Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Justified?

This past August marked the 75th anniversary of the most ethically controversial decisions in the history of warfare.  On the 6th of August 1945, and then again on the 9th of August, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At least 150,000 civilians were immediately killed, and more would later die.  But on August 15th, and arguably because of these bombs, the Japanese regime surrendered unconditionally, thus ending the Second World War.  An undeniably good consequence.

All the Midshipmen have learned from their favorite course, NE203, the in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality.  Discrimination requires that rights-bearing noncombatants never be intentionally targeted as ends or means.  Proportionality requires that the innocent lives saved by the use of force against a legitimate military target be greater than the innocent lives lost as unavoidable collateral damage.

Since 1945, public opinion about the ethics of the two bombs has shifted.  While the bombings were widely supported after the war, approval has waned over the years, especially in academia.  Obviously, the most common complaint is that Japanese civilians were intentionally targeted as a means of coercing the regime’s unconditional surrender—which is what terrorists do.

However, I would defend the morality of the two bombs, but not for the conventional reasons.  In fact, I don’t believe the bombings were defensible through standard just war in bello reasoning about proportionality and discrimination.  Regarding proportionality, although legitimate military targets existed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their military value was not proportionate to the foreseeable collateral damage.  On the other hand, a military target that would have produced proportionate collateral damage was available and ignored: Japanese troops massing in the south around Kyushu.      

Regarding discrimination, the claim that civilians were not targeted—not intentionally used as means to a good end—seems dubious.  As mentioned, Kyushu was ignored.  More disturbingly, a proposal to drop a demonstration bomb on an uninhabited area was rejected.  The reasons given included: Japanese military leaders would be unconvinced of the bomb’s destructiveness against cities; and even if impressive, a demonstration would eliminate the shock effect, especially the psychological impact on leaders, of any subsequent bombs.  Ultimately, the deaths of Japanese civilians were not desired as an end, but were intended as a means.                

Which brings us to this question: is it ever permissible to intentionally kill innocents as a necessary means to a good end?  In NE203, Midshipmen learn that it would be impermissible to intentionally harvest the organs of one healthy person in order to save five patients.  However, there are some rare situations in which an intentional necessary evil seems justified.  Consider the “Sophie’s Choice” case, for example.  If smothering a crying baby were necessary to save five other innocents from being discovered and murdered by the Gestapo, one could argue that this necessary evil would be permitted.  The baby will be unjustly killed anyway.  Similarly, consider philosopher Bernard Williams’ “Jim and the Indians” case.  If Jim’s choice is between shooting one innocent to save 19 or watching all 20 be murdered, then the former—while tragic—seems permissible.  In such special situations, a “necessary and lesser evil justification” seems valid. 

I would argue that Japan 1945 was one of these situations.  An unconditional surrender and occupation of Japan was necessary to defend innocent millions of Americans, Chinese and Koreans.  (Note: if this assumption is wrong, my argument fails.  In a subsequent post, David Luban will argue that unconditional surrender was unnecessary for defensive purposes.)  The only two available means of attaining an unconditional surrender were a land invasion or the two bombs.  A land invasion would have collaterally killed at least 500,000 Japanese civilians, a proportionate and therefore permissible number.  But the two bombs intentionally killed 150,000 Japanese civilians, thus saving at least 350,000 Japanese civilians who would have otherwise died collaterally during a land invasion.  (Not to mention the approximately two million Chinese and Koreans saved by acting in August, versus invading by land in November.)  Granted, many of the 150,000 who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the same people who would have perished in a land invasion, thus raising identity concerns.  But I think it’s fair to consider Japanese civilians as a group.  

So ultimately, Japan 1945 was one of those very rare and tragic situations in which a necessary and lesser evil justification permits the intentional killing of innocents. 

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