Hanson Agonistes

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

Among pundits currently urging Americans to embrace an eternal state of war, I find Victor Davis Hanson one of the most disturbing. Hanson is obviously far more intelligent than shills like John Podhoretz or Charles Krauthammer, and on the surface he seems more reasonable. But closer analysis of his writing exposes that “reasonableness” as a mere patina over the same martial infatuation possessing his less able comrades. His recent column defending the atomic bombing of Hiroshima reveals the Mr. Hyde lurking within our Dr. Jekyll.

Hanson begins by declaring, “For 60 years the United States has agonized over its unleashing of the world's first nuclear weapon on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.” Say what? I’ve been around for 46 of those years, and I recall very little “agonizing.” Sure, every once in a while some spoilsport would question the decision, only to be denounced as an “America hater.”

So what justified unleashing the A-bomb on the world and melting a large city along with its unfortunate inhabitants? Hanson says: “Truman's supporters [argued] that, in fact, a blockade and negotiations had not forced the Japanese generals to surrender unconditionally. In their view, a million American casualties and countless Japanese dead were adverted by not storming the Japanese mainland over the next year in the planned two-pronged assault on the mainland, dubbed Operation Coronet and Olympic.”

Hanson leaves unanswered the question of why the US would only accept an unconditional surrender. Just war theory, which is an application of the broader moral theory of aggression, says that such a course is unacceptable. One may not initiate aggression, and one is justified in responding to aggression only to the extent needed to stop it. The view adopted does not suggest that it renders automatic all choices in war or other conflicts. For example, there is always uncertainty about just what level of response is needed to halt some specific act of aggression. Furthermore, in cases where the enemy is actively fighting, there may arise “lifeboat” situations, in which one is confronted with a few stark choices, all of which will contribute directly to the death of non-combatants. But these do not arise once the enemy has laid down arms and is talking.

Hanson would claim that the US had to demand unconditional surrender in order to prevent the possibility that a revived Japan might undertake aggression again in the future. (One wonders how near he believes that future must be – can one wipe every member of an enemy nation to ensure safety from it forever?) But realistic worries on that front can be worked out in peace negotiations. Having caught a burglar in one’s home, one is not entitled to then slice off his hands, on the chance that, otherwise, he might rob again. If he is willing to surrender, the remedies to implement become a matter for intellectual, not violent, dispute.

That does not mean both sides in the discussion have the same voice. Japan was willing to discuss its terms of surrender, and was not demanding that of the US. The US could have made clear that any attempt by the enemy to improve its military situation would be met with renewed force, without having to agree to similar conditions, given that its opponent was near collapse. Thus, America could have built up its arsenal while negotiating, and, if Japan would not agree to terms acceptable to the US, could have resumed the war in an even more favorable position. Of course, maintaining US forces around Japan would have been costly, but Hanson isn’t so brazen as to defend the atomic option because it saved money.

In terms of the particulars of the time, the main bone of contention was apparently whether or not the Japanese emperor would be allowed to remain on his throne. However, after Japan did surrender unconditionally, he was permitted to do so anyway. Oops-a-daisy! What’s more, there is a growing realization that Japan’s ability to continue fighting was about nil. As a veteran of the Pacific war recently wrote: “The truth is, I now believe, that in August of 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army could not have defended its homeland against a well-trained troop of Eagle Scouts.”

In any case, if all roads to one’s goal lead through Hell, perhaps one should mull over giving up the goal? But, in Hanson’s pagan ethic, crushing one’s enemies comes first, and morality is only a tool in choosing among the various means of doing so.

But let us say we grant Hanson his premise that achieving Japan’s unconditional surrender was the overriding moral imperative for the US in 1945. He admits, “Hiroshima was the most awful option imaginable,” but makes a leap of faith and asserts, “the other scenarios would have probably turned out even worse.” Perhaps, but couldn’t one begin with less awful options and escalate only if they didn’t succeed? For instance, what about continuing to blockade the country while announcing a deadline after which measures would escalate? Hanson argues that the US could not afford to drop a “demonstration bomb” since it only had two, but the time given for a blockade to succeed could have been spent building a third one with which to give that warning.

Hanson next moves on to the “we’d done worse” argument: “Hiroshima, then, was not the worst single-day loss of life in military history. The Tokyo fire raid on the night of March 9/10, five months earlier, was far worse, incinerating somewhere around 150,000 civilians, and burning out over 15 acres of the downtown. Indeed, "Little Boy," the initial nuclear device that was dropped 60 years ago, was understood as the continuance of that policy of unrestricted bombing – its morality already decided by the ongoing attacks on the German and Japanese cities begun at least three years earlier.”

To be fair, Hanson makes a good point: If unrestricted bombing is moral, then there is no fundamental basis for qualms at going nuclear. But it is fatuous to declare that the morality of unrestricted bombing already had been decided simply because it had been employed. If a serial killer switches from a sword to a gun as his weapon of choice, what sort of defense is it to claim that the morality of serial killing was “already decided” when he was using the sword?

Hanson continues: “Americans of the time hardly thought the Japanese populace to be entirely innocent.” Here we have morality by opinion poll embracing a grim collectivism. Because some Japanese civilians were more or less involved in the war effort, all of them, even infants, were fair game to be slaughtered. Note that this sort of thinking is exactly how Osama bin Laden justifies striking civilian targets in the US, Britain, or Spain. We must grant that the conduct of modern warfare blurs the line between combatants and non-combatants – on which side of it are the workers in a bomb factory? But as blurry as we might make it, an infant in Hiroshima or a new immigrant delivering a sandwich to the World Trade Center are obviously non-combatants.

Hanson notes: “The Imperial Japanese army routinely butchered civilians abroad – some 10–15 million Chinese were eventually to perish – throughout the Pacific from the Philippines to Korea and Manchuria.” So we can, too! (And would those Philippines be the same ones where the US army killed 250,000 people when they tried to assert their independence?)

Hanson plays the saddened realist accepting minimizing suffering, saying: “The truth, as we are reminded so often in this present conflict, is that usually in war there are no good alternatives, and leaders must select between a very bad and even worse choice.” Quite so – but that is why we should end wars sooner rather than later, and avoid demanding things like unconditional surrender.

Once analyzed, none of these “moral arguments” are very convincing. The reason that such a smart fellow makes such weak moral arguments is that they are red herrings. The truth is that he and his cohorts just really love war, and love does not stop to ask “Why?” Michael Ledeen can only urge that wars arrive “faster, please.” Hanson criticizes both sides of conflicts for not getting down to fighting sooner. But they know they have to talk the good talk, to cloak their raw aggression in some ethical finery, or else the public will turn from their views in disgust. In the end, they are children in adult bodies, who never lost their fascination with moving little plastic soldiers and tanks around their bedrooms.

August 11, 2005

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives