Thursday, September 01, 2005

Hiroshima and Gene Callahan

by Bob Murphy

Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it; that’s why I foolishly formed an entangling alliance (officially dubbed the "Anarchist Irish Drinking Club") with one Gene Callahan. Consequently, I have now twice been dragged into a devastating conflict with writers from National Review Online, as I am treaty-bound to defend Gene whenever he starts a war with these folks. (Long-time LRC readers may recall my inexcusable violations of the Geneva Convention during the first encounter with Jonah Goldberg.) The present hostilities concern Gene’s critique of Victor Davis Hanson’s defense of Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb, a critique to which Hanson has recently responded.

Hanson feels Gene is being paranoid and absurd: "[I] am derided as a lover of war for suggesting that the United States, when it goes to war against fascists, should defeat them, insist on their unconditional surrender, and stay on to promote democratic reconstruction."

Well, yes and no. If by insist Hanson had meant something such as, "continue to shoot Japanese troops in the field," then I don’t think Gene would have devoted an article to Hanson. But no, when Hanson thinks the US was perfectly justified in "insisting" on unconditional surrender, one of the means of persuasion was incinerating tens of thousands of civilians. In Gene’s own words: "So what justified unleashing the A-bomb on the world and melting a large city along with its unfortunate inhabitants?"

Hanson claims that "Callahan ignores the fact that the bomb ended, not perpetuated ‘eternal’ war, abruptly saving millions of casualties on both sides." Again, not really. Gene certainly didn’t ignore this claim – he spent several paragraphs attacking it. The atomic bomb only saved millions of lives if the only other option were an infantry invasion of the mainland; but Gene’s point was that other options should have been considered. And I don’t see how Hanson can claim that the bomb ended "‘eternal’ war." By using that adjective in quotation marks, Hanson is alluding to the peacenik complaint that the war hawks are always urging us into one conflict after another. Well, isn’t that precisely what happened? The atomic bombing of Hiroshima has utterly failed to end war. (In case you’re not following me: Not even Charlie Sheen would argue that Japan is still fighting the US. Yes, that war is over. So those worrying about "eternal war" are talking about the fact that the US is just about always blowing up some foreigners.)

Next Hanson dismisses Gene’s third option of a negotiated peace: "[Callahan] forgets that the allies much earlier had tried a negotiated, rather than unconditional surrender…and got Hitler and another war later as thanks." Yes, that’s definitely one way to look at it. But it is equally valid to point out that Hanson forgets that the Allies who killed hundreds of thousands of admittedly innocent people thought that they were thereby liberating half of Europe from a mass murdering dictator, and got Stalin and a Cold War later as thanks.

While discussing Gene’s alleged inability to make sound moral distinctions, Hanson makes the following odd remark: "In such a world of relativism it makes no difference who starts wars, much less whether they are fought by fascists or democracies." Now here is one point where I truly disagree with Hanson’s moral position (and not just his interpretation of history). In the context of Gene’s critique, no it doesn’t matter whether the deeds are ordered by an elite group or sanctioned by majority opinion. (Let us overlook the fact that in practice, the distinction is hardly crisp: Even dictatorships ultimately rest on public opinion, and FDR was not exactly a mere conduit of the American General Will when it came to foreign policy, nor was he afraid to control subjects who retained nominal ownership of their property – i.e. the mark of a fascist.) Whether you use the Ten Commandments or Just War theory, it is simply unacceptable to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians to elicit particular terms from an enemy. Whether such mass murder is carried out by a democratically elected government doesn’t change this fact.

Finally, Hanson is simply stunned that Gene could equate the methods of Truman with those of bin Laden. Gene had said, "Note that this sort of thinking is exactly how Osama bin Laden justifies striking civilian targets…" Hanson replies, "Ponder that: Dropping a bomb on the headquarters of the Japanese 2nd Army to force a military cabal to surrender during a war they started that was taking 250,000 Asian lives a month is the same as blowing up an office building full of civilians at a time of peace" (italics original).

Yes, Mr. Hanson, they are the same, in the sense that they are both examples of killing noncombatants to achieve a military outcome; that was Gene’s whole point. But Hanson’s incredulity reveals his failure to at least understand what motivates current American enemies. The average Arab in the Middle East certainly would not have said that his country was at peace with the US on September 10, 2001. Our forces covered the globe, and could perform "peacetime" operations (such as sending cruise missiles to blow up a pharmaceutical plant during the Monica Lewinsky hearings) with impunity.

Furthermore, as every Al Qaeda recruit undoubtedly knows, Madeleine Albright didn’t even bother denying charges that the American and British blockade of Iraq (post-Desert Storm) had killed 500,000 Iraqi children. So if it’s okay for the Allies to firebomb Tokyo and Dresden, and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki (operations in which plenty of tall commercial buildings – and relatively few military targets – were destroyed), then it’s a bit silly to be so scandalized by the widespread acceptance in the Arab world of such tactics. Does Hanson really not see that an Iraqi could understandably look at over a hundred thousand foreign troops (who had toppled the previous government and bombed the heck out of several major cities) as, well, an occupying power?

In conclusion, I want to say that Victor Davis Hanson certainly knows more military history than I do; I would never dare suggest otherwise. But his response to Gene Callahan demonstrates that he is apparently incapable of even getting inside the head of someone who doesn’t take George Bush at his word. Because of this, I’m not so sure Hanson is a good person to be making recommendations for how to deal with the terrorist threat to Americans.

September 1, 2005

*Bob Murphy has a PhD in economics from New York University, and is the author of Minerva. See his personal website at



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