Is ruthlessness ever moral? Is it ever effective?

Mike was shot down over Vietnam, and was imprisoned with other Americans under the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese.  While imprisoned, he sewed together an American flag out of pieces of colored cloth, using a needle he made from a piece of bamboo.  The guards discovered this and took Mike outside, in front of the other prisoners, and beat him severely, puncturing his eardrum and breaking several of his ribs.  Then they dragged him bleeding and nearly senseless into the cell with the other prisoners, who included John McCain, who later became the Senator from Arizona.  The other prisoners helped Mike  crawl back onto his place on the sleeping platform.

McCain before capture
McCain before capture

“Before drifting off” says McCain, “I happened to look toward a corner of the room, where one of the four naked light bulbs that were always illuminated in our cell cast a dim light on Mike Christian.  He had crawled there quietly when he thought the rest of us were sleeping.  With his eyes nearly swollen shut from the beating, he had quietly picked up his needle and thread and begun sewing a new flag.”

My point in telling the story in a post about ruthlessness is this: American prisoners in Vietnam had been undergoing horrendous treatment for years, and the action that stopped it was when then president Nixon ordered the bombing of North Vietnam, especially the capital, Hanoi.

McCain reports in his book Faith of My Fathers:

For many of our guards this was their first taste of modern warfare, and their confidence in the superiority of their defenses was visibly shaken.  Many of them cowered in the shadows of our cellblocks, believing correctly that the B-52 pilots knew where Americans were held in Hanoi and were trying to avoid dropping their bombs near us.
It was quite a spectacular show.  Antiaircraft guns booming, bombs exploding, fires raging all over the city.  It is sinful to take pleasure in the suffering of others, even your enemies, and B-52s can deliver a lot of suffering….
“In the aftermath of the B-52 raids, some of the guards who had treated us the most contemptuously became almost civil when speaking to us.  Some of them even began to smile at us, almost comically.

The North Vietnamese government caved, and signed a peace agreement.

The question we might ask is, why didn’t the Americans bomb Hanoi much earlier in the war?  One reason may have been their fear of the sophisticated Soviet-style air defense network of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), anti-aircraft artillery, and MiG interceptors in the North.  It was safer to drop bombs on undefended jungle than to go into that environment.  A reason given in Wikipedia was fear of possible counter moves or outright intervention by the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, or both.  However, despite these concerns, after a few setbacks, the Americans went all out, and the ongoing torture and maltreatment of POWs stopped.  (Unfortunately the war was ultimately lost when the Americans left and the North swept into the South, and American leftist politicians refused arms aid to the South.)

Bombing a city, even if you target military installations, is going to cause “collateral damage”.   So the question is – was President Nixon’s decision a moral one?  Was it an effective one?

Americans fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq today (in 2016), are fighting under “Rules of Engagement” created by the Obama administration.  One of these rules is that you cannot shoot at any group of people unless they are shooting at you first.  So in other words, you have to wait until your comrades are dead or wounded before you can shoot back (unless you are lucky and the enemy’s initial shots miss you.  Under this policy, Americans died who would not have died otherwise.
Obviously, we don’t want American soldiers shooting at innocent people, and one way to know whether someone is innocent or not is whether he is firing at you first.  But is this a sane policy?   Would the architects of this policy be willing to face the families of soldiers who died because of it?

Unnecessary constraints were put on air power as well.  In May 2015, the New York Times reported one constraint due to the desire to minimize civilian casualties:  An A-10 pilot said that “In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a U.A.V., over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage.”

The half-hearted air campaign against Islamic State meant that Islamic State continued to kill men, enslave women, and have their youth initiated to the practice of cutting off people’s heads.

Then came the Russians.  The Russians said they were going to fight Islamic State, but initially that was not true.  Instead, their planes hit groups backed by the Americans that were threatening the regime of President Assad of Syria.  The Russians did not care all that much about collateral damage – they bombed their targets no matter what.  And without incurring casualties (apart from an air crew shot down by Turkey), they achieved their initial objectives.
I have doubts about Americans supporting groups in Syria that were in some cases composed of Jihadists, but I’m sure people all over the world got the message – America cannot protect you if Russian bombers attack you, and Russians stand by their allies, and most importantly, Russians win.

Another interesting aspect of this was the total silence on college campuses across the west about the human cost of the Russian bombings.  People who demonstrate at the drop of a hat about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians could not care less about Muslims in Syria being bombed, or for that matter being killed by other Muslims.   It seems morality is selectively applied.  Though some argue with this point.  They say that all military intervention in the Middle East has been counter-productive, and the protests that make a difference are against Western governments complicit in Israel’s supposed oppression of Palestinians, which they, as voters and taxpayers, don’t want to participate in by aiding Israel.  They also argue that any further intervention in that region would be futile.  However, it really seems to me that they don’t care – because there are at least symbolic steps they could take if they did.GazaDemonstration

So what should our morality be, in cases like these?  Candidate Ted Cruz says we should carpet-bomb ISIS.  That’s all very well, except that ISIS now controls entire cities full of civilians.  It is no longer possible to carpet-bomb ISIS without lots of collateral damage (death to non-combatants).  We could rely on others to do the job, and just give them arms, but there is no guarantee that such allies would care about collateral damage. Or if American soldiers go house to house, looking for insurgents, there may be less collateral damage, but there will be obviously many American casualties.

There are moral tradeoffs.  If you asked me whether I would dump gasoline on someone and set them alight, of course I would say no.  But if you asked me whether I believe the atom bomb at Hiroshima was justified, I would say yes, despite the substantial number of people killed in that explosion.  I would say this because many American lives were saved when the Japanese decided to surrender, and presumably Japanese lives were saved too, because there would have been a drawn-out war, island by island, to defeat the empire of Japan.

Atom Bomb hits Nagasaki
Atom Bomb hits Nagasaki

If in a particular situation, ruthlessness is proven to be the only way to win without unacceptable casualties on our own side, and if the consequences of losing are also extremely immoral – what course of action should we take?  I’m not saying I know the answer.

(I deliberately put spaces in some of the links to avoid wordpress errors – wordpress sometimes tries to render images with the link and fails)
Faith of My Fathers – John McCain and Mark Salter
http: // 2016/04/26/how-rules-of-engagement-get-u-s-soldiers-killed-on-the-glazov-gang-2/
http://www. 2015/05/27/world/middleeast/with-isis-in-crosshairs-us-holds-back-to-protect-civilians.html?_r=0
http:// http://www.theguardian. com/commentisfree/2014/aug/11/british-protesting-gaza-iraq-israel-oppression-palestinians tr


5 thoughts on “Is ruthlessness ever moral? Is it ever effective?

  1. Regarding Hiroshima: there were clearly alternatives to the two options you are considering (bomb Hiroshima versus attack Japan island by island, hand to hand). E.g. use the A bomb against a wholly military target, demonstrate the power of the bomb in an unpopulated area, or island by island if necessary. Japan would have had to surrender either way. Bombing a town with civilians, including women and children, was morally, to me, the least acceptable option.

    1. You may be right but bomb supporters make several counter-points. ” Although the test in the New Mexican desert had been successful, the technology was still new. What if the demonstration bomb didn’t work? The United States would have looked weak and foolish. A failed demonstration might even serve to increase Japanese resolve. Additionally, the U.S. only had two bombs left after Los Alamos. If the demonstration failed to convince the Japanese to surrender, only one bomb would remain. Others would presumably be produced later, but there was no guarantee of that. One bomb, as it turned out, was not enough to force surrender. A third counter-point is that a demonstration would eliminate the element of surprise, and the Japanese might use American POWs as human shields. The four cities on the target list had not been bombed with conventional weapons so that they might serve as accurate test subjects for the destructive powers of the atomic bomb. The Japanese would surely deduce American strategy, and might move Americans to those target cities. Finally, bomb supporters counter-argue that it was the opinion of Robert Oppenheimer and other scientists on the Interim Committee that a demonstration wouldn’t convince the Japanese to surrender. “We can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war,” they wrote. “We see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

      1. The element of surprise is a problematic point. The Japanese were well aware of the destructive power of A bombs, and a German sub was already en route to Japan carrying enriched Uranium for their own projected weapon (it surrendered to US forces folowing the German defeat). However they had no idea that the Americans had only two bombs in readiness–if they had known, that would have made a big difference. If the Japanese had deduced that the Americans were going to go on targeting civilian towns, maybe they would have deployed US prisoners of war there — we know how morally bankrupt they were, but can that justify behaving in an equally evil way?

  2. The Japanese actually had what we now call “WMDs”. I have a previous post where I talk about the Japanese biological warfare program, and their experimentation on prisoners. This quote is relevant: “There is no end to the debate of whether the US should have dropped the Atomic Bomb on Japan – but one reason President Truman was so anxious to do it was because the Japanese had already sent a hundred balloons, each stuffed with anthrax, over the Pacific and into California and Oregon. The attack failed, because at the high altitude of the balloons, the anthrax froze, but Truman knew that countries in the throes of defeat do desperate things and worse might come.” also: “By the end of the war, the Japanese had a submarine (the I-400) that was a huge monster that could launch planes and contained enough fuel to take it to both coasts of the US and back to Japan. One plan was to have it deliver germ bombs.” So if the Americans had made the wrong decision, the Japanese could have caused many civilian deaths in mainland USA. But the main point is “what works?” Oppenheimer and the other scientists did not believe a demonstration would work. In fact, even after both bombs (Hiroshima and Nagasaki),die-hard Japanese army fanatics opposed to the surrender attempted a coup d’état. They seized the Imperial Palace However, the coup was quickly crushed on the Emperor’s order. So Carl, there was not much margin for error. The Americans only had two bombs (which I didn’t know until I tried to answer your comment) and they simply did not believe there was a way short of killing lots of men, women and children with an atom bomb, to stop the war. And the war did stop.

    1. No one questions how evil the Japanese were at that period (they tested many of their biological weapons on Chinese people during the occupation). Not all the scientists agreed with Oppenheimer on this point — I believe some ceased to work on nuclear weapons as a result of the decision — and yes, the war did stop; but a clear message was sent to many other aggressive groups down to the present day that a shockingly evil, violent terrorist act was justified, if it got the desired result. And I think we are paying part of the price for that right now.

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