Friday, May 15, 2009

Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Nuclear Warfare

So, the new trope the Right is trotting out to defend torture is carpet bombing of Germany and Japan in WWII:

On the night of March 9, 1945, [General Curtis] LeMay sent 346 huge B-29 bombers loaded with napalm from the Mariana Islands (Guam, Saipan and Tinian) to Tokyo. The first planes dropped their incendiaries on the front and back of the target area -- like lighting up both ends of a football field at night. The rest of the planes filled in the middle. More than 16 square miles of Japan's capital city were gutted, two million people were left homeless, and 100,000 were dead.

It didn't end there. Washington gave LeMay the green light as his bombers burned 64 more cities. He used the World Almanac and just went down the list by population. Altogether, an estimated 350,000 people lost their lives. Anyone hearing this for the first time in 2009 would be hard pressed to defend such an action.

The author is right: anyone hearing this for the first time in 2009 would be hard pressed to defend such an action...due to the stunning accuracy of American weaponry today. If the American military were to engage in action like this in modern combat, I assure you the commanders responsible for such a campaign would be condemned the world over--in addition to being run out of the service and probably court martialed. Does the advancement of weapon technology excuse LeMay's actions? Not necessarily, but neither are all horrible actions during wartime viewed ex post facto in the same league, ballpark, or sport. Furthermore, in the case of torture, we're not even discussing war: we're discussing humane treatment of unarmed individuals in American custody. In particular, we're dealing with international criminals; murderers of a special sort that nevertheless have unalienable rights--such is the very definition of unalienable--which should not be crossed UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

The logic of Mr. Kozak's argument is thus: Japan was bad. We were at war with Japan. We did bad things to Japan to win in a just cause, thus that action was justified--or at the very least, exusable--even if somewhat barbaric.

Certainly, setting hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians ablaze is more morally condemnable than going to extreme measures for information against a known terrorist responsible for murders, yes? On its face, this argument seems to work, but again--we're comparing unlike actions to one another as if they could ever be on the same moral plane. I intend to show that they are not, for moral and consequentialist reasons.

The Right's new-fangled argument rests on two premises: 1) that LeMay's actions were, indeed, justifiable militarily and politically and 2) that they were integral in the decision of the Japanese to surrender, thus bringing a(n assumed) just conclusion to a horrific war. (I will stipulate that, from a matter of justice, ultimately it was more just for the Allies to have won WWII. I don't think this is much of a concession.)

I will grant the bulk of #2 straight off for the simple reason that I haven't studied the battles of the Pacific that closely, nor the internal politics of 1940s Japan, well enough to know whether these strikes were actually effective in bringing about a swifter end to the war. I think the numbers of U.S. casualties is nothing but loosely-based conjecture and not worth addressing on a substantive level. For the sake of argument, however, I am prepared to stipulate that the carpet bombing with incendiary bombs (a tactic already used in the European theatre, by the way, lessening the strength of the race angle insinuated by the article) helped break the will of the Japanese people, thus paving the way for a quicker and less costly (to the U.S.) end to the war in the Pacific. The numbers of American dead, then, will be assumed to be much less in the pro-LeMay scenario.

The first assumption, however, I know to be based on contestable claims--at the very least. The article bases the military motives almost entirely on the fact that American lives would be spared. As I write above, I will assume this to be true, absent any decent evidence to the contrary. However, this is hardly the only--and some would argue, not the primary--geo-political reason for such aggressive action on the part of the American military against the Japanese mainland.

As the fighting in Europe ended, the spoils were being divided by the Great Powers; spheres of influence were established between the Soviets and the West as a conglomerate. The threat of communism was not unknown to either Great Britain or the United States, and thus the looming confrontation with the USSR was not one of great surprise. While it certainly hadn't reached the Berlin Airlift stage of crisis, the situation developing in Berlin, the rest of Germany, and Eastern Europe was undeniably a tenuous one. There is reason to believe that the Western powers wanted Japan to be free--or free from Soviet influence, at any rate. Thus, a prevailing sentiment among some Russian and WWII scholars is that the use of Fat Man and Little Boy against Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a last ditch effort to get the Japanese to surrender before Autumn--the time when the Soviets had indicated they would be ready for an invasion of Japan from the North.

Without delving into the immorality of communism, would LeMay's actions be as acceptable if made from this more geo-political motive? Is the threat of communism enough to burn hundreds of thousands of people alive--either to benefit U.S. political influence or, conceivably, to protect the surviving Japanese people from the threat of Soviet domination? These, I believe, are not questions easily answered. But they are questions that we, today, can debate and have reasonable disagreements about. I would, however, be hard-pressed to ever compare these very contoured and complex questions about war planning to anything outside of that particular time period, due to its special circumstances.

The evolution of warfare makes comparisons almost laughable--can you really compare carpet bombing to the pillaging hordes of the Mongols or the Vikings? Where, exactly, should we stand on the conquest of North America, including the use of germ warfare, that made it possible for me to be raised in the Ohio Valley? Can you compare the use of flame-throwers on D-Day to the battle of Antioch (Holy Hand Grenade notwithstanding)? In all seriousness, the point of this is that it's nearly impossible to compare, let alone excuse, even conventional warfare. Yes, there are established rules, but the rules which governed battle on open fields in 1776 hardly apply to house-to-house fighting in Mosul in 2009.

How on Earth Mr. Kozak can make honest sense of a comparison between the dumb, blunt force of millions of tons of explosives dropped from 1000s of feet in the air in the 1940s to the up-close and personal psychological violence inflicted by torture--both currently and historically quite ineffectively--fully against the rules of war (if we are to suspend disbelief for a moment that the previous administration intended to give our prisoners the basic protections of war combatants) is well-beyond my capacity of rational thought.

From a practical and military perspective, in order to collect actionable intelligence, guilt or innocence is effectively irrelevant. Thus, comparing the guilt of Khalid Sheik Mohammad versus the innocence of Japanese (or German) families killed in incendiary bombing campaigns misses the point entirely. Unalienable means unalienable, especially while in the full custody of the U.S. government, and the blunt use of force at the military's disposal of the military in the first half of the 20th century is in no way comparable to the centuries-old custom and knowledge that torture leads to false confessions--and that dismissing tried and true interrogation techniques in favor of such unreliable torture is an act of gross negligence that, in my opinion, rises to the point of criminal.

The interrogation professionals shunned the euphemistically-named "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" for traditional methods (and, until I get evidence to the contrary, I'm going to assume that these people wanted the best and most reliable intelligence to be collected as efficiently as possible and aren't part of some ultra-Left cabal bent on treating terrorists with kid gloves and sissifying our military and intelligence operations). The most vital information thus far made public was provided by these traditional methods and--if the interrogators are to be believed--hampered by the implementation of torture.

The level heads and trained professionals of our intelligence-gathering agencies who, like the rest of us, experienced the horror of 9/11, still argued against the use of torture--even against those most responsible for it. Mr. Kozak's invocation of the reflexive pain and anger of 9/11 serves only to remind us of how emotional--not rational--we were after that day. Those charged with finding the truth of those events, and of subsequent dangers, managed to set aside their quite righteous emotional sentiments against the guilty and lust for vengeance that many--if not most of us--felt. Furthermore, Mr. Kozak's citation of public opinion viz. war with Japan and Germany pre- and post-Pearl Harbor could just as easily be used to justify Japanese internment and the blatantly racist Korematsu decision. The emotional state of the masses is hardly a sound base for foreign, domestic, or intelligence policy.

In the end, Mr. Kozak makes a fragmented and irrational case for the use of torture against our enemies. His submission is based on selected facts that really should not be compared with one another for temporal, technological, and practical reasons. Yes, bad things happen--and they often happen in the name of national defense or security. It does not follow, however, that questionable military decisions from the 1940s are in any way related to, or could possibly excuse, counterproductive and plainly cruel interrogation tactics of today.

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