Sunday, May 29, 2016

Bolton’s Hiroshima Defense Worst Kind of Patriotism

Pres. Barack Obama embraces survivor of Hiroshima bomb.
(Source: AP/Toledo Blade.)
The bromide tells us that “hindsight is always 20/20.” Well, perhaps individual humans can objectively recognize mistakes they made in  their pasts as individuals. But when it comes to history, hindsight is often just as myopic as foresight, as public discussion over Pres. Barack Obama’s apologetic non-apology at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park so tellingly demonstrates.

The President’s Highest Duty

Example: In the New York Post this last Thursday, former UN ambassador John Bolton (who, I am shocked to discover, is an executive with the American Enterprise Institute) defended the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “An American president’s highest moral, constitutional and political duty is protecting his fellow citizens from foreign threats,” Bolton declaims with a patriotic consequentialism verging on moral imbecility. “Presidents should adhere to our values and the Constitution, and not treat America’s enemies as morally equivalent to us. If they do, they need not apologize to anyone.”

Pearl Harbor was “a date which will live in infamy,” in Roosevelt’s words. Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) came after four years of brutal war and a desperate race against Nazi and Japanese efforts to develop atomic weapons. We won the race, and Truman acted decisively and properly to end the war.

Truman understood that not using the atom bombs would have condemned millions of service members to death or debilitating injury. Japanese resistance grew significantly as US forces neared Japan, and, expecting fanatical Japanese resistance, American military planners repeatedly increased projected US casualties. The calculus could not have been clearer.

This isn’t the first time Bolton has publicly defended the bombings. In 2001, while an Undersecretary of State, he published an essay in Duke Law School’s Law and Contemporary Problems arguing that the US should not be a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, arguing that a “straightforward reading” of the statutes’ language would leave the US open to charges of war crimes for its bombing campaign of Germany and Japan. “A fortiori, these provisions seem to imply that the United States would have been guilty of a war crime for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is intolerable and unacceptable.”

Bolton’s Errors of Fact

Bolton begs several questions, not the least of which is the question of whether intentionally bombing civilians is intrinsically evil or not. We’re supposed to “do the math” on the presumption that the notional number of “good guy” lives saved justifies the means, regardless of how many real civilian Japanese lives it cost. In fact, there’s not a little bit of hint in Bolton’s rhetoric that, because the Japanese were the “bad guys”, the civilians pretty much deserved whatever they got.

The contrast Bolton proposes between the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the nuclear bombings fails. The Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes confined their attacks to the naval base; the sole infamy was in the fact that the attack took place without any formal notification of war or break in diplomatic relations. Of the casualties, all but 68 of the 2,403 dead and 35 of the 1,178 wounded were active-duty military, most of whom were volunteers rather than conscripts. By contrast, of the over 140,000 people who died as the result of the two atomic blasts, less than 20% of them were soldiers of the Second General Army. The implication that the Pearl Harbor attack justified a bombing that killed four civilians for every soldier is unworthy of a (presumably) civilized, moral person.

The invasion facts Bolton cites aren’t “facts” at all, in the proper sense; they’re exaggerations of the War Department’s worst-case estimates. Japanese resistance to continuing the war was building, especially within the Japanese Navy. The Soviet Union was committed to entering the war against Japan within three months of the defeat of Nazi Germany; on August 8, 1945, exactly three months after the Dönitz government’s surrender, the Soviets invaded Manchukuo (Manchuria), a move that had been long in the planning. Had Truman decided not to drop the bombs, the Soviet entry into the Pacific war might have been sufficient for the anti-war faction to finally undermine Hideki Tojo’s government and prompt Emperor Hirohito’s decision to surrender. In any event, the only certain fact about “what might have happened” is that it didn’t; the number of lives “saved” is a wild-ass guess.

What Truman Should Have Known

The line between history and national/cultural mythos is often difficult to draw. In the American mythos, World War II is a “good war”, in which brave, decent young American men unselfishly marched off by the millions to free the world from tyranny and genocide. Oh, we know the soldiers weren’t uniformly decent, that some of those “good guys” were warped by the stresses of war into committing some indecent acts — but never to the degree or scale of the Axis soldiers, right? Having had three great-uncles who served during that conflict, one of whom lost his life fighting the Germans in southern France, it’s not my desire to assert that the war wasn’t just, or that we were wrong to participate in it.

Neither is it part of my argument to say that Harry Truman could or should have known of the impending collapse of the Japanese militarist government. Nor could Roosevelt and Truman have known that there was no “race” per se to weaponize the atomic pile. (Neither Germany nor Japan had the economic base to progress much beyond the heavy-water stage; the Soviets were unable to build a bomb for several years despite stealing secrets directly from the Manhattan Project.)

What Truman and the War Department should have known, however, was the intrinsic immorality of terror-bombing. Surely we need not pretend that every decision the Allied commanders made was morally correct in order to maintain that the war itself was just, that it was fought for the right reasons, and that most American servicemen attempted to maintain some sense of decency in the midst of the most horrible and widespread conflict known to humanity.

The Law of Nations

The basic idea that Bolton advances — whatever strategy or tactics a country deems necessary for its defense is by definition licit — isn’t part of the Western tradition of the “law of nations”, or ius gentium. Even the so-called “apostle of total war”, Gen. William T. Sherman, never advocated indiscriminate killing of civilians. Ironically, the period in which Sherman flourished also saw the rise of international conferences and multilateral treaties dedicated to establishing legal limits to wartime practices. Furthermore, given wide enough acceptance of any treaty, such as the Hague Convention of 1907, a nation could be held accountable at an international tribunal whether that nation was a signatory or not. This precedent was established by the Nuremburg International Military Tribunal, the charter for which the US was a signatory, as part of its legal judgments against the top Nazi war criminals.[*]

[REVISION: The key concept to the ius in bello (“law in war”, or humanitarian law) is distinction between combatants and non-combatants — between belligerent and neutral nations, between soldiers and civilians, setting the non-combatants aside as to be left uninjured insofar as possible, while recognizing that some loss of non-combatant life is inevitable. The concept of distinction limits our understanding of the concept of military necessity in such a way that an action which will imperil non-combatant lives cannot be deemed “necessary” if there is another way to accomplish the military goal without the (same degree of) peril to non-combatants. The desire to limit the loss of life also drives the principle of proportionality: the “collateral damage” ought not exceed the military benefit gained by the act.]

International law as it had developed by the beginning of World War II made no specific provisions against the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in defended towns. Precisely because there were no provisions anyone could point to as a legal basis, neither the Nuremberg nor Tokyo tribunals ever heard a charge of terror-bombing as a war crime. Nevertheless, post-war reflection on bombings such as those of London, Rotterdam, Chongqing, Hamburg, and Dresden, to say nothing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has led to increasing rejection of the idea that deliberately or indiscriminately bombing civilians can be a military necessity or a proportionate response. Articles 53 and 56 of Protocol I, a 1977 amendment to the Geneva Conventions, forbid such indiscriminate attacks, including attacks on food, water, and other survival necessities, especially by NBC weapons.

Even though the Senate has yet to ratify Protocol I, the US military now does its best to limit “collateral damage” and avoid area bombing near civilian centers. When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) promised to “carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion”, coalition commander Lt. Gen. Sean McFarland, USA objected:

We’re the United States of America, and we have a set of guiding principles and those affect the way we as professional soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines, conduct ourselves on the battlefield. So indiscriminate bombing, where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. ... Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay. [Bold font mine.—ASL]

“Man’s Feeble Attempt to Insure Decency”

... [T]he mere fact that war has unhappily begun [does not] mean that all is fair between the warring parties. (Gaudium et Spes 79 § 4)

In the one memorable line from the film The Bonfire of the Vanities, Judge Leonard White (Morgan Freeman) calls the law “Man’s feeble attempt to insure decency.” The laws and customs of war as developed over the last two centuries have been an attempt to bring some decency into an endeavor that can strip individual men of the thin veneer of civilization, reducing them to their basest, most primitive selves. Cicero said that the laws fall silent in the midst of arms; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, humanity decided that, even in the midst of the most dire struggle, the voice of the law — the voice of human decency — should still be heard.

While I agree with Bolton that national protection is the President’s highest duty, I dispute the notion that “national protection” is a magic wand conferring legitimacy on all that it touches. We should have learned by now not to wrap our outrages and atrocities in Old Glory. I especially dispute the notion that any moral superiority we Americans might have had over our enemies frees us from the obligation to recognize and apologize for wrongs our past leaders committed against them. So far as we failed to conform to the ideals that led us into war, we subverted any claim we have to moral superiority. We are not exempted from the stain of sin by dint of having been the “good guys”.

In sum, Bolton’s shoddy, demagogic apologia for Truman’s decision shows himself up as the worst kind of patriot: the jingo who shouts, “My country, right or wrong,” but cannot admit when his country has done wrong. It is the distillation of everything that’s corruptive about American exceptionalism, its latent hypocrisy and hubris made manifest. Carl Schurz, the German-American reformer, politician, and Civil War general, put the phrase in its proper light: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right” [italics mine].

If Truth is still an American value — I often have my doubts — then Truth demands we admit our errors. If Justice is still an American value, then Justice demands at bare minimum an abject apology for our errors. If the rule of Law is still an American value, then let us be bound henceforth by the law of nations. Otherwise, let’s not demand our President uphold values to which we give mere lip service.





[*] The IMT’s reasoning isn’t convincing, and hasn’t sufficed to defuse the charge that the tribunal was imposing ex post facto law. (See “Epilogue: The Verdict of Time”, in Persico, Joseph E.,  Nuremberg, New York: Penguin Books, 1995.) I mention it because an argument doesn’t need to be convincing for it to become a legal precedent … as the last hundred years of SCOTUS decisions overwhelmingly demonstrates.