Let’s try to recapitulate, in concise terms, the lineaments of the atomic bombing debate that has roiled this website and several others over the past few days. Like Mr. Auster, I am weary of the whole thing — I said in my original post that the debate tends to issue in “a tiresome recitation of old arguments and older outrage” — but I hold out hope that at least some success can be achieved in clarifying the disagreement. Therefore:
(1) Some of us, affirming the absolute prohibition on the deliberate slaughter of innocents as a foundational principle of all morality, reason by deduction that the atomic strikes on Japanese cities cannot be justified. That’s it. We have been careful not to range into self-congratulation about our moral stature; have repeatedly disavowed any desire to stand in self-righteous judgment Truman, LeMay, et al.; and have never so much as suggested that this judgment of the morality of the bombings undermines, say, the overall justice of the American prosecution of the Second World War.
(2) The response to this single point has more often consisted of sophistry or mere heckling than direct refutation. If our reasoning is wrong, pray show where. Several critics have repeatedly elided the difference between the word “deliberate” and the word “knowing,” thereby obscuring what seems the most crucial aspect of the question: the element of intent. As I said in a comment, by engaging in a massive firefight in an urban center (say, Mogadishu, Somalia, or the West Bank, or Baghdad), one knowingly slaughters civilians; but there is no element of intent here. This distinction does not seem overly abstract or abstruse to me.
(3) Other critics have resorted to the device of conflating our position vis-à-vis Hiroshima and Nagasaki with absolute pacifism. It is difficult to take this sort of business seriously. We in the opposition camp are regularly castigated, with perhaps some justice, for divorcing our reasoning of the “real world,” of “hot-house” intellectualism; but what sort of realism is there in an argument that sets up a perfect polarity between pacifism, on the one hand, and endorsing atomic strikes on cities, on the other — leaving no middle ground? If a man is unwillingly to declare his readiness to incinerate civilians, he is perforce unwillingly to defend his home from an intruder. Talk about unreality.
In truth the most emphatic refutation of pacifism, in my view, is just the other side of the same No-Deliberate-Slaughter-of-Innocents coin: A man, in his capacity as a husband or father, or as an officer of the law, or as a statesman, who bears a responsibility to certain innocents, may not justly choose not to protect them. The obligation binds him. It is a vicious act not to defend the innocents in your charge. A man alone, with no responsibility for others, may choose to sacrifice his own life on pacifist grounds, but he may not choose for others. To fail to protect the innocent in your charge, when it is in our power, is as good as deliberately slaughtering them.
(4) Finally, there is the charge that our abstracted reasoning here is evidence that, on at least this issue, we have given ourselves over to Liberalism. My first response to this is to wonder at its relevance. Let us posit, arguendo, that the charge is true, that opposition to the atomic strikes is, as it were, an intrinsically Liberal position. What of it? I am as hostile to Liberalism as the next Conservative, but our object here is not ideological purity; it the pursuit of the truth. And my opposition to Liberalism rests largely on a judgment of its overwhelming falsehood. A few exceptions to that falsehood does not a true philosophy make.
As it happens, of course, I see no persuasive reason to believe that affirming moral absolutes — in particular the absolute prohibition on murder (read: deliberate killing) of innocents — is a Liberal view. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is my firm view that a decisive aspect of Liberalism has been its slippery rejection of moral absolutes and concomitant embrace of relativism.
A few Google searches turned up the following Conservative luminaries who expressed doubts, or indeed unmistakable opposition, to the atomic strikes. None of this is a definitive proof-text, of course, but it is illuminating when set in contrast to the charge of Liberalism.
- Richard M. Weaver, “A Dialectic on Total War,” in Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time, 1964.
- Felix Morley, “The Return to Nothingness,” Human Events August 29, 1945.
- Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1962.
- John Courtney Murray, Bridging the Sacred and the Secular, 1994.