Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Morality of Total War

I've been following a very interesting thread prompted by a post by sideways over at Donklephant (h/t to The Moderate Voice though I can't find a link to the original post).

A snippet from sideways:

I need someone to explain something to me. It’s a moral question, so naturally I need help.

Sixty five years ago we fought a war with Japan following their attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a matter of a few months we were burning down Japanese cities. The Japanese of that era favored wood construction and we dropped incendiary bombs. Later, when the technology became available, we dropped atomic bombs.

You can argue one way or the other whether there were significant, legitimate military targets in each and every case, but let’s take it as granted that there were. Nevertheless, incendiaries in packed cities full of wood houses, I think we knew what would result. I think we knew the firestorms might suck the oxygen from the lungs of children as well as adults, women as well as men, opponents and supporters of the regime alike.

Fair enough so far?

Question: were we right or wrong to do it?

Some thoughts on the initial question of the "morality" of US targeting of civilian poulations in Japan (and Allied targeting in places like Dresden I would suppose) I think its helpful to view war as a tactic, a tool for the acheivement of some goal (many have also suggested that this is exactly how terrorism should be viewed as well).

We fought WWII using the specific sort of tool known as "total war", wherein we sought not just to win mere strategic geographical objectives, but to entirely eliminate our enemies' capacity to wage, or even contemplate waging war. We were seeking to crush our enemies' wills.

Now total war is a terrible thing, a sloppy and dangerous tool indeed, which, once released, will neccesarily will inflict horrendous casualties on civilian populations.

But if you accept that the defeat of the agressively militaristic and expansionist regimes of Hitler's Germany and Hirohito's Japan was an existential imperative for the Allies, and that the tool called total war was the only way to achieve this imperative, then its use was inevitable.

Is the inevitable subject to "morality"? Can it be?

I posit that moral considerations were on point primarily in the decision whether to wage this war, and this sort of war, or not.

And it seems to me that this applies today, that the overarching moral decisions are made (consciously or not) at the outset of a war.

Whether to wage war at all. And if so how it should be waged.

Which is one of the reasons our current adventure in Iraq so pisses me off.

The decision to go to war is an enormously important moral decision.

And in a democracy that aspires to morality (and makes rather a point of crowing about it) shouldn't such a decision be made on the best available information?

I, and I suspect many Americans feel they were mislead.

That the administration purposefully exagerrated the immediate threat posed by Saddam's Iraq.

That the administration purposely conflated (Bush's recent disingenuous denials not notwithstanding) Iraq with the attacks of 9/11.

That the administration consistently low-balled the costs of this war, to our soldiers, to our treasury, and, ironically I suppose, to our moral standing in the world.

And whether these last were done in good faith or not, I find it particularly galling that NONE of the leadership responsible have been held to account.

I also find it extremely worrisome that, faced with electoral defeat, Republicans are ratcheting up their rhetoric by conflating our WWII and Cold War struggles, with our current need to defend ourselves against the tactic of terrorism.

If such comparisons are being made disingenuosly (frankly my hope) then they are merely despicable.

But if they are being made in earnest then our country is facing a moral decision akin to that which we faced at the outset of WWII.

I hope the decisions we make are ones our children and grandchildren can live with.

No comments: