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August 06, 2005

Continuing a discussion that started over at Boots and Sabers...

[This was a discussion of morality and warfare that started over at Boots and Sabers - back in January 2004. Since today is the 60th Anniversary of the Dropping of The Bomb, I'm going to rerun this, since it encapsulates my thought on the subject. Sorry JMH, *another* re-run! I have fixed some typos and blockquotes.] Oops. Comments are open now, too.

This post initially started out as a 'comment' on Owen's post on morality and war, and the comment stream that went with it. It obviously got out of control... I sent it to Owen and he posted it - and as it's about the longest screed I've done, I decided to post it here, as well. Except for a few typo corrections, it's the same at both sites.

Here is the post and comments that started it. [Original post is no longer there]

This is my response.

Hmmmm. Let's throw a former targeteer and other kinds of military planner thought into this discussion.

Owen of Boots and Sabers opened the discussion with this observation:

It seems to me that once a state of war exists, the only moral way to fight it is to employ the best weaponry and tactics to bring about victory while minimizing casualties on your side. In other words, the debate shouldn’t be about what weapon was used to kill the enemy, but rather was it the best weapon to use and was the target a tactically and/or strategically sound one.

As a targeteer and planner, I can live with this sentiment as expressed - except that it is incomplete and ignores the fact that absent a Carthaginian ending, there will be an aftermath to the war.

For example, the question about whether or not the US should have nuked Japan during WWII should focus on whether the targets were valid and whether the nuclear bombs were the most effective means of destroying those targets.

Okay so far, however arguable the underlying assumptions may be (I'll get to Stefan in a bit). Valid is a slippery word here. They were legal military targets. In isolation, you can argue whether the weapon-target pairing was justified for the target - which is how most people who are against it argue. But you have to take into account the strategic context of the target set. I'll address that later, too.

In the end, once you have decided that an enemy must die, the choice of sticking them in the gut with your bayonet or dropping napalm on them from 6,000 feet is a tactical choice, not a moral one.

Here, I start to disagree more loudly. Moral choices abound. The (lumping a whole bunch of law and culture into one pot for convenience's sake) Law of Land Warfare, and pure prudence dictate that you take into consideration the means you are going to use to achieve your ends. Second- and third-order effects should always be taken into account when doing the target-method of attack pairings, or you may destroy the target but suffer even greater consequences as a result.

A perfect example of 2nd and 3rd order effects considerations driving that kind of planning/action/reaction is the incident a few weeks ago at Samarra. Under the Law of Land Warfare (LOLW), the ambushed platoon of the Stryker Brigade would have been within it's rights to respond with all the deadly force it had at it's immediate disposal in order to defend itself. The LOLW specifically allows for this, putting the onus on the ambushers for having used non-combatants as shields. The Stryker platoon could have responded with grenades, 25mm/.50 cal fire, mortars, etc. Yet, considerations of 2nd and 3rd order effects from killing the children have caused us to promulgate rules of engagement where we accept risk, and casualties, in order to keep the violence and destruction (and the military/politico/social 2nd and 3rd order effects) to a minimum.
Those effects affect us to the point we will accept dead US troops in order not to kill Iraqi children. Therein lies the moral dimension of choices we are making in this war.

The same thing applies (and those considerations are what drives us to build more and more accurate munitions and delivery systems) to planning bombing campaigns - a recognition of the fact that after the war is over, someone is still going to have to live there. And if you knock out the entire infrastructure - you are going to be responsible for replacing it.

It *is* a moral choice, otherwise the proper 'tactical' response is stupendously overwhelming force.

Now, sometimes, that is the moral choice, and now we move to Stefan and his 'fiskable' bit.

Stefan speaks up and says:

Agreed. But their [sic] is a lot of historical weight on the side of Nagasaki and Hiroshima not being valid targets of war. Arguments about being ports aside, they were chosen largely because they were undefended (no flak to bother the precision of the bombing) and they were previously "unvisited" and so the BDA could be pretty accurate.

I think part of the issue of whether folks decry the bombing of these cities also revolves around the fact that Japan was already willing to surrender - they just wanted to keep their emperor. Which, if one knows anything about Japan at the time, was not an unreasonable request. He had little or nothing to do with the start of the war - that little doggie lies at the feet of the Japanese military/industrial complex.

Stefan is mixing apples and oranges here when he talks of 'historical weight' and then applying that judgment to decisions made in the heat of the moment. You are applying the considered judgment of decades of historical research (all of it unblemished, I'm sure, by any agendas - whether on the part of revisionist historians, official historians, Japanese apologists, Truman apologists, anti-nuke historians, Edward Teller motivated historians, etc) that have had access to documents the decision makers did *not* have access to, transcripts of verbal reminiscences of players on opposing sides (again, no chance for a filter there) that the opposing side was not privy to - or did not feel they could trust, if they did, based on previous behaviors on the part of the responsible parties... Hundreds, thousands of trained and untrained historians sifting through, at leisure, able to graph all the plot lines and time lines, and connect the dots - all in a level of fine detail not available to the poor bastard who had to make the decision - and, many of them, not having to have lived through the trauma of those times, with the spin that puts on the decision-making process both the original decision-maker and the cultural biases of the historian. If you are going to attach a personal morality stigma to a decsion, you owe it to your analysis to judge the individual by contemporaneous standards, not the sensibilities of a later generation. You apply the lessons learned from the outcomes of that decision and current sensibilities to inform current decisions. Maintain some logical rigor here!

So, let me address some specifics. I'm Truman. I have a weapon I'm not sure is going to work. It did work when hand-built by experts and assembled on a tower in the US, and command detonated. I have tested the fuzing mechanisms in flight. But I've never sent the thing halfway around the world, put it together, slapped it into an airplane, and actually dropped it and watched it work. I also haven't exploded it in an urban environment, much less at the altitude I think I want to explode it. So, in the absence of all the subsequent damage data gathered in the nuke testing programs and modern computer modeling techniques, I'm not sure what effect this thing is going to have. BTW - I'm planning Operations Olympic and Cornet, the invasion of the home islands of Japan. I've just gotten done conquering Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two islands the Japanese considered to be Japanese territory. And the Soviets are consolidating their hold on eastern Europe and I'm a little concerned about their ultimate intentions.

So, what am I looking at? Well, first, I just took Okinawa. This is what it took in terms of resources, and the cost, in lives to both sides, to take Okinawa:

Okinawa was the largest amphibious invasion of the Pacific campaign and the last major campaign of the Pacific War. More ships were used, more troops put ashore, more supplies transported, more bombs dropped, more naval guns fired against shore targets than any other operation in the Pacific. More people died during the Battle of Okinawa than all those killed during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Casualties totaled more than 38,000 Americans wounded and 12,000 killed or missing, more than 107,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts killed, and perhaps 100,000 Okinawan civilians who perished in the battle.

The battle of Okinawa proved to be the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. Thirty-four allied ships and craft of all types had been sunk, mostly by kamikazes, and 368 ships and craft damaged. The fleet had lost 763 aircraft. Total American casualties in the operation numbered over 12,000 killed [including nearly 5,000 Navy dead and almost 8,000 Marine and Army dead] and 36,000 wounded. Navy casualties were tremendous, with a ratio of one killed for one wounded as compared to a one to five ratio for the Marine Corps. Combat stress also caused large numbers of psychiatric casualties, a terrible hemorrhage of front-line strength. There were more than 26,000 non-battle casualties. In the battle of Okinawa, the rate of combat losses due to battle stress, expressed as a percentage of those caused by combat wounds, was 48% [in the Korean War the overall rate was about 20-25%, and in the Yom Kippur War it was about 30%]. American losses at Okinawa were so heavy as to illicite [sic] Congressional calls for an investigation into the conduct of the military commanders. Not surprisingly, the cost of this battle, in terms of lives, time, and material, weighed heavily in the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan just six weeks later. (Global

As Austin Aria, a veteran of the Okinawa campaign says in this document:

"We hated the Japs but nobody had the slightest desire to go there and fight them because the one thing we knew was that we'd all be killed. I mean we really knew it. I never used to think that, I used to say the Japs would never get me. But there was no question about the mainland. How the hell are you going to storm a country where women and children, everybody would be fighting you? Of course we'd have won eventually but I don't think anybody who hasn't actually seen the Japanese fight can have any idea of what it would have cost."

Coming from the same document (a Marine Corps study on the planning for Operations Olympic and Cornet) we have this analysis. Note that in some respects it supports Stefan, and then knocks that prop away.


On 18 July 1945, the Joint War Plans Committee issued another Memorandum for the President to assist Truman in preparing for the Potsdam Conference. This memorandum again highlights the misunderstanding of the situation on Kyushu at the strategic level. It claimed, "the nature of the objective area in Kyushu gives maneuver room for land and sea operations. For these and other reasons it is probable that the ground cost in ground force casualties for the first 30 days of the Kyushu operation will be on the order of that for Luzon. Naval casualties will probably be at about the same rate as for Okinawa."(7) To determine a projected casualty rate for Operation Olympic an examination of the experiences of fighting the Japanese throughout the war is necessary. Following is a chart, which shows the casualty rates of six battles, which occurred during the last 12 months of the war in the Pacific.

Based on the terrain and the Japanese defensive preparations and strategy, the battle for Kyushu would have resembled the battles of the central Pacific instead of the campaigns in the Philippines. With the casualty ratios of those battles applied to Operation Olympic, the estimate for U.S. casualties would have been 94,000 killed and 234,000 wounded.(8) The total casualty estimate of 328,000 equates to 57 percent of the U.S. ground forces slated for Olympic. On the Satsuma Peninsula, the V Amphibious Corps casualty estimate would have been 13,000 killed and 34,000 wounded, or approximately 54 percent of the Marine force. This casualty estimate for VAC is made without any additional Japanese forces moving into the 40th Army's zone. Add to these estimates the results of kamikaze attacks against transports, and the battle for Kyushu would have been devastating to the American people.

Many historians use the casualty estimate that was briefed to Truman in June 1945 to claim that the projected low casualty rate of 25,000 dead did not justify the use of the atomic bomb. However, those casualty estimates were based on an April 1945 estimate of Japanese force strength of around 229,000. By July 1945, that force had almost tripled to 657,000. With this sizable ground force supported by the special attack forces, it is easy to reach a total casualty figure of close to 500,000 Americans. This is the same number used by Truman in later accounts in his diary to justify the use of the atomic bomb.[emphasis added] In addition to U.S. casualties, the Japanese on Kyushu would likely have suffered upwards of 2,000,000 military and civilian casualties. These projected figures for Kyushu far exceed the casualties inflicted by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended the War with Japan.

Okay, so where are we at with this? I've had two fights with the Japanese over Japanese islands. Iwo Jima sucked, badly. My casualties there equaled the Japanese at roughly 23,000 killed, wounded, and missing. Now I've just had a fight for Japanese territory where I lost 12,000 dead, 36,000 wounded, and the American public was in shock - and Congress was screaming (so what else is new, eh?).

I've been handed planning documents, which estimate from 25,000 to hundreds of thousands of dead when I invade the Home Islands.. I am in receipt of HUMINT and SIGINT that is giving conflicting signals as to what is going on in the Japanese government - but all the military indications are that they are prepared to fight and fight hard (if the last two battles, Iwo Jima and Okinawa are any indication). So, I have this potentially war-ending weapon. I'm not sure it will work in practice, and I'm not sure of the effects it might have.

So, I pick two easy targets that haven't been bombed. Since I'm essentially sneaking in one bomber and one bomb, I want a target that the Japanese don't perceive as being on our list, and therefore lightly defended if at all. I also want something that hasn't been damaged so I can gauge the effectiveness of the weapon. I'm pretty sure it's going to kill a lot of people, but frankly, so has bombing the cities with conventional weapons and firebombs, and boy wait until the invasion! And a lot of people have died already in this stinking war - and these particular bastards have proved remarkably murderous in China, if perhaps not quite as efficient as those rat-bastard Nazis. So, I'm gonna test this bomb, and do it under those conditions.

But wait! There's more!

I actually have two bombs. Of two different types. So, I'm going to need to drop 'em both. Plus, I'm hoping that this demonstration, not on one of the 'great' cities of Japan, will give the Peace faction some negotiating leverage.
So I drop the bombs.

Yes, Stefan, I think it was a moral decision.

Nick Fotion, philosophy professor at Emory University sums it up nicely, I think:

No doubt the projection of a million U.S. casualties (both dead and wounded) by some who defend the use of the nuclear bombs represents an exaggeration. Still, U.S. casualties very likely would have reached more than 200,000 and, if things had not gone well, even 300,000. Japanese casualties no doubt would have been much higher both because of overwhelming U.S. and Allied firepower and the desperate way the Japanese were fighting.

But now, beyond these figures, one needs to imagine all those dead soldiers and civilians, and the lives they would have led had they not been cut short by a bomb or a bullet. One needs also to imagine the suffering of all their relatives and friends, and imagine, as well, the suffering of those who survived the battle minus appendages, sight and sanity. Only after one has imaginatively done this and then compared all that suffering to all the suffering caused by the dropping of the nuclear bombs is one in a position to begin making a rational judgment about whether nuclear bombs should have been dropped. More needs to be said to get beyond the beginning. Was an invasion of Japan necessary? Should the United States have dropped the bomb in order to show the Soviet Union who is boss in the post war world? Should the bombs have been dropped on military targets instead of on cities; or perhaps dropped over some body of water as a demonstration of power? Should the United States have launched the conventional bombing campaign on Japanese cities in the first place?

All these and other questions need to be answered before a final judgment can be rendered. But one thing is sure. Those who are mesmerized by the suffering the nuclear bombs caused, and who thus neglect to think seriously of what would have happened had the bombs not been dropped, have as yet not begun thinking seriously about the right and wrong of how World War II ended.

You should read the whole thing.

Now lets continue with Stefan's musings.

Your arguments are very modern (or very old depending on one's view of history). The current vogue - war by any means - is the same argument the "bad guys" use. So we shouldn't be surprised when they drive cars laden with explosives into our barracks. Nor should they be surprised when we shred them from 20000 ft using an AC130 gunship.

Who is waging "War by any means?" Us? Hardly. The remnants of the Ba'ath regime and other players in Iraq? They are waging war within their means - and their analysis of 2nd and 3rd order is markedly different from ours. And I would argue their moral compass on their decision-making is flawed - but desperate people with nothing to lose tend to migrate to that end of the nastiness spectrum. And are rarely successful over the long-term. There are exceptions, of course, Red China being a stellar example. But others, such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Argentina under the generals, serve to illustrate my example.

There aren't any rules these days. Just losers and bigger losers.

This is pure BS, a nice throwaway line to make the argument sound sophisticated, and springs from a deep well of ignorance.

Not stupidity, ignorance.

Today there are far more rules and restrictions that I had to apply as a Joint Targeteer during my tenure on active duty than were placed on my father when he was doing joint strike planning for II Field Force in Vietnam. Much less the even fewer restrictions placed on my grandfather as an artilleryman during WWI. I hate this kind of sophomoric faux-intellectual empty phrasing. Save it for bad film noir.

Owen concludes the exchange thusly:


You illustrate my point beautifully. The debate should center on the appropriateness of the target (Hiroshima, Dresden, etc.) - not the weapon. I think that Hiroshima was a valid target. That being the case, I can't think of a more effective weapon than a nuke. If you don't think that Hiroshima was a valid target, then we can debate it, but it has nothing to do with the fact that we dropped Little Boy on it.

Posted by Owen at January 5, 2004 09:06 AM

Using Owen here as a foil to set-up my conclusion... The target set is shaped by the constraints of strategic war aims, effects you want to achieve, the means by which you have to achieve them, and the need to minimize the misery in the grand scheme of things - which may mean hugely concentrating the misery at the moment... if the strategic situation will allow. It is in the strategic war aims that the moral dimensions are accounted for - as they drive the rules of engagement. Victor Davis Hanson (and others) intimated that the current unpleasantness in Iraq is precisely because we didn't inflict enough pain on the Iraqi military and government. As this plays out, they may in the end be correct. But the jury is still out on that.

However, until you are in a war for ultimate survival (as the Ba'athists are) every decision you make today is tempered by the requirement to use as little force as absolutely required to achieve your effect. Please don't hand me any bullshit about "There aren't any rules these days". You can only say that with a straight face because you haven't lived through the days our parents and grandparents lived through - and I doubt that you serve in a planning capacity in the Armed Forces today, either. I certainly hope not - because we sure didn't get through to you in your acculturation process!