Wednesday, October 30, 2013

'Supreme emergency' revisited

Update: Walzer gave a lecture on supreme emergency in 1988 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, reprinted in his Arguing about War (2004). 

A recent Crooked Timber thread, attached to this post, got into both empirical and moral questions about Allied bombing in WW2, including the atomic bombings. In connection with this I've been urged by Anderson to read part of Richard Frank's Downfall (which I'm planning to do).

The CT discussion led me to take another look at something which, unlike Downfall, I already have on the shelf: Michael Walzer's chapter in Just and Unjust Wars on "supreme emergency," the phrase Churchill used to describe Britain's situation in 1939 (see p.251). Walzer's argument, in brief, about the bombing of German cities is that early in the war, when "Bomber Command was the only offensive weapon available to the British" (258), the real possibility of an imminent German victory constituted a supreme emergency, i.e., the sort of rare situation which "might well" (259) have justified overriding the norms/rules of war (which he calls 'the war convention') and engaging in city bombing, which was the only thing, at that point, that the bombers could do, given their crude navigational equipment and consequent lack of precision. However, despite improvements in navigation etc. and, even more importantly, the changing military situation, bombing of cities continued until almost the end of the war. "[T]he supreme emergency passed long before the British bombing reached its crescendo. The greater number by far of the German civilians killed by terror bombing were killed without moral (and probably also without military) reason," Walzer writes (261).

Walzer rejects, on moral grounds, the defense of city bombing given at the time by Arthur Harris (head of Bomber Command) and others to the effect that it would hasten the end of the war and thus, on balance, save lives. The passage in which Walzer explains his view is worth quoting (albeit in abridged form):
The argument used between 1942 and 1945 in defense of terror bombing was utilitarian in character, its emphasis not on victory itself but on the time and price of victory. The city raids, it was claimed by men such as Harris, would end the war sooner than it would otherwise end and, despite the large number of civilian casualties they inflicted, at a lower cost in human life. Assuming this claim to be true (I have already indicated that precisely opposite claims are made by some historians and strategists), it is nevertheless not sufficient to justify the bombing. It is not sufficient, I think, even if we do nothing more than calculate utilities. For such calculations need not be concerned only with the preservation of life. There is much else that we might plausibly want to preserve:...for example,...our collective abhorrence of murder.... To kill 278,966 civilians (the number is made up) in order to avoid the deaths of an unknown but probably larger number of civilians and soldiers is surely a fantastic, godlike, frightening, and horrendous act. (261-62; textual footnote omitted)
He goes on to say that though "such acts can probably be ruled out on utilitarian grounds," it is only when "the acknowledgment of rights" comes into the picture that we are compelled "to realize that the destruction of the innocent, whatever its purposes, is a kind of blasphemy against our deepest moral commitments" (262).

The amendment I'd make here would be to replace the word "innocent" with "non-combatant." Why? Because if an 'average' civilian is innocent, so an 'average' soldier, one who has not committed atrocities but simply participated in battles or worked behind the lines, may also be, in some relevant sense, innocent. What is he guilty of, other than doing what soldiers are expected to do? The appropriate distinction, it seems to me, is not between innocent and not-innocent but between non-combatant and combatant. Putting aside the word "innocent" means that one doesn't have to inquire into any particular non-combatant's actions or, in the case of Nazi Germany, awareness of genocide, which a fair number of German civilians probably had. It was their status as non-combatants, not their "innocence," which made deliberately killing them, especially after the supreme emergency no longer existed, unjustifiable.

Notes: (1) Just and Unjust Wars has gone through several editions, with new prefaces, though I believe the main body of the text hasn't changed. I'm quoting in this post from the first edition (1977).  (2) There are at least several journal articles specifically about "supreme emergency" as Walzer uses it. One is here [abstract; full text is gated].


Anonymous said...

There's a H-Net roundtable from 2005 in which Richard Frank participates in critiquing a newer book on the A-bomb issues.

Been going back through "Downfall," and one thing I hadn't considered before is how access to Japan's diplomatic cables made the U.S. more intransigent, perhaps, than it otherwise would have been.

But as Frank shows, even the Potsdam Declaration was more lenient than "unconditional surrender," and certainly *after* Nagasaki and the Russian DOW, the rulers were able to convince themselves that the Declaration implied the continuation of the Imperial dynasty. They thus could have read it that way beforehand.

LFC said...

Re the last paragraph of your comment:

I glanced yesterday (or day before) at the Wiki entry on Potsdam Dec. and the Dec. contained the phrase "unconditional surrender," if I'm remembering correctly, and said nothing at all on continuation or not of the Emperor.

Whether the Potsdam Dec "implied the continuation of the Imperial dynasty" or not has no bearing, strictly speaking, on whether it called for unconditional surrender. The phrase "unconditional surrender," standing alone, implies NOTHING about substantive terms. It means you surrender on whatever terms the victor imposes and have no power to impose conditions of your own. That's all the phrase "unconditional surrender,"
by itself, means. I realize that in this context it might have been understood by the Japanese to mean discontinuation of the dynasty, but it didn't have to be understood that way, if you just take the phrase by itself. I don't know what the cables were saying but somewhere in the tangle
of diplomatic maneuvering one wonders whether it might have been possible to convey more clearly exactly what terms were going to be imposed. But this was difficult, I guess, b/c US preferred emperor to go while the British wanted him to stay, as I gather. But in the end, of course, he stayed.

How all this relates to one's judgment of the A-bombings is not altogether clear. Your position, as I glean it from CT comments, is that the A-bombings were war crimes but under the circumstances (1) the policymakers basically had no alternative but to order them and (2)given all the money spent on their development, they were going to be used b/c the decisionmakers didn't want to throw away the sunk costs and , less important, (3) it is doubtful many of the scientists let alone policymakers understood the full effects on the ground that the a-bombs wd have re subsequent fallout etc.

But if the A-bombings were indeed war crimes,ie not justifiable in normative/moral terms, then it wd be more satisfying, for lack of a better word, to suggest, as Walzer does, that there might have been plausible alternative courses of action, incl. poss. adjustment of war aims.

Sorry, long-winded, but you can prob see my puzzlement here.

LFC said...

for some reason above comment is taking a while to show up on sidebar

Anonymous said...

But Potsdam also guaranteed the Atlantic Charter, self-determination, etc. - apparently, the Australian gov't was a bit put out that Japan got a better offer than Germany did.

"We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, ... The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established."

"Japan shall be permitted to maintain such industries as will sustain her economy and permit the exaction of just reparations in kind, but not those which would enable her to rearm for war. To this end, access to, as distinguished from control of, raw materials shall be permitted. Eventual Japanese participation in world trade relations shall be permitted."

"The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established, in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people, a peacefully inclined and responsible government."

Anonymous said...

As for "were they war crimes," I would continue to say yes, because massacring civilians is a war crime. I don't see it as materially different from landing a death squad in Hiroshima that then shoots everyone in sight.

My gripe at CT was the notion that we committed this particular crime because we wanted to scare the USSR. That was at most the cherry on top. We dropped the A-bombs because we hoped they would end the war quickly (tho we felt little assurance in that regard) and because burning down cities was just another day's work in 1945.

One of the benefits of Frank's book is that he refutes the "invasion OR ELSE A-bombs" dilemma. Blockade would've worked ... while itself killing perhaps as many civilians. But starving a population to death is slow work.

I have the Walzer but haven't read yet. From your post, I'm not impressed. Serious danger of German invasion was over by the time RAF area bombing commenced, and burning down cities doesn't prevent an invasion; had Hitler not been engaged to the east, an invasion might have seemed a necessary step to halt the bombings ....

LFC said...

It's not v. clear from the post b/c I didn't quote the relevant passages at any length, but Walzer's 'supreme-emergency' case for the early stages of RAF bombing is put in fairly tentative terms. Even in that tentative form it may not be convincing for various reasons, incl. those you suggest.

LFC said...

p.s. There is some ambiguity, I think, in 'Just & Unjust Wars' about the precise status of "the historical illustrations," but that's a point for another time.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read "Downfall" (though it's on the list). At Anderson's suggestion, I have been working my way through Max Hasting's "Retribution" the past couple of weeks.

Two points from Hastings stick out to me. One, it's not clear why "unconditional surrender" was appropriate in the case of Germany but not in the case of Japan. (This is a moral argument, not a practical one; we could still make a case that stepping back from the policy of insisting on unconditional surrender would, as a practical matter, hasten the end of hostilities.)

Second, I gather that the Japanese peace offers (from the peace faction within the Imperial Japanese government), well into July '45, included not just retention of the emperor, but also continued Japanese control of Korea and Manchuria, and no occupation by Allied troops. (This was a point I did not see raised in the Crooked Timber thread.) The idea that the Japanese were ready to surrender in July if only the Allies would allow the emperor to remain in power, with no other conditions, seems like a post-war revision.

None of this in itself is a justification for dropping the bombs, or for LeMay's bombing campaign, but it does seem relevant to determining what the respective negotiating positions of the Japanese and Allies were in the summer of 1945.

LFC said...


Interesting points.

1) "it's not clear why "unconditional surrender" was appropriate in the case of Germany but not in the case of Japan. (This is a moral argument, not a practical one..."

Walzer thinks the Nazis were uniquely evil and does not place Japan in the same category. He writes: "Japan's rulers were engaged in a more ordinary sort of military expansion, and all that was morally required was that they be defeated, not that they be conquered and totally overthrown. Some restraint on their war-making power might be justified, but their domestic authority was a matter of concern only to the Japanese people." (267-68)

So he is making a moral argument, and it's one that reasonable people could disagree on. I'm not 100 percent sure exactly where I would come down on it, though I can see Walzer's point.

But it is not quite as straightforward an issue as W. seems to think. On one hand, the Japanese did not engage in something equivalent to the Holocaust. They did not have, I assume, a precise equivalent to Hitler's 'General Plan for the East' -- i.e., depopulation followed by transfer of ethnic Germans to people an agrarian paradise. On the other hand, though, the Japanese were I think quite brutal occupiers in many cases. (There is also the 'rape of Nanjing' etc.). So it's a debatable question.

On your other pt on the negotiating positions: yes, I didn't see this raised on the CT thread. I'm not sure exactly how this wd affect one's judgments about what the Allies shd/shdnt have done, but i just don't know enough about the history and historiography here.

Anonymous said...

One of my surprises in reading that Hastings book was the estimates of Chinese deaths in their war with Japan - giving the USSR a run for its money. Whether the Nazis were *more* evil for targeting Jews is a sophisticated question, perhaps, but one that can risk sounding like special pleading. I doubt it made much difference to the dead Chinese whether they were victims of genocide or some less esoteric crime.

LFC said...

I think W.'s argument has to do w the character of the regimes, not only the respective crimes they committed.

Maybe I shd do a post on 'were the Nazis more evil than the Japanese fascists?' That might even, in a minor way, go viral. Though on second thought, prob. not.