Monday, May 04, 2009

Unprosecuted war crimes beget more war crimes

Daniel Larison has a post up on the silly "scandal" of Jon Stewart's stating (and then retracting) the obvious, namely that killing tens of thousands of civilians in cold blood at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for the express purposes of terrorizing the Japanese into surrender, was a "war crime" by any meaningful definition of the word.
What Truman’s posthumous rehabilitation should tell us is that half-truths and falsehoods, if repeated often enough, can become widely accepted, and that virtually no American political leader, no matter how many blunders he made and no matter what criminal acts he ordered, is beyond redemption at the hands of later sympathetic people who find that leader’s decisions to be useful precedents for their own preferred course of action. The “judgment of history” has, for the time being, ruled in favor of Truman, and therefore challenging this judgment is something to be mocked.
Larison goes on to note the contradiction in defending today's torturers by going, "well, what about Hiroshima?"
... the recourse to past crimes to evade accountability for new crimes is a good argument in favor of enforcing strict accountability for crimes recently committed. If such crimes are permitted to go unpunished, their apologists will continue to work overtime to shape the debate in later years and decades in favor of the decisions leading up to those crimes, and the more time goes by the apologist will be able to fall back on one unassailable retort: “If this was a crime, why didn’t anyone in the government investigate and prosecute it as such?” Having warned against witch hunts and “criminalizing policy differences” in the beginning to intimidate the responsible institutions into inaction, the apologists will then remind the public that no charges were ever filed and no convictions were secured.

So, ironically, some of the defenders of the torture regime are making the best argument for the prosecution of past administration officials by their own invocations of past government illegalities. They are unwittingly reminding us that crimes unpunished today can easily become tomorrow’s conventionally accepted “correct” decisions. Every usurpation or instance of lawbreaking that is not challenged and reversed creates a precedent for the next round of usurpation and lawbreaking, and the fact that there is a non-trivial number of people in America who think that the illegal acts of Lincoln, FDR, Truman or others should have some mitigating effect on how we treat illegal acts under a more recent administration is one of the best reasons why crimes committed during the last administration must be investigated and lawbreakers must be prosecuted.
Wishful thinking, unfortunately.

... Re: Hiroshima, as proof that TBA is nothing if not dialectical (ancient Greek for "confused"), cf. this comment @ Larison's blog:
the atomic bombings were, at the least, not materially worse than the starvation imposed by naval blockade. Recall the deaths caused by the Allied blockade in World War One. Richard Frank’s Downfall makes the case that blockade was as bad if not worse in the case of Japan.

I’m not aware of any treaty or precedent that would’ve required the U.S. to allow food supplies past a blockade of Japan. (There may well be such authority; I have no expertise here.) Of course, what the Japanese gov’t did with the food would’ve been beyond our control — they could have reserved it for soldiers.

Nonetheless, one can argue, the Hague Conventions said what they said, and the decision that atomic bombing was less unjust, ultimately, than blockade was not a choice the U.S. should have been free to make. That may be the right answer.
I tend to think that absolute blockade should be a war crime; there is no material difference between starving civilians to death and burning them to death. But this just goes to show that "war crimes" were not particularly well thought out in 1945. Has that changed?


  1. I think a big part of the problem with something like this is not that war crimes weren't thought out back then, but that the definition changes over time.

    A war crime is essentially something which goes beyond the necessary execution of military conflict. Essentially, the term attempts to enforce some restraint on the tactics and techniques used.

    But what is necessary execution? If we have precision munitions which can blow up a military target without hurting someone down the street, is carpet bombing a town to get that target a war crime? Probably. What if we lack such precision?

    It's a very hard question to answer. We look historically on events such as Dresden and Hiroshima/Nagasaki and, in the lens of our modern understanding of warfare, we cringe. But where they wrong at the time? I tend to think they were, personally - the A-bomb could have been demonstrated to Japanese diplomats or generals someplace isolated, and might have had the same effect.

    It's like the difference between a "terrorist" and a "freedom fighter". A lot depends on which side of the fight you're on. Morality, especially in wartime, tends to evolve with capability rather than on its own.

    That's one of the reasons I find this whole thing so repugnant. Even apart from the acts themselves, they break the structure of necessity. I'm not sure what I would do in a "Torture or Die!" scenario, because WE'VE NEVER BEEN IN ONE. Sacrificing your morals may be necessary for survival, but we aren't truly faced with that. The idea that a couple hundred skulky bad guys hiding out in the desert are such a threat that we have to give up our morality and resort to torture is a sign of the deepest cowardice.

  2. I have never found the "lack of precision" argument persuasive. Got 100 villagers and not sure who's the sniper who killed your guys? Can you shoot them all, due to your lack of precision in sniper-detection? (Maybe the analogy is also an example of lack of precision.)

    Ditto the test. Whatever the mad scientists may've said, I would think Truman et al. would've been afraid of inviting observers to watch a test ... that turned out to be a fizzle. And we only had two bombs, with no immediate prospect of more.

    It's a difficult question perhaps, but the real problem is that we didn't think there was anything difficult about it, having burned down so many cities by that point.

  3. Killing a hundred to get a single sniper? Probably not... What if you had to kill a hundred civilians to take out a tank factory? What if it's Germany's atomic bomb research facility? Acceptable levels of collateral damage are always weighed against the military necessity of the target, and there are rarely any nice neat lines. But this is a big part of why the A-bombs are still so hotly debated. There was no military necessity in the selected targets. The goal was to frighten the Japanese into submission by demonstrating their use on a civilian population. It was, in the truest definition of the word, terrorism.

    But regardless (sorry, I wandered), that's not really what I meant by the "lack of precision". I'm not using it as a justification, but rather as an example of the changing concept of a war crime. There simply weren't precise options in WWII. The only way to avoid casualties was not to fight at all (which is an entirely different discussion).

    When you're discussing war crimes it's important to deal with them in the proper context. It's hard to do, but necessary. Civilian casualty counts which would be horrifying to us today might be considered spectacular precision then. D-Day managed several times more allied casualties in a single day than we've suffered in the Iraq war in six years. The standards are simply different, largely because we have the tools to fight wars very differently.