11th Grade: Ending the War Justly(?)


This week we wrapped up World War II by focusing on two key issues: our use of the atomic bomb, and the Nuremberg Trials.

We discussed before how war in general can have a terrible kind of osmosis for the combatants.  So in W.W. I the Germans first used chemical warfare and all cried foul, but soon the Allies followed suit.  All were outraged when the Germans bombed London, but as the war went on the British and Americans killed far more civilians with their bombings than the Axis powers.  Herman Goering called the conflict, “the great racial war,” and Americans as well as the British adopted some similar attitudes to their enemies as the Axis powers did to us.  This proved especially towards our Japanese opponents.  This picture, for example, of a young woman admiring the skull of a dead Japanese soldier her boyfriend sent her, appeared prominently in Life Magazine.  

A few issues regarding the bombings need discussed:

1. Is it the primary job of the commanding officer primarily to abide by a a Christian ethic of human life even if it puts his troops at relative disadvantage, or do we want him to instead seek to have his men accomplish their mission with as few casualties as possible?  What about the President?  It is worth noting that Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who led many of the bombing runs that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese, thought that he would be tried as a war criminal should the Allies lose the war.

The divide here may be seen this way. . .

  • On the one hand, you have the view that “war is hell,” and exists essentially outside normal ethical standards.  Killing someone, for example, is never the “kind” thing to do.  The main goal, therefore, is to end war as soon as possible, and then resume “normal” life.
  • On the other, you have the view that war is not primarily about victory, but about our sanctification as individuals and as a nation.  If fighting “morally” means we suffer, so be it.  Just as individuals should never do wrong to benefit themselves, so nations should not either.

Granted, this divide may be altogether too simplistic. but it touches on another issue.  What are nations?  When a nations acts should it be held to the same standards as individuals, or are nations in fact artificial, impersonal creations that therefore are not subject to the same standards as individuals?

These questions have no easy answers.

2. Should the ethics of war depend in part on the nature of conflict itself? For example, conflicts in the past involved armies of aristocratic warriors, and rarely involved the general population.  In the 20th century however, war between whole nations became the standard.  If nations fight, can the whole nation, civilian or otherwise, become the target?  I hope the students will consider some difficult questions.  Is there a difference between bombing cities from the sky, and going from house to house shooting those inside?  Can you target areas if civilians are likely to be unintended collateral damage?

Our decision to use the atomic bomb had many factors involved:

  • We wanted to avoid a mainland invasion of Japan, which would likely have cost us at least 100,000 casualties, with some estimates being much higher.
  • We wanted to end the war before the Soviets could get involved and take Japan for themselves.
  • While we could have bombed Hiroshima conventionally with a comparable destructive impact, the atomic weapon had much greater potential for psychologically impacting them.

Our use of the two atomic weapons, “Fat Man,” and “Little Boy” did have the desired effect.  Japan did surrender without us needing to invade.  But nearly all Japanese that died in these attacks were civilians.  For the first time in my teaching career, almost all of the students thought that the decision to use the bomb could not be justified.

Germany’s surrender left us with a variety of post-war dilemmas.  The magnitude of the evil perpetrated in the Holocaust numbs the mind.  Never before in history had such a thing happened on such a scale.

But what should we do with Nazi leaders that surrendered?  Should they be released into civilian life again, as if nothing happened?  Or should they be shot out of hand?  Neither option seems to satisfy.  Putting them on trial had many advantages to it.  We would give them legal counsel.  They would have a fair chance to prove their innocence or at least mitigate their guilt.  This was the “civilized” option.

But that too posed problems.  What right did we have to put Germans on trial?  They were not American citizens and had broken no American laws.  To what kind of law can we hold them accountable?  We can argue for international law, but the Germans had withdrawn from international agreements and oversight before the war began.  Thus, they were not accountable directly to international laws they never pledged to obey.  What legal procedures should even govern the trial?

Furthermore, how could the trials be fair if all the judges were Allies?  Should the Germans have the right to a trial of their peers?  But would that eliminate the possibility of guilty verdicts?  Could the trials be fair if the Soviets participated in the prosecutions?  But how could we exclude them, considering that the Soviet Union suffered far, far more casualties than the U.S. and England combined?

The trials raise many perplexing legal questions, but also difficult moral ones.  How far should the “I was just following orders defense,” be allowed to go?  How far down the chain of command should we prosecute?

Eichmann served in the S.S. and played a role in the Holocaust.  He ended up escaping from Germany, and was captured by Israeli’s 15 years after the end of the war and put on trial.  Many remarked on how ordinary a man Eichmann was.  Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” fit him perfectly.

Many thanks,