War and War Crimes

Can War Be Ethical?

From his Holiness the Dali Lama:

I want to make it clear, however, that although I am deeply opposed to war, I am not advocating appeasement. It is often necessary to take a strong stand to counter unjust aggression. For instance, it is plain to all of us that the Second World War was entirely justified. It “saved civilization” from the tyranny of Nazi Germany, as Winston Churchill so aptly put it. In my view, the Korean War was also just, since it gave South Korea the chance of gradually developing democracy. But we can only judge whether or not a conflict was vindicated on moral grounds with hindsight. For example, we can now see that during the Cold War, the principle of nuclear deterrence had a certain value. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to assess all such matters with any degree of accuracy. War is violence and violence is unpredictable. Therefore, it is better to avoid it if possible, and never to presume that we know beforehand whether the outcome of a particular war will be beneficial or not. (The Reality of War)

To effectively answer this question, though, you would need to clarify which ethical school you are basing your decisions on.

In the US military, ethics is a common part of their professional military education. In general, they tend to teach three primary schools of thought:

  1. Kant: Rules should be universally applied. If you break a rule, you must accept others breaking the rule.
  2. Mills: The ends justify the means. This would appear to be in-line with what his Holiness has to say above. That seemingly immoral things can be justified by their outcome.
  3. the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

There are, of course, many other schools of thought on ethics which should each be balanced and considered when making ethical decisions. Many of them would argue in one way or another that war can be ethical. Others would make the case that it is not.

Most people would be willing to accept that in general war *can* be ethical but that it is dependent on two factors: why the war is being fought (Jus ad bellum) and how the war is being fought (jus in bellum). To this end, these moral concepts are encoded in international law and treaty but this should not be mistaken as a judgement on the ethical nature of the war.

You must be careful not to confuse “fair” with “just.” “Just” is a legal term as covered by the notion of Jus ad bellum.
Jus ad bellum (Latin for “right to war”) is a set of criteria that are to be consulted before engaging in war, in order to determine whether entering into war is permissible under legal considerations such as the United Nations charter.
This should not be confused with “jus in bello” which are the “laws of war” and dictate how a war should be conducted and delineates “war crimes” (such as shooting at pilots who have ejected from the aircraft, torturing prisoners of war, intentionally targeting civilians, etc.)
So it is very possible to have “just war” in as much as the war was legally entered into based upon international agreements (most notably the United Nations charter). Obviously, the most recognized justifiable reason is in self-defense but there are other aspects of a “just war:

  • Proper authority and public declaration
    The principle of right authority suggests that a war is just only if waged by a legitimate authority. Such authority is rooted in the notion of state sovereignty.
  • Just cause / Right intention
    According to the principle of right intention, the aim of war must not be to pursue narrowly defined national interests, but rather to re-establish a just peace. This state of peace should be preferable to the conditions that would have prevailed had the war not occurred.
  • Probability of Success
    According to this principle, there must be good grounds for concluding that aims of the just war are achievable. This principle emphasizes that mass violence must not be undertaken if it is unlikely to secure the just cause.
  • Proportionality
    The principle of proportioinality stipulates that the violence used in the war must be proportional to the attack suffered. For example, if one nation invades and seizes the land of another nation, this second nation has just cause for a counterattack in order to retrieve its land. However, if this second nation invades the first, reclaims its territory, and then also annexes the first nation, such military action is disproportional.
  • Last resort
    The principle of last resort stipulates that all non-violent options must first be exhausted before the use of force can be justified

The Korean War, which again his Holiness considers to be ethical, would not have been waged by the United Nations if the Soviets were not boycotting the UN at the time. The Soviets were pressing for the People’s Republic of China to be sitting in the Chinese representative seat, at the time occupied by the Republic of China. Because they were boycotting (and the PRC was not yet a member), when the vote came up for the UN to assist South Korea in its defense against North Korea, there was no one to protest.

Had the Soviets not been boycotting (and/or the PRC had a seat on the UNSC), then the UN would not have voted to intervene. In that case, the war would not have been unethical just because the UN didn’t vote to approve it.

As to how we conduct wars, deals with jus in bellum because it deals with actions during a state of conflict. In that case, there are internationally recognized rules of warfare: The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols

But then there are also national rules of conduct that build upon these or provide specific interpretations of the rules: Customary International Humanitarian Law

Whether you are a signatory to the Geneva Conventions or not (as some claim), is irrelevant. And the same is true when you are fighting someone who is not a signatory. You will still be expected to adhere to the rules and if you violate them, you can still be held accountable by the International Criminal Court which operates under the auspices of the United Nations.

Isn’t Attacking Civilians a Form of Terrorism?

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, yes. States can conduct terrorism and the deliberate attack on civilians is the key definition.

That said, the deliberate bombing of civilians was not considered terrorism in previous wars but was criticized as a potential war crime. Terrorism is rarely used in terms of warfare as there are laws that specifically govern the use of violence in conflict as noted above.

The German Blitz of English cities and eventually the use of V-1 bombs and V-2 rockets were war crimes as they targeted the civilian populations themselves (or due to their well-established inaccuracy were targeted against civilian populations by default). Allied bombing of Germany broke down in two fashions.

On the one hand was the targeting of industry which contributed to the war effort. Attacking ball bearing factories, oil production facilities, and the production lines that were building tanks or aircraft or whatnot. Attacking these facilities contributed to the ending of the war by eliminating the enemy’s ability to conduct war. Yes, the bombs were not particularly accurate and so bombing runs were made against the factories with the understanding that many of the bombs would miss the target. This was unavoidable but acceptable under just war theory because the target was legitimate and there were no other mitigating strategies. Ending the war quickly was the humane goal and that was accomplished by destroying the enemy’s ability to make war materials.

The other tactic was “breaking the will of the people” with the intent being that the enemy population would get so tired of being bombed that they would demand their country end the war. This did not directly impact the enemy’s ability to fight and relied upon terrorizing the population. This is generally considered a war crime though at the time there was still debate as to whether this was a legitimate tactic or not.

For their part, the US developed the Norden bombsight in order to increase their accuracy. The US also preferred daily bombing as it also increased accuracy and minimized the potential for unnecessary collateral damage. These were the only available mitigating strategies though it did but the US bombers at greater risk since German fighters and air defense were more accurate during the day. (Strategic bombing during World War II)

The British also conducted day light bombing raids but they were also far more likely to use night bombing raids than the US. It was understood that this was done in no small part as revenge for the German blitz.

the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive…should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany.
… the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories. (Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris)

In many cases, military necessity would overrule concerns about civilian casualties. This is acceptable in Law of Armed Conflict/just war again because “military necessity” ends the war sooner which is assumed to be more humane than long drawn out wars. This is the reasoning behind the use of firebombs against targets which were generally unaffected by high explosives or because the target was somehow protected by the weather (dense cloud cover for several days with regards to Dresden and the high winds of the Japanese islands.)

Since WWII it has been established that “breaking the will of the people” is not a valid tactic and is therefore no longer a justifiable bombing strategy. But again, at the time of the war, this was still in contention.

But What About the Fire Bombing of Dresden? Wasn’t That a War Crime?

Dresden was a legitimate military target and the civilians were not deliberately targeted there. Dresden was bombed because it was a major rail junction which was facilitating the withdrawal of German forces ahead of the Soviet advance so that they could re-deploy to Berlin for the final defense.

After the Red Army had launched their Silesian Offensives into pre-war German territory, the German army was retreating on all fronts, but still resisting strongly. On 8 February 1945, the Red Army crossed the Oder River, with positions just 70 km from Berlin. As the Eastern and Western Frontswere getting closer, the Western Allies started to consider how they might aid the Soviets with the use of the strategic bomber force. They planned to bomb Berlin and several other eastern cities in conjunction with the Soviet advance — to cause confusion among German troops and refugees, and hamper German reinforcement from the west. On 25 January, the Joint Intelligence Committee supported the idea — as it tied in with the ULTRA-based intelligence that dozens of German divisions deployed in the west were moving to reinforce the Eastern Front, and that interdiction of these troop movements should be a high priority. (Bombing of Dresden in World War II)

The much debated firebombing of Dresden was designed to prevent the withdrawal of German forces from the Eastern front while also preventing the re-deployment of forces in the west to counter the Soviet advance.

The bombing was designed to take out the rail yard and prevent this from happening. In the nights leading up to the firebombing, conventional munitions were used. However, solid cloud cover prevented the accurate targeting of the rail yard and so the Allies switched to firebombing in order to prevent its use.

A military target that was attacked out of military necessity.

What About the Atomic Bombs Dropped on Japan?

To put it bluntly, Nagasaki and Hiroshima were both legitimate military targets.

The use of the atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were specifically targeted against military targets. Civilians were not the intended target. It was understood civilians would die but the bombs were not dropped to kill the civilians nor were they dropped to cause panic among the civilian population. They were dropped to defeat Japan’s ability to repel an invasion should the government continue to refuse to accept the conditions of surrender (which they did refuse to do).

The *intentional* targeting and killing of civilians is illegal. It is an explicit war crime. Civilians killed as part of legitimate military operations against a military target are permissible under the laws of armed conflict so long as such deaths were unavoidable in the accomplishment of the military objective and were not in excess of what was required to achieve the objective.

The bombers that attacked Hiroshima and Nagasaki were clearly identified as US military aircraft. The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as you would expect of any city at a time of war, were defended by air defenses to include Japanese air patrols.

The bombs did not, in fact, kill any more people than conventional bombing against other Japanese targets had killed. (Or conversely, any more people than Japanese attacks against other cities in other countries had killed.) The difference was that it was one bomber with one bomb versus hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of bombs. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the technology at the time, and the high winds of the Japanese highlands, conventional munitions were not particularly accurate and so they caused a lot of devastation. The bottom line being, that for the time, the civilian deaths (which were not the intended targets) were not disproportionate to any other attack at that time.

Hiroshima was the headquarters for the 2nd General Army. Do you know what the 2nd General Army was responsible for? It was the home guard for the Japanese islands. In other words, it didn’t become a factor to the Allied operations in the Pacific, until they started looking at the invasion of Japan. There was no need to bomb Hiroshima prior to their setting the conditions for the invasion and given that the military is always resource limited, it has to choose its targets based on priority of effort. The 2nd Army was not a priority because the Allies had not advanced to needing to defeat the defenders of the Japanese home islands prior to summer 1945. (Second General Army (Japan) — Wikipedia)

Whether the bomb was dropped or not, if the Allies were going to invade Japan, the 2nd Army would have to be destroyed. Which means Hiroshima was going to be leveled within the coming days regardless. The bomb just did it in one pass.

The Japanese were provided every opportunity to surrender prior to the invasion (and the dropping of the bomb). The Japanese had been losing for months and saw the writing on the wall. They should have surrendered but chose not to and encouraged their people to fight to the death. (Something we had already witnessed on Saipan.)

Prior to the bombing, the Japanese people were warned that the US was going to attack. The US dropped leaflets warning the Japanese people that if they did not surrender, their cities would be bombed.

After Hiroshima, the Japanese government refused to surrender. And they were given three days opportunity to do so. Again, they were warned that they would be bombed, via both leaflets and radio, explicitly describing the bomb that was used on Hiroshima. Again, they decided not to surrender.

Nagasaki was the largest seaport in South Japan (where the Allies would be approaching from) and therefore the most likely place for counter-invasion forces to be landed. It was also a major weapons and ordnance production facility. All the stuff the Japanese would need to repel an invasion and an occupation force.

Nagasaki was not on the original list of targets because it was not directly tied to the defense of the islands. In fact, it had been fire bombed a few days before the atomic bombing because it played a more general role in the war effort and was therefore a priority target even before the invasion. Had the bomb not been dropped on Nagasaki, it may, in fact, have survived to a larger extent. It would have continued to be bombed and the harbor would certainly have been mined but it would not have been leveled like Hiroshima.

The mission that resulted in the bombing of Nagasaki was originally targeted against Kokura. But Kokura was covered in clouds and smoke and the orders were explicit that they had to see the target visually, not with radar.

The story remains the same, the military targets had to be confirmed visually. The city was not to be bombed based off radar alone.

General Groves was the lead for the Manhattan Project. He had a vested interested in demonstrating how successful his project had been with regards to the weapon he was tasked to develop. The generals that actually employed the weapon had one concern and one concern only, set the conditions for a successful invasion of Japan. If the bombs didn’t convince the Japanese to surrender (and based on the US military’s experience with Japanese forces on each of the islands they had fought to capture, there was no reason to believe they would), then the bombs still had to incur as significant an advantage to the invasion force as possible.

Ideally, that would have meant bombing Hiroshima (headquarters to the Islands defenders) and Kokura (origin of the Japanese military’s weapons and in particular their chemical weapons). But because of clouds, Kokura could not be *effectively* bombed and because of a fuel pump problem, the bomb could not be brought back to the take-off field. So it had to be dropped on the next best target which was Nagasaki. A valid (though not the highest priority) military target which would still have impacts on limiting the Japanese military’s ability to bring additional forces to the likely points of invasion.

It is very possible that the scientists did not take military considerations in to mind when targeting their weapons. But the military absolutely did and gave orders to that effect. Bomb the military target within the city. Confirm your target visually.

Having given them three days to surrender, having warned them explicitly that another bomb was going to be dropped, the Japanese chose not to surrender and instead renewed calls for all Japanese citizens to fight to the death the upcoming invasion.

Japan could have surrendered at any point. The US was bombing the Japanese home islands with near impunity leading up to the atomic bombings. The fire bombings of Tokyo killed more people than the atom bombs did. Yet, the Japanese government refused to surrender.

After the first bomb was dropped, the Japanese could have surrendered. But they chose not to. Discussions centered on holding out until the Soviets could be convinced to negotiate a more amendable surrender (one that did not require giving up conquered territory and/or removing the emperor).

The dropping of the second bomb confirmed to the Japanese that the US had more bombs and that they were willing to use them. The entrance of Soviet forces into Manchuria dashed any hopes they had of a less stringent surrender. They knew they could not win at this point but they also knew that they would be unable to negotiate for a better end to the war.

And yet many in the government *still* did not want to surrender. The Emperor himself, having seen the devastation caused by the atomic bombs, overruled his military leaders and decided to surrender in order to spare his people any further destruction.

It was the decisions of the Japanese, extending back at least as far as Iwo Jima where they demonstrated their unwillingness to surrender not only militarily but even their civilian population, that made the dropping of the atomic bombs necessary. The US did not do it out of revenge. They didn’t do it to show the Soviets their new toys. They did it to end the war which the Japanese repeatedly refused to do. The US would have been more than happy to accept the Japanese surrender after the obvious defeat of their island forces. The US would have gladly accepted their surrender after the dropping of the first atomic bomb. There was nothing necessary, from the US point of view, with regards to dropping the bombs. But the decision wasn’t theirs to make, it rested in the hands of the Japanese government.

The atomic bombings did not, alone, cause the Japanese to surrender. Many point to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria. However, both events were necessary but neither was truly sufficient to end the war when it did.

Even after the first atomic bomb was dropped, the Japanese held out hope that they could negotiate a better settlement with the Soviets than they were likely to get from the United States. Though they had already begun to see that they could not win the war, they believed that they could negotiate a settlement in which they could keep most of their overseas territory, keep the emperor in control, and avoid a war crimes tribunal.

After the Soviet invasion, the Japanese *still* did not surrender. They recognized that they would now have to fight the Soviets as well and that they would lose more territory in the process but they still clung to their victory in the Russo-Japanese war and believed that they could cause enough pain and suffering among the Allied forces to drive them to negotiations.

When the second atomic bomb had been dropped, the Emperor intervened. Not because the damage from the second one was so much worse but because it had put to lie the assessment of his own scientists that the US could not possibly have built more than one bomb. (The Japanese had their own atomic bomb program and knew how difficult the process was.) Two bombs suggested the US could repeat the process as often as they wanted.

Had the Soviets not invaded, the Japanese would likely have continued to sue for peace through them. Even realizing the US had multiple atomic weapons. Once that door was closed to them, there was no sense subjecting themselves to repeated atomic bombings since it would mean they would have little to no impact on the Allies. Bleeding the Allies was the key to their strategy of an acceptable negotiation. If the US could just hold their forces and drop atom bombs, there were no more options.

So again, both were necessary to reach a surrender. Neither, at the time, was sufficient. (The US was building more atom bombs and dropping a few more may have done the trick on their own but on 15 AUG 1945, two atom bombs alone were not enough.)

The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

In this situation, there is no prospect of victory over the American and British forces with such technological power.

Had the Japanese not surrendered after two atomic bombs, the next one most certainly would have gone back to Kokura because of its impact to the war and specifically the threat it represented to the invasion. Kokura would not have survived if the invasion had gone ahead.

Bombs are a finite resource.

Aircrew lives are a finite resource.

In Europe, the US risked the lives of its airmen extensively by insisting on daylight bombing raids to improve their accuracy against critical German industry and infrastructure targets. The USAAF lost an ungodly number of airmen because they took substantial risks to know they hit the targets they needed to hit to win the war.

So why would the US risk lives and limited bombs just so they could hit non-essential targets? The USAAF did not buy into the “terrorize the public campaign” the RAF did. It did not believe you could win wars purely through psychological impacts on the populace. The intelligence clearly indicated (and history at Iwo Jima and others demonstrated) that the Japanese would not surrender just become we “bombed them into submission.”

Every bomb dropped, every airman’s life risked was to achieve a military objective. That was why the targets were carefully selected and why they were designed to ensure that it had the most crippling effect on Japan’s ability to wage war and to defend the home islands.

Any conspiracy theory about just bombing little yellow people because it is fun completely ignores all of the above context and the demonstrated tactics of the USAAF up to that point.

The USAAF attacked strategic targets because it was the most effective and most efficient (read: saved the most bombs and lives). Anything other than that would not make sense to any planner and it would have been a complete departure from everything else the USAAF had done during that war.

Because their accuracy was so poor using higher altitude tactics (30,000ft), the USAAF decided to go as low as 7,000ft, into the heart of AAA and enemy fighters, in order to get more accurate strikes on enemy infrastructure. If your only concern is killing lots of civilians, you don’t need to change altitude because you achieve the same chaos from safe altitudes. But if you want to hit specific targets such as aircraft factories, then you have to get low enough to put your bombs where you intend.

The USAAF flew more dangerous missions specifically so it could be more accurate. It would have been easier and safer (and would have saved more planes and crews) if they had stayed at higher altitudes.

Civilians die in war. And that is largely unavoidable. There are allowances made in international law governing warfare for civilian deaths when they are not intentional. Both Dresden and the atomic bombings of Japan fall into this category. Ugly, brutal tactics that were designed first and foremost to win the war by defeating the adversaries’ military, not to terrorize the people.

Has America ever committed War Crimes?

Counties are not prosecuted for warcrimes, individuals are. There are individual Americans who committed warcrimes but, unlike WWII Germany and Japan, it has not been the policy of the US to sanction soldiers committing warcrimes.

United States war crimes are violations of the laws and customs of war committed by the United States Armed Forces since the signing of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. These have included the summary execution of captured enemy combatants, the mistreatment of prisoners during interrogation, and the use of violence against civilian non-combatants.
War crimes can be prosecuted in the United States through the War Crimes Act of 1996. However, the United States Federal Government does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) over its nationals, as the United States is not a party to the Court. United States war crimes

There are fewer than two dozen Americans convicted of warcrimes with the best known being William Calley who was convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese during the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in 1968. He was given a life sentence but pardoned by Richard Nixon in 1974. There is little doubt he both ordered and participated in the killings. Calley says he was acting under orders. What actually happened is unclear. No one else was prosecuted. William Calley

There were many unsanctioned killings of Japanese POWs by American soldiers in the Pacific Theater during WWII but no one was prosecuted. The brutal Japanese treatment of American POWs and the fear created by Japanese soldiers who faked surrender and then killed his captors played a part in these actions.

No nation, as a whole (as far as I know) has ever been tried for war crimes.

War crime trials, at the Hague, are normally reserved for national leaders that fail to enforce the laws of war on their own combatants. The US has generally made efforts to ensure that the laws of war are respected, and has prosecuted soldiers for failing to do so. (Something that almost never happens in other nations, by the way).

More broadly, committing war crimes hasn’t ever been the national policy of the United States. (People who don’t understand what war crimes are will whine about Iraq here… They don’t understand what war crimes are).

The “United States” cannot be charged with war crimes.

It is a nation. Nations are inanimate objects. Inanimate objects can’t do things.

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