Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An Absolutist Argument against Strategic Bombing of Non-Combatants

Thomas Nagel's 1971 article "War and Massacre" presents the absolutist view that there are certain acts in war which one must never do, no matter how bad the consequences of foregoing them may be. Take, for instance, refraining from bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as an example, if the consequence of this would have been an American land invasion of Japan resulting in hundreds of thousands of American deaths and hundreds of thousands of Japanese deaths.

Here is how Nagel argues for the position (in my paraphrase):
  1. Hostility should be directed at its true object: the people who provoke it.
  2. This is because of Nagel's principle that one should give others the respect they deserve by doing to them only those things that they can understand to be addressed to them as people.
Strategic bombing of non-combatants would therefore be always wrong because it misdirects one's hostility.

I don't think that this argument has much evidential force. Here are two problems with Nagel's view.

1. It doesn't in fact rule out the strategic bombing of non-combatants. We can indeed address the bombing to them as members of the society that attacks us, a society that can be brought to its knees by loss of non-combatant life. We needn't address our hostility to enemy non-combatants in order to bomb them. We need only address our bombing to them, and in doing so, assume that they can understand it as addressed to them.

Even if this is not so, and we cannot divorce bombing people from directing our hostility at them, then Nagel's principle can easily be used to prohibit the bombing of enemy military forces, as well as non-combatants. In any war one will that the find rank-and-file enemy soldiers include men who have little idea of the facts relevant to the moral standing of the war, men who do as they are told without the wherewithal to understand what the war is all about. Surely these men are not appropriate targets of our hostility, even as they raise their guns at us, if Nagel is to be interpreted in a strict sense.

If Nagel wants us to follow his principle, then very well. In bombing we say, "You do understand, don't you, that we drop bombs on you because you are a member of a society that is attacking ours and because bombing you will stop these attacks." This holds just as well for the enemy non-combatant as for the enemy soldier with whom we do not have a beef.

In short, Nagel's principle is too ambiguous to have much force. In fact, it smuggles in its own conclusion because it has force only if by "doing things they can understand to be addressed to them" we mean "...rightly addressed to them...." So, the principle is question-begging and the position is vacuous. As with any derivative of Kantianism, one can easily derive any morals one likes from it.

2. Suppose Nagel's argument doesn't suffer from those difficulties. Still, even if the non-combatants are not the appropriate object of hostility, it may be permissible to kill them. For the fact that stopping their country's military from pursuing its unprovoked attacks on other societies may suffice to override this consideration. Nagel never gives any argument to the contrary, other than to say that something is "wrong with the frame of mind" that disagrees with him on this point. He never gives any argument for his principle that one ought to do only those things to people that they can understand as directed at them. It could just as breezily be replied that something is wrong with the mind of the person that says that a million Japanese and Americans should be killed rather than bombs be dropped on, but that wouldn't make for a worthwhile philosophical argument, either.

On the other hand, the diagnosis of fear of dirty hands in the absolutist is worth looking at. Nagel raises and dismisses it without seeming to understand its force. We'll take a look at it soon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lt. Michael Murphy

It's not easy to enter enemy fire intentionally. Lt. Murphy received the Medal of Honor posthumously for heroic acts that included performing this daunting feat.

I could accept the loss of both of my sons in circumstances relevantly similar those of Lt. Murphy's death, if I knew that this would be the unlucky result their growing up to be men of Lt. Murphy's caliber. So, I can accept that what happened to Lt. Murphy would apply universally. Therefore, I don't take it to be an injustice that my country sent Lt. Murphy on his final errand. I hope many American boys grow up to be like Lt. Murphy, my sons included, and I understand that, by random selection, some of those boys will die young as a result of their courage. I don't rail against any of this.

It strikes me that anyone who agrees with this line of reasoning would think that it goes without saying. On the other hand, there are plenty of Americans, some who are relatives of my sons, who would find this line of reasoning very difficult to accept. So, it doesn't go without saying, even if it should.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Some Terrain to Cover

We'll be investigating some more of the issues of morals in war. For now a bird's eye view of some of the terrain:
  • The definition of "terrorism." If the bombing of Hiroshima wasn't terrorism, then nothing is.
  • Nagel's article "War and Massacre." It draws a false dichotomy between utilitarianism and absolutism (Kantianism.) I wouldn't accept either. It also doesn't quite get the difficulty that the "dirty hands" argument poses for Nagel's absolutism.
  • You can filter out impermissible acts of war using Kant's test of universalizability: could you accept that everyone do X in circumstances like this? If so, X is permissible in your view. Nagel covers some of this ground, though too quickly.
In any case, next we'll pick up the thread left by the previous post.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Indecency of War

Let's take another look at the position that principle developed in the previous post is true: principle W for "war" because it is the essence of war from which this principle is derived.

There is in war a requirement to do what is indecent. The side that is justified in waging war is not only sometimes justified in but sometimes justified only in doing indecent acts of violence. This is what magnifies the horrors of war into something grotesque. Where morality requires acts of indecent violence it is grotesque.

Since a society has a right to repel the unjust attacks it receives from another, it has a right to do violence which causes casualties amongst enemy innocents whenever this violence is necessary to its defense. The horror of war is that this principle is too obvious to require argument. The morals of war sanction indecency, for it is indecent to incinerate enemy children, yet morality allows it.

But the matter is even worse. There is no morally relevant difference between the strategic killing of enemy innocents and the death of enemy innocents via collateral damage, as in the case of the bombing of a military base unavoidably killing nearby enemy civilians. The justification for the latter - call it collateral killing of innocents - is that it is necessary to defending oneself against the enemy's military. But sometimes this justification subsists remains in the case of the former (the strategic killing of innocents.) And if it be replied that the strategic killing is indecent, it may be pointed out that collateral killing is no less indecent, as the intentional incineration of thousands of innocent non-combatants is indecent in any case.

While the principle that a society sometimes has a right to do acts of violence to enemy innocents doesn't require argument, arguments may be found. I mentioned one in the previous post: the argument from the falsity of pacifism, as it were. The idea is that any war will be such that the deaths of enemy innocents will be inextricably woven into the chain of events known as "defending oneself against that enemy." Therefore, if self-defense is permissible and this is not empty talk, inflicting death upon enemy innocents is permissible. There is another argument, but let's leave that for another post.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

War Justifies its Own Horrors

War is a matter of “it’s us or them.” Leaving the option of surrender to conquest out of consideration, each side must decide whether it is to be the one to perish. The horror of war is what flows from each side’s taking the obvious decision to fight: vast numbers of killings, maiming, starvation, and other attendant miseries. Borrowing from Hobbes’s description, we can say that war is “nasty” because it relentlessly poses the question of whether one will choose to perish or choose to fight dirty. By “dirty,” I do not mean inflicting more than the amount of harm necessary to repel the enemy. Rather, I mean doing what is ordinarily done in war: horrific quantities of slaughter of innocents as a necessary means of repelling the opponent.

So, war being dirty and horrible, a brutal principle W makes itself distastefully evident whenever the justice of this horror is contemplated:
W: If side A is justified in waging war against side B, then A is justified in slaughtering vast numbers of B combatants and non-combatants, to the extent that A reasonably considers this to be necessary to conquer B without incurring vastly many more casualties than A will by committing the slaughter.
In other words, if A is justified in waging war against B, then A is also justified in killing many enemy innocents, as long as this is necessary to winning the war. This is why the bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were justified horrors. W goes to the essence of war’s horror. War is peculiarly horrible precisely because there is no way of avoiding the perpetration of its horrors via moral reasoning. Moral reasoning bids one commit them. Unlike the Portuguese earthquake of 1755, for instance, war is a horror which morality requires that one intentionally bring about. The horror is not just in the death and suffering. It is also in the fact that morality is this way.

The justification for W is Hobbesian. A nation is not morally obligated to let itself be slaughtered by an enemy just because repelling the enemy’s attacks will cause the deaths of enemy innocents. If one has a right to defend oneself against an enemy during war, the prospect of enemy innocents doesn’t override that right. W follows from this premise. As for the premise, I take it to be non-controversial. There are pacifists who might reject it, but pacifism isn’t plausible enough to be worth arguing over. The premise follows from the fact that pacifism is false.

There are more topics here. Who is responsible for the slaughter of innocents in war according to principle W? Does principle W make any distinction between collateral damage and intentional, strategic slaughter of innocents? Let’s address those next.