Wars, Just Causes, War Crimes, Civilian Non-Combatant Casualties, World War II, Moral Philosophy.
Wow, that is a mouthful for a title.
For many years, it has troubled me that so many civilians (several hundreds of thousands by the most conservative estimates, likely much higher in reality) were wantonly killed during World War II in the purposeful bombings of cities by the Allies. Having read eye-witness accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firestorm in Dresden in mid-February, 1945 (when the end of the war in Europe was clearly in sight), I had some idea of the horrors of these atrocities.
My moral convictions told me that some actions can never be justified or rationalized. The conclusion that these reflections compelled me to is that a just war cannot be conducted using immoral means. In other words, immoral means cannot be employed in the prosecution of a just war. The fact that a country is fighting a just war does not give it license to commit wanton acts of slaughter of human beings (non-combatants).
One can debate about what constitutes a just war. (Britain’s “balance of power” position, originating in the Congress of Vienna in 1815, was the reason it declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Britain could not save Poland, and knew it. Perhaps, civilization would have been better served if Britain had stayed neutral and let Hitler and Stalin eventually destroy each other.) But, can you justify using any means to win a just war? Does the ends justify any and all means, no matter how cruel and unnecessary these means are?
We often hear of Nazi war crimes and Imperial Japan’s war crimes, but rarely, if at all, consider Allied war crimes. At Nuremberg, war crimes was one of the indictments against the defeated German state and was defined as purposely waging war on non-combatants (old people, women, and children) and on civilian population centers. With the area bombing campaign of Britain’s Royal Air Force, that was exactly what was done in Germany. A similar campaign of terrorizing civilians was employed by the United States against Japan in the final six months of the Pacific war.
By chance, in January of this year I stumbled upon A. C. Grayling’s book, Among the Dead Cities, The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, published in 2006, and recently got around to reading it. Mr. Grayling, a contemporary British philosopher, gives us a very comprehensive treatment of the question: was the bombing campaign against civilians morally justifiable? He concludes that it was not. It was also not necessary, nor even helpful, in winning the wars against Germany and Japan. Grayling looks at the bombing campaign from the perspective of those who ordered it and carried it out, and from the perspective of the civilians (survivors) who were bombed. He examines the military and economic implications of the civilian bombing campaign. He does not reach his conclusions in a haphazard or hurried manner.
It is encouraging that these types of questions are being raised and seriously thought about, and hopefully our collective thinking about war will change such that we do not specifically and purposely target civilian population centers in future wars.
You might also like these two other essays on my blog.
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