Wednesday, 30 August 2006

The morality of war

HiroshimaAt Sideways Mencken, Takhallus is asking a very difficult moral question: was the American incendiary and nuclear bombing of Japan moral or not? If yes, would a similar bombing of Teheran be moral today? And he wants answers to go beyond a simple yes or no; he wants justification. Why or why not?

This is a very uncomfortable question and it's making me squirm, quite honestly. But I'll do my best.

War is always and inevitably a morally equivocal act, at best. In absolute terms, it can never ever be right. Horrible things will be done, even in "just wars". Innocent blood will flow. All of this is wrong.

Sometimes though, in a world where evil walks, it is sometimes necessary. Allowing an evil man at the head of an evil regime to go unchecked can result in even greater evils. And those who stand back and allow it to continue are complicit. In other words, there are cases where you are damned if you do, damned if you don't. The only moral solution is to go for the lesser of damnations.

It's pretty hard to rally the troops around a war cry of "the lesser of evils," so the justification of war is seldom framed in those terms. My uncle, a WWII navigator with the RCAF probably participated in the bombing of German civilians. I don't know, because he won't talk about it. I know for a fact he did do bombing runs over Germany. This was one of the few wars in history where good and evil appeared with some clarity, but even so, men of honour sleep uneasily sixty years after the fact.

It was necessary to bring Germany to its knees, it was necessary to bring Japan to its knees, because the alternative was even more horrific. Sometimes the lesser of evils is the only moral response, even when innocents have to die.

But when the euphoria of victory has had its day, and the rubble is cleared and the cities rebuilt, perhaps the only moral response is to weep for our victory. Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, famously said at a 1969 press conference in London: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."

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