Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Nuke Pox Boogie

Fascinating interview in the Guardian from a couple of years ago (Paul Tibbets having sadly passed away since).

[Feel dirty just saying this, but thanks to John Derbyshire]

I think it's worth making a couple of points about the nuclear attacks in particular and bombing in the contemporary world in general.

First off, on the morality of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I'm pretty firmly in the George MacDonald Fraser camp (if you don't know what that camp is, I'm not telling you - read his memoirs, they're first class [and would make a fantastic war film]). The hooplah over the bombings is largely a product of two things - post war anti-nuclear agitation and the lasting effects of radiation on the victims. The second factor is the most important and the most convincing. However, it is important to note that at the time the bombs were dropped, Allied officials were not aware of the existence of these side effects.

As to the scale of destruction, the obliteration of an entire city's population with a single bomb is of course something with which the human mind is not well equipped to cope. But it needs to be put in context. In fact, the dropping of the nuclear bombs came as the culmination of a lengthy conventional bombing campaign in which most of Japan's urban concentrations has already been reduced to charcoal by firestorm attacks of a potency that made most of the raids on Germany seem limp wristed.

Now, we can debate whether area bombing campaigns in the Second World War, especially the use of incendiaries on a wide scale, were in any way able to meet reasonable standards of either utility or Just War theory, though that's another discussion all together. The point is that the nuclear bombings must be placed within a broader context. Judged by the standards of the day (which we may or may not ultimately reject) they were unusual only in the fact that one bomb could cause so much damage - in absolute terms the scale of destruction was not especially unusual.

So what, if anything, has changed?

Well I haven't really given a great deal of thought but off the top of my head I'd say that one thing at least has changed. In the Second World War, it was an accepted fact that the populations of Japan and Germany were not only key cogs in the overall military machine but also active supporters of those regimes. The Nazi Party and the population of Germany were - largely rightly in my view - seen as analogous.

In large measure this situation no longer exists. Let's think of some of the major conflicts that have taken place since the end of the Cold War. What do the Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Kosovo War, The Afghan campaign and to some extent the Bosnia intervention all have in common? The fact that - at least in Western rhetoric - the populations of the countries aligned against us were not seen as analogous to the regimes we were fighting. Great pains were taken to differentiate between, for example, the people of Iraq and Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. How many times have you heard Tony Blair rattling on about how we fight not the people Craplapistan (Or Equatorial Shittehoal, or wherever), but the wicked Craplapistanian junta alone?

Well, that's just peachy. And quite often it's true. But if it is true, you can't just turn round and start smacking eight shades of precision guided death out of civilians. Because you yourself, whether for strategic or PR reasons, have isolated them from the regime at the top. They are explicitly not in the same boat as a bunch of Nazis or Japanese. In these circumstances, shrugging and saying "war's hell" might have a whiff of the truth about it but it isn't terribly convincing on a moral (or, if one is facing a "low intensity" insurgency type situation, strategic) level.

2 Comments:

Blogger Saheli said...

I'm not disagreeing with you, but:

However, it is important to note that at the time the bombs were dropped, Allied officials were not aware of the existence of these side effects.Are you sure?? I realize the tickling the dragon's tail incident happened after Nagasaki, and was the first American death from radiation sickness, but my impression was that the Szilard petition was based on the recognition that atomic bombs were fundamentally different, not just more powerful (i.e. causingradiation sickness) and besides, all those scientists had been dealing with radiation for years.. ..

5:22 AM  
Blogger J. said...

I was holding off on commenting on this post but now feel like chiming in. I understand why we bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima, not the issue. But Anthony "Bomber Harris" Cormack makes the statement that:

"In the Second World War, it was an accepted fact that the populations of Japan and Germany were not only key cogs in the overall military machine but also active supporters of those regimes. The Nazi Party and the population of Germany were - largely rightly in my view - seen as analogous."

And that this has changed with today's military targeting hostile governments rather than population centers because the population really isn't supporting the government. Isn't this an oversimplification?

My view is that first, military strategy changed in that it was seen after WWII (AF Strategic Bombing Survey) that strategic bombing of population centers really didn't do that much in terms of impacting the nation's ability to conduct war. You can also reference McNamara's proposed strategy of leaving cities out of any nuclear exchanges as a step toward that recongition. I think the advent of technology, making more precise bombs, plus the desire to limit suffering on the parts of noncombatants when possible, is far more important on why we don't bomb civilian targets these days, as opposed to the degree of loyalty to their governments.

I think any posturing by elected officials as to "the people aren't the target" is just that, posturing. You go to war, civilians are going to die. When you have the AF trying to bomb buildings in Fallujah, you are going to kill noncombatants (as has happened). Shit happens. As Paul Tibbets said in his interview:

"Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. I'd wipe 'em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: "You've killed so many civilians." That's their tough luck for being there."

BTW thanks for the link, my dad was a left wing gunner on a B29, flew the China-Burma route. I will send him this story.

8:44 AM  

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