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The Argument From War Crimes Returns

Othershavealready covered this fairly well, but I suppose I should say something about Michael Goldfarb’spreoccupation with defending past war crimes. Julian Sanchez makes the important point regarding the nuclear strikes on Japan:

To the extent it’s a controversial claim, it’s controversial because we don’t like calling U.S. presidents war criminals, not because it’s a difficult question whether obliterating entire areas inhabited by large civilian populations with the flimsiest of military targets as a pretext should now be regarded as a war crime.

Sanchez is correct that it isn’t a difficult question as far as law and morality are concerned. War crimes are not justified or obviated by necessity–necessity is almost always the rationale governments use to explain why they committed war crimes. As Stewart’s pathetic backtracking shows, however, it continues to be a politically charged and risky thing for a prominent public figure to claim. Politically and as a matter of retaining viewers, Stewart may be right that acknowledging the nuclear bombings to be war crimes was “stupid,” since there is no upside or popularity in saying so publicly, but Stewart’s own recantation is a good example of how perverse and distorting the prevailing “judgment of history” can be. Judged by any consistent standard of treatment of non-combatants in wartime, mass incineration must surely rank as a far worse crime than the very serious crime of torturing prisoners.

Because the prevailing view of Harry Truman and his decisions at the present time happens to be favorable, we are all supposed to believe that the “judgment of history” has “vindicated” Truman. This is a nice way of saying that propaganda and hero worship have overcome moral reasoning, and time has caused the moral horror of even a significant part of the American right in the 1940s to fade from memory. This favorable view of Truman is inextricably tied up with the cult of the presidency, our depressing but all too human habit of praising bad wartime leaders at the expense of better peacetime executives, the mythologizing of WWII (and therefore the minimizing or justifying of any wrongdoing on the Allied side) and the implicit devaluing of Japanese civilian lives every defense of both fire-bombing and nuclear strikes includes. None of this seems to occur to the people who continue to glorify Truman and to use Truman as an example of how tainted, bad Presidents may yet be viewed as great successes by posterity. 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.

Stewart might reflect on the truth that a “complicated decision in the context of a horrific war” could be applied to many crimes ordered and carried out by governments in wartime. If we aspire to hold America to a standard according to which “we don’t torture,” one might think the same concern for human dignity and justice would also require us to say, “We are America–we don’t incincerate civilians, and we certainly don’t do it en masse.” Or, rather, we know full well that this has been done in our name many times in the past (and certainly not just at Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but we should also be able to say that this was wrong and should never be done again. Pro-life Christians who remind us of the Massacre of the Innocents to protest the terrible crimes committed against the unborn must be able to see the same Massacre in the gratuitous nuclear annihilation of the center of Japanese Christianity. It is when convenience and so-called necessity are most tempting that adhering to moral principle is the most difficult and the most crucial.

The love affair with war crimes that some on the mainstream righthavenever ceases to perplex me. When smaller wars have been waged in which civilian centers are being bombarded, we often hear from this crowd that the problem with Western nations today is that they lack the will to inflict the mass casualties inflicted during WWII bombing attacks, and when challenged about ongoing operations they will say, “Oh yeah, well what about Dresden and Tokyo?” To which I might respond, “Well, what about them? These were unspeakable crimes.”

Many of the same people who preach such insipidly simplistic and irrational messages about fighting and even “ending” evil will be the first to find refuge behind the “complicated” nature of wartime decisions. At least they will do so if it means that they can ignore the real moral complexity of these situations, in which all belligerents are capable of committing war crimes and ought to be held to the same standard. It is this latter point that is really quite simple: if the torture practices authorized by the last administration had been carried out against Americans, we would not hesitate to call them crimes and demand punishment for the guilty, and if the same kinds of bombings were done to our cities by foreign military forces we would not think twice about calling them war crimes. Acknowledging this should not be an occsasion for excessive self-flagellation, but it does have to be acknowledged. Perhaps even more corrupting and dangerous than the abuses of power and wartime excesses themselves is the willingness to minimize or approve of wrongful acts carried out by the government.

P.S. Here is an older post from John Schwenkler to remind us of what it is we’re talking about in this debate.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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