I'm no fan of our president, but when he takes undeserved flak I think it's important to come to his defense. In a post over at National Review's Corner, Brian T. Kennedy writes:
[W]e must thank the North Koreans for at least reminding the American people that the world is a serious place where life and death matters. This is more than our elected representatives are giving us these days. Newt Gingrich, no longer elected, struck just the right tone on Fox News Sunday in taking the threat as seriously as it is warranted. It was in stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons — an idea so ridiculous that it begs the question, “Why not a world without weapons of any kind?”
I will answer Mr. Kennedy's question in a bit, but first I'd like to quote from one of Rich Lowry's readers, who is again discussing some of the statements made by the president during his visits to Europe:
There is of course a serious scholarly debate to be had on the NECESSITY of using the Bomb (though the preponderance of thought is, yes, it was necessary). But to say that we bear a “moral responsibility” to prevent the use of nuclear weapons because we are the only ones who used them? Wow.
Take it a step further and this seems to mean that the use of nukes is never permissible. If it wasn’t justified against Japan (after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, kamikazes, no surrender in the islands, 400K US deaths at the hands of Japan and her allies, an estimated 500K to 1,000,000 US casualties if we invaded), then it’s never justified. Follow that logic: those who dropped the bombs are bad guys, as are the scientists who developed the Bomb. Did they have a moral obligation to refuse orders and not develop or drop the bombs? What should the US military do TODAY if President Obama orders the use of nuclear weapons? Are they morally obligated to refuse orders? Which brings up a final question: if the use of nuclear weapons against Japan leaves us with a “moral responsibility” to prohibit their use today, is President Obama saying he would never order the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances? Someone (Jake Tapper?) should ask him that.
The reason I quote from this anonymous reader is that he articulates the reasons we were justified for dropping the bomb on Japan--the corollary of which is that if similar circumstances should ever arise again, we would be justified in dropping another bomb. The defense is simply this: the bomb saved lives in a war with a nation which would have fought us to the death; therefore, nuking Japan was a moral good. Considerations for individual lives doesn't enter in because they are squeezed out in the plainly utilitarian balancing of numbers. I might be opening myself up to a charge of Obama like naivete; nonetheless, it needs to be said that this is an extremely cynical way of justifying an atrocity, one which speaks badly of our ability to reason morally.
Whether or not the bombs saved lives is ultimately not the issue; it can not be proven with any certainty since the bombs ended the war, though I am inclined to believe that the Japanese would have surrendered without an invasion. The question is whether the destruction of more than one hundred thousand human beings, many of them civilians, was morally acceptable. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it in discussing the doctrine of just war: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes." (2314)
Thinking as a philosopher, if only for a moment, self-defense is morally justifiable because such cases involve acting to preserve one's own life, which is a moral good. It follows that any defense of innocents against aggressors is likewise justifiable. Applied to war, this means that the non-aggressors--the United States in WWII--are justified in preserving their lives against the aggressors--Axis powers. But this does not mean that everyone identified with those powers is to be treated as an aggressor; on the contrary, the rules of war--at least in the realm of ethics--ensure that only combatants are liable to attacks by the defenders.
It could be argued that non-combatants are also aggressors since they are supporting a hostile regime, perhaps by aiding in the production of weapons. We can safely assert that varying degrees of culpability exist. For instance, contractors who are providing equipment for armed forces are essentially part of the forces themselves, and may be treated as such. Those who grow grain, which is then sold at market, possibly to the military, have very little if any culpability. After all, most of us pay taxes which go to provide bombs which then rain down upon Afghanistan weddings. While we would be acting nobly to serve jail time in defiance, like Thoreau or Mohamed Ali, I don't think such drastic actions can be expected of everyone who finds fault with a war which they are forced to support indirectly. Lastly, culpability is lessened severely in the case of a totalitarian regime.
Returning to task, it is clear that targeting non-combatants is morally unacceptable. Such targeting may help bring about the end of the war--although, as Allied fire bombing will attest, it may increase casualties without effective the enemy's ability to wage war--but it is impossible to act thus and claim the higher moral ground. Such actions are, to put the matter bluntly, acts of terrorism. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski attest that it is not only weak powers which resort to such tactics, nor is it true that terrorists never win. Often, they do.
The existence of a situation in which the use of nuclear weapons would be deemed morally permissible strikes me as dubious--to say the least. This is why a world in which there were no nuclear weapons would be preferable to one in which products which can only be used for evil sit idly by until mankind succumbs to employ them again. This moral examination also calls into question many of the techniques used by a modern military. If it isn't possible to ensure that non-combatants aren't going to be hurt by the bombs dropped by planes thousands and thousands and feet above the ground, it would be difficult to justify such moral recklessness, however effective we may believe such techniques to be.
This allows me to finally answer Mr. Kennedy's question. Most weapons can be used in morally justifiable--as well as morally neutral--ways. If a robber enters my house, brandishing a gun, and I shoot him to subdue him, I am using a gun in a morally acceptable manner. I can think of no parallel in which nuclear weapons could be used similarly.
The question we need to ask ourselves is if we could conceive a situation in which using nuclear weapons would be morally permissible. Those who believe we acted justly during WWII would do well to reconsider the issue, setting aside practical concerns and treating the ethical dilemma for what it is. The logical outcome for the rest of us is that the Unites States should disarm. Whether or not such a move would invite attack is beside the point; if we would never be justified in retaliating with nuclear weapons, then we should act now to remove the temptation. It would be truly shameful if the only country which has ever used nuclear weapons were to do so again.