Friday, August 26, 2011

Is Targeting Civilians Ever Justified?

Was dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima morally justifiable? Could using nuclear warheads against civilian populations be justified today? These questions have been asked repeatedly for 65 years, but unfortunately the treatment they're often given in secular venues is nonsensical. The secular man can offer no moral objection to killing civilians whether by nuclear weapons or conventional weapons. For the secularist might makes right. If you can do it then you're not wrong to do it.

But for those whose moral judgments are grounded in an objective, transcendent moral authority rather than a subjective, "whatever feels right to you" ethic the questions take on serious urgency. Here are some further questions: Is the use of nukes really the issue or is the issue any type of action that results in the deliberate deaths of innocent civilians? Was the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima any different, really, than the use of incendiary bombs on dozens of other Japanese cities? Is it ever justifiable to deliberately target civilians? Isn't that what morally bankrupt terrorists do?

Joe Carter, a former Marine, meditates on the use of nukes in a very thoughtful column at First Things and describes how his thinking on this issue has evolved.

He opens with this:
As I walked along the streets of Hiroshima I tried to imagine the city on fire. Fifty-six years earlier the atomic bomb “Little Boy” had set the area aflame, killing nearly a third of the population within twenty-four hours. According to the local prefectural health department estimates, of the people who perished on the day of the explosion, 60 percent died from flash or flame burns. Most of the dead were “noncombatants”—innocent men, women, and children.

Like many Americans I had always believed that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan had been a necessary evil, the only way to end the bloody, protracted war. Now, looking into the faces of smiling children strolling down the bustling sidewalks, I wasn’t so sure. Civilians just like the ones I was watching—mothers fussing over infants, grandmothers holding the hands of little girls—had been targeted by my country in order to bend the will of Japan’s political and military leaders.

Being an American, I had heard all of the arguments for why sacrificing these noncombatants was the only way to spare the lives of thousands that would be killed in the inevitable invasion. Being a Christian, though, I struggled with a more essential question: How is it ever justifiable to target innocent men, women, and children?
Carter's evolution on this question parallels my own. My objection is not, in principle, to the use of nuclear weapons. My problem, and I confess to vacillation on this point, is with the deliberate use of any kind of weapon against civilians. Carter's thoughts on this will not settle the debate, but they'll make you think and that's a good thing.