Tuesday, August 07, 2007

War Crimes

Oliver Kamm wrote a piece in the Guardian on the anniversary of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in which he defended the action as morally justifiable. This was so, he argued, because they prevented the far greater loss of life that would have resulted from either a aiege or a storm of the home island. The bombs were necessary in making the Japanese bow to the inevitable and surrender. Alongside that was a refutation of the idea, which appears to be enjoying a spurious fashionability again just now, that the bombs were really a 'gesture' aimed at the USSR.
Norm Geras, while of course accepting this latter point, disagrees with Kamm on the morality question.
Even if one thinks the calculation does convincingly establish how any US president would have acted, it doesn't show that it wasn't a war crime. It is not a legitimate act of war to save the lives of your own soldiers by the mass bombing of civilians, and to reason simply from the 'realism' of what was to be expected in the situation prevailing is to suggest that the laws of war only apply when it's easy to uphold them, but otherwise must give way to utilitarian calculation.
On this calculation, every war since 1914 has been marked by war crimes. Every bomber taking off, every pilot flying to the bomb-zone, every groundcrew loading the planes and every politician directing policy was a war criminal. But if you can thus apply the label to so broad a group - encompassing as it does the air force of every combatant nation - doesn't it devalue the term itself?

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