The joint aerial bombing by the British and the United States of Dresden, Germany between February 12-15, 1945, killed up to 25,000 people. They were mostly civilians. The bombings had a devastating effect on Hitler’s Germany and played a key role in Germany’s surrender in the Second World War on May 8, 1945.
On August 6th and 9th of that same year, the United States of America detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosions killed between 129, 000 and 226,000 people. Less than a month later, the Japanese surrendered, thereby ending World War II and Japanese imperialism.
Unlike most trained ethicists, I have no agonistic hand-wringing moments regarding the scope and breadth of these acts of war against enemy combatants. The moral purpose of war is to totally vanquish the enemy. Attritional warfare is the military strategy that best achieves this goal. Military scholars often quibble over what constitutes attritional warfare; nevertheless, we may surmise that any war in which the agents attempt to win by consistently and mercilessly wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through loss of human life and military resources by any means, is an attritional war. Sometimes critics of attritional war will refer to them as wars of “mass destruction.”
One criterion that may be used to justify what may also be called “wars of total annihilation,” for which the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would qualify, is the following: When the arc of the entire moral infrastructure of a nation, or its political combatants, is predicated on the destruction and annihilation of another nation or state and, further, when the citizens of such nations/states or regions or governing units support the infrastructure and its architects, a war of total annihilation can be ethically defended.
Hitler was elected chancellor while running on a rabid and invective antisemitic platform. The Holocaust did not catch the German people unaware. One may describe them—even those who never personally participated in the actual killings of Jews and others during the Holocaust—as killers by means of conviction. Strategically then, we make the claim that terrorists, and war adversaries who begin a war or onslaught against a people, have evicted themselves from the realm of rights. In violating the unassailable and inalienable rights of others they forfeit their own rights. The reciprocity involved in upholding rights claims and inviolable rights is violated by the offender. During war, therefore, offending combatants not only forfeit their rights, but their nations or states or governing bodies revert to a state of nature in which the citizens themselves, as complicit in the offenses exercised by their representatives, are bereft of any legitimate body politic (a government or legitimate state) to protect their rights. The offending state is no longer seen as a legitimate conferrer of justice. If citizens in states where offensive war actors are waging combat are left without a legitimately recognized infrastructure to uphold their “rights” (remember they voted for or lent moral support to an offensive state or governing body), we can say that they have placed their own agency and personhood in a state of war with the defensive warring state and its deputized combatants.
In ending Japanese imperialism and the genocidal impulses of Hitler and his German citizens, or killers by means of conviction, we strategically and morally eroded the distinction between citizens and the nation/state with which we were at war. Anything short of this strategic maneuver results in an altruistic war in which the self-interests of the citizens of the opposing side supersede the rights of, in this case, U.S. citizens. In reality, there are no inherent moral distinctions between the humanity of an enemy combatant and any American. In war, we strategically manufacture a difference to give the war its ethical upshot.
In a similar vein, if a home invader uses his 93-year-old grandmother as a shield while he brandishes a gun at you and your family, leaving you to think he is going to kill you all—you would be under zero ethical obligation to spare the life of his grandmother if you possessed a weapon and had an excellent opportunity to kill him. The moral responsibility for his grandmother’s life lies with him, not you. You have a prima facie duty to protect your life in that situation by any means and at whatever cost to the invader. In that moment your right to your life supersedes any moral obligation you might have to spare the grandmother’s life in the defense of yourself. You cannot be held responsible for a situation immorally imposed on you which then further requires you to compromise your life by any form of a threat put forward by the invader. Morality cannot demand of you that you sacrifice your life for the sake of the invaders’ grandmother’s life. Morality cannot demand that your moral conscience and goodness be usurped by an intruder who uses your goodness and conscience as weapons against you.
Since you have been placed in an untenable and immoral position by a rights violator, you must consider the human shield he uses which he expects you to consider as a legitimate barter for your life—as superfluous and extraneous when it comes to your first moral obligation in this instance: the preservation of yourself and your family’s life, and the annihilation of the invader along with any collateral protection he has improperly deployed in the illicit destruction of your life.
Israel may well have to morally reflect on the morality of an attritional war against Hamas as it makes incursions into Gaza. Does it carry out a protracted war on the ground and by air if that means putting thousands of Israel Defense Forces members at risk of losing their lives?
One of the moral lessons we learned from bombing Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, is that war is not just about vanquishing the enemy. It is also about inflicting generational damage. Future generations are deterred from enacting a war of vengeance at a much later time or, just as importantly, of repeating the errors of their predecessors. The collective memory of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden is an important reason why other nations will think twice about starting a war with the United States.
The Charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel and the elimination of Jewry from the region and the world. It calls for the establishment of a Global Caliphate. Any preemptive or preventive strike made by Israel against Hamas in response to the invasion of Hamas into Israel on Saturday, October 7 can only be seen in moral terms.
Israel has every right to expect further rocket strikes and physical incursions into its sovereign territory. They are imminent. We may say this with confidence based on Hamas’s past and present unprovoked offensive attacks against Israel. Some of the terrorist insurgents fighting for Hamas today were born after Israel was confident it had severely compromised the infrastructure of Hamas’ sophisticated capabilities by killing several of its leaders 20-25 years ago.
This is not the case. Prime Minister Netanyahu can make another attempt to degrade Hamas. Pressure will be placed on Israel to respect calls for new elections, and the Palestinians will vote for that other terrorist organization, the Palestinian Authority. Israel can also cancel its disengagement with Gaza, rebuild settlements and return to the status quo of around 2004. The cycle will repeat itself endlessly. And the illusion of peace will suffuse the global imagination for the simple reason that much of the world remains antisemitic and anti-Israel.
But there is more to the dilemma than this. Much of the world has a problem grasping the fact that Hamas has a maniacal and congenital hatred of Israel. It wants the country and its Jewish population exterminated. It is a genocidal organization. There is such a thing as intractable evil that habitually wills and executes destruction.
The British and the Americans realized this about Hitler’s Germany, and they irrevocably put an end to a Germany that needed to be vanquished. The Americans and their allies recognized this when truly grasping the capacious and rapacious will of imperial Japan. They utilized the only foolproof method to secure a lasting peace.
Israel can play a cyclical game of one-upmanship with Hamas only to be attacked at a not-much later date. Or it can remember how wars were truly fought when defense fighters knew what the real goals of war were.
In the coming weeks, Israel is going to be asked to exercise great restraint in response to Hamas’ attack, and she will be pilloried when she fails to heed the calls of the global majority that harbors no love for Israel.
To this end, Israel’s allies must recognize her strategic moral infallibility in fighting this new war. This means, to be clear, that any means used to defend against a menacing invading aggressor is proper—the archaic and inapplicable Just War Theory notwithstanding. Maybe then and only then will Israel be able to remember how it used to fight its early wars and remember how the Americans and the British mastered the art of truly vanquishing the enemy in World War II.