrong of 1*X magnitude, it prevented others from doing a wrong of 5*X magnitude. But it is never acceptable to do something that is inherently wrong, even if it might have some positive effect. In other words, ‘the ends do not justify the means.’ The atomic bombings of Japan almost certainly saved countless lives that would have been lost—on both sides—if we had been forced to invade. That is practically indisputable. But it does not follow from there that the wanton killing of innocent people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was permissible or right.

I can’t blow up an apartment building in which some terrorists are making bombs, killing fifty innocent tenants in the process, because those terrorists will later use those bombs to kill a thousand other innocent people. From a utilitarian perspective I could argue that we came out 950 lives ahead, but that does not remove or abrogate the fact that I murdered fifty innocent people. We’re not talking about people getting caught in a crossfire, or being killed when the terrorists get spooked and set off their own bombs. Those are unintended accidents, or results of actions by the ‘bad guys.’ But the ‘good guys’ are supposed to have some moral grounding. They can’t actively and intentionally kill innocent people in hopes of saving some greater number of other innocent people. This is a moral fact. It doesn’t change because we’re talking about thousands of people, or hundreds of thousands of people, instead of fifty.

Does that mean we should apologize for the atomic bombings, as some feared Obama might do during his visit in May? No. What’s done is done, and today’s Americans do not bear responsibility for things that our forebears did. The Fourth Geneva Convention I referenced earlier also includes prohibitions against holding anybody accountable for “an offense he or she has not personally committed.” The people who bear the moral responsibility for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the military leaders who gave the orders, and perhaps the airmen who carried them out. (In the aftermath of that same terrible war, the world collectively agreed that ‘just following orders’ is not an acceptable excuse, and so those who execute an order to kill innocent civilians may bear at least part of the responsibility for that crime.)

But while there is no need to apologize, we should not assert that the atomic bombings were a positive good, or even that they were morally ambiguous. They were not. We might sympathize to some degree with the utilitarian calculations of the people who ordered them. We might also acknowledge that the attacks ended a war that might otherwise have gone on indefinitely and resulted in many, many thousands more deaths. But the indiscriminate killing of noncombatants is something that we should be able to condemn without equivocation.

And so I acknowledge that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and other attacks that targeted noncombatants) were wrong. I acknowledge this not because I’m ‘anti-American,’ but, on the contrary, because I am a patriot. I hold my beloved country to the highest moral standards. You should too.

Scott Bradford has been putting his opinions on his website since 1995—before most people knew what a website was. He has been a professional web developer in the public- and private-sector for over twenty years. He is an independent constitutional conservative who believes in human rights and limited government, and a Catholic Christian whose beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University. He loves Pink Floyd and can play the bass guitar . . . sort-of. He’s a husband, pet lover, amateur radio operator, and classic AMC/Jeep enthusiast.