Civilians aren’t Combatants

Edward Feser had written a response to a recent article by George Weigel trying to justify the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the Catholic Herald. It is well worth reading though you could take or leave the article he is responding to. I certainly didn’t bother to read it.

I wrote last year in my review of Peter Hitchens’ The Phony War that I shared that authors utter disgust with the strategy of deliberately targeting civilians in aerial bombing. It was completely immoral and was of limited strategic usefulness at best. My sympathies aren’t limited to European population centers either and my disgust remains even into the most recent wars. It also applies to Sherman’s attacks on civilians during the American Civil War and every time a village or town was sacked in medieval times too. Though in any war, civilians can never be completely immune to attack, deliberate attacks on civilians are always immoral.

I believe Feser did a perfectly good job of laying out why it was wrong, so this post will be more my observations than further argument.

Something I must readily admit is that I once thought the two attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were morally justified. I accepted the general arguments which is covered in Feser’s post that the casualties would have been far higher for both sides had they not. This is a utilitarian argument and really can’t be justified from a Catholic perspective and it is quite likely also based on a lie.

Another reason I accepted it originally was that when studying World War 2 in university, the academics weren’t hotly against it like you would expect. When the bombing was discussed the two academics running this particular course gave a joint lecture where one presented the pro and the other the con for the attacks. Something I imagine is increasingly rare today as I seem to have finished my time at university when the last of the best academics were on their way out. This at the very least gave me the impression that being for the bombings wasn’t unreasonable even where the political left was almost completely dominant.

My opinion did waver and became increasingly against it, the more I learned. The last time I remember considering it justifiable at all was after reading the lengthily titled, The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945–The Last Epic Struggle of World War II by Bill Sloan. I read this book shortly after it’s release and I don’t recall a great deal of it but I do remember the author using the carnage and death wrought by this battle to justify the bombings in his conclusion.

So I do understand why people out of ignorance or far more likely — because of propaganda, are inclined to accept the morality of carrying out these bombings. That people like Weigel who should know better still do, is of much more concern.

I’m not known for my emotional sensitivity so appeals to melting flesh and dead babies — while true, are not what motivated me to change my mind. I have been to Hiroshima and seen much of the imagery in the museum and I confess that tears did come to my eyes at some of the images I saw. Looking at the city of Hiroshima today, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether it really ever was destroyed as it is once of the prettiest cities that I have been to in Japan.

No, it is little things that really started to have an affect on my thinking. Why for example, did they experiment with how they dropped the bombs? One was allowed to hit the ground and another was detonated in mid-air. This was a conscious decision and means the bombings were also partly a ghoulish experiment. Nagasaki was the unlucky secondary target due to cloud cover on the day and made no sense as a target militarily. It saw thousands of the ever fledgling Japanese Catholic population killed too.

On the subject of the Japanese themselves, some might say my views are prejudiced by my marriage to a Japanese national and my experiences in Japan. I would assure readers that after ten years living there and over ten years of marriage; these experiences would somewhat incline me to the opposite position.

One other problem which Feser does mention is the “unconditional surrender” aspect. Even after the bombings, the Americans ended up allowing the Japanese Emperor to remain and the Japanese Monarchy remains to this day. So it was never necessary to make such a demand and indeed doing so probably prolonged the war.

This is something we do know but another problem is what we don’t. The more I have poked around, the more holes I have found in the narrative of the Second World War. It obviously wasn’t a great battle against tyranny as the survival of the Soviet Union after and the increasingly illiberal world we live in now proves. Japan is in many respects now freer than the nations that defeated it. It isn’t unreasonable to suspect that the nation was goaded into a fight with the US though the fault of throwing the first punch remains on them. I suspect that in time we will learn a lot more about the twentieth century that leaves the Western powers in a far less flattering light. This isn’t coming from a Marxist or anti-Western perspective either.

On a somewhat related note. The word “medieval” is often used as a pejorative that implies savagery but wars since the beginnings of the world order we live under have been far more savage. Wars that began mobilising civilians and putting them in harms way became the norm after we were supposedly liberated from medieval feudal systems. Even during the Napoleonic wars, most Europeans were shielded from the full effects of war. Increasingly during the 19th and definitely into the 20th, civilians became the targets far more often. This was absolutely the case during World War 2. Most suffering a death in earlier wars came from disease and that wasn’t a problem that any war ever solved.

The reason I believe people like Weigel feel the need to continue to justify atrocities like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is because they form a major part of the historical narrative since. As it becomes increasingly obvious that the world order we’ve been living under is a lie based on more lies, it becomes all the more necessary to defend even the most atrocious of them.

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