In my last article I put the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in the context of large-scale bombings of other cities by Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States during the Second World War. These were indiscriminate bombings that intentionally included civilian residences.
Such bombings had little over-all effect on war-fighting capabilities of the major combatants, and indeed may have strengthened the resolve of the affected populations. The atomic bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not cause Japan to surrender – it already saw the war was lost. These two cities had little strategic value, and Japan had already suffered the destruction of dozens of its cities through fire-bombings. For what it is worth, I did not find any instances of similar bombings of cities by the Soviet Union. I now want to focus on the 1907 Hague Convention, which had been signed by all the major warring parties.
First, a little background. For over two thousand years humans have debated the questions as to when (if ever) war is justified, and if it is justified, how it should be fought. Sometimes the reasons given appeal to a higher moral authority (God or gods), but there is always a recognition that to motivate the population to fight, there has to be more than a simple command from the state. Nazi Germany based its justification to attack Poland in September 1939 in part on supposed attacks by Polish forces on a German radio station. Only after the war was it proven that this attack was a “false flag,” that is, evidence had been planted to place the blame on Poland. The attack itself had been a Gestapo operation.
There have been different approaches to the question of when and how war should be fought. One of the best known is generally known as the Just War Doctrine. In brief, there are certain conditions that must be met for a war to be justified:
- The damage inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave, and certain,
- Entering the conflict must be a last resort after all other means have been tried,
- There must be a reasonable chance of success, and
- The use of arms must not result in more harm than that of the evil being opposed.
Those who opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 often based their arguments on the Just War Doctrine and said that most of the conditions had not been met.
The Just War Doctrine may be thought of as an attempt at a middle approach to war. Some hold that the state should emphasize its own security regardless of any moral constraints. At the other end is Pacifism, most notably by members of the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers. Pacifists hold that war of any kind is not morally acceptable. Not all pacifists are of the Society of Friends. Amish also are, as seen in the movie Witness. Gandhi and Dorothy Day, for example, were notable Hindu and Christian pacifists, respectively. Jeannette Rankin, the only person to have voted against U.S. entry into both World War I and II, was also a pacifist.
But the fact is, countries do engage in wars. With weapons of increasing destruction and even more powerful ones on the horizon, countries negotiated and signed international treaties to limit the damage to non-combatants and for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Whether this was done under pressure from their own populations, out of the leaders’ sense of morals, or out of their own self-interest and preservation can certainly be argued, but they were signed. As stated above, I want to focus on the Hague Convention of 1907. Some of its conditions have been strengthened since the Second World War, and overall its general terms are still in force today. It focuses on several areas, such as what makes up an army, rights of prisoners of war, treatment of non-combatants, ban on the use of poisons, protection of hospitals and religious buildings, treatment of spies, protection of private property, flags of truce, and military occupations.
The United States focuses attention on the Japanese treatment of its prisoners of war, such as the infamous Bataan Death March after the surrender of the American forces in the Philippines. This was unquestionably a violation of the 1907 Hague Convention regarding prisoners of war. Now the question is, does breaking one part of the convention entitle the other side to also ignore that part? To ignore other parts? If so, to what degree? This is a question of proportionality, of course. Another, more practical question is how does one side establish, during time of war, that a part of the convention was violated? It is one thing to do so after the conflict was over, but another during the conflict itself when accurate information may be impossible to obtain and the information that is obtained may have been sent by a malicious party. The Geneva Convention of 1929, by the way, clarified and expanded on the treatment of prisoners of war. A representative from Japan signed this convention but their parliament did not ratify it.
Here are two articles from the Hague Convention which I think are relevant to the issue of mass bombings of cities. It doesn’t matter if the bombings were by Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States as they all signed it. Other articles may also apply, but I am focusing on just these two.
Article 22: The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.
Article 27: In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.
Large scale bombings over entire cities using hundreds of aircraft, whether or not incendiary bombs are used, certainly mean that there is no attempt to spare buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, charitable purposes, historic monuments, or hospitals. These all were destroyed in Allied bombing campaigns. And atomic bombs, by their very nature, mean that precision targeting inside of a city is meaningless. I include the prohibition against unlimited means of injuring the enemy because it is hard to see what it could mean if it didn’t mean massive or atomic bombing of cities and civilians.
In the case of atomic bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was not only the heat and blast effects, but also and subsequent radiation poisoning which killed tens of thousands. Here Article 23 applies:
Article 23 (excerpt): In addition to the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially forbidden – To employ poison or poisoned weapons; …
Certainly those who were working on the atomic bomb were aware of the dangers of radiation. It is another question as to whether those who made the decision to drop the bombs were aware, if they avoided asking about the effects, or if this information had been kept from them. Aware or not, this prohibition would still apply.
In the end, I think the mass bombings of cities by the warring parties was prohibited by the 1907 Hague Convention, which all had signed and ratified. This applies also to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Should the United States then apologize? That is another question. Germany, for example, has owned up to its role in the Second World War and this is taught to the students there. Japan has been far less forthcoming about its role. Japanese school textbooks are notorious for ignoring the wrongs it committed, from starting the war, the atrocities at Nanjing, the exploitation of Korean “comfort women,” and the treatment of prisoners of war. Any apology has to be put into context and, I think, include mutual acknowledgement of failure to live up to agreed upon commitments. If treaties to limit and (hopefully) end war are to mean anything, we must admit where we have failed.