Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dower on the atomic bombings

We've been talking about, among other things, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and here's a passage from John W. Dower's Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq (Norton/New Press, pb, 2011) in which he lists a number of (to use an inappropriately antiseptic word) factors:
It is possible to see a terrible logic in the use of the bombs that is unique to the circumstances of that moment and at the same time not peculiar at all. This logic still begins with (1) ending the war and saving American lives. It no longer ends there, however, but extends to additional considerations, including the following: (2) fixation on deploying overwhelming force, as opposed to diplomatic or other less destructive alternatives including, most controversially, an unwillingness to back off from demanding Japan's unconditional surrender; (3) power politics in the emerging Cold War, notably playing the new weapon as a "master card," as Stimson put it, to intimidate the Soviet Union in eastern Europe as well as Asia; (4) domestic political considerations, in which using the bomb was deemed necessary to prevent partisan post-hostilities attacks on Truman...for wasting taxpayers' money on a useless project -- and simultaneously to build support for postwar nuclear and military projects; (5) scientific "sweetness" and technological imperatives -- coupled with (6) the technocratic kinetics of an enormous machinery of war -- which combined to give both developing and deploying new weaponry a vigorous life of its own; (7) the sheer exhilaration and aestheticism of unrestrained violence, phenomena not peculiar to modern times but peculiarly compelling in an age of spectacular destructiveness; (8) revenge, in this instance exacted collectively on an entire population in retaliation for Pearl Harbor and Japan's wartime atrocities; and (9) "idealistic annihilation," whereby demonstrating the appalling destructiveness of an atomic bomb on real, human targets was rationalized as essential to preventing future war, or at the very least future nuclear war. (p.223)    

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


I just learned from R.P. Wolff's blog that the philosopher Arthur Danto has died. I sometimes read his art criticism in the days when I subscribed to The Nation. Also, at least one person I know quite well had some interaction with him. (The five million *cough* daily readers of this blog will be used to cryptic statements of this sort by now.)

Btw it seems to me that an unusually large number of well-known scholars have passed on lately, but I don't see much point in listing them here.

P.s. I mentioned Danto here.

'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].

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Indonesia 1965

Several days ago I heard a talk by the co-editors of 1965: Indonesia and the World. Also, the author of this book was there.

One of many points made by the speakers was how difficult it still is to discuss openly "the events" (as they are called) in Indonesia today.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Yet another journal special issue on Realism

Int'l Politics, Nov. 2013
[link to table of contents]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

That Eton exam and The Prince

The Prince was written 500 years ago and it's still, after a fashion, making headlines. That's pretty impressive.

Item: Last May a New Statesman column (via) criticized an Eton scholarship exam question which asked candidates to imagine themselves as prime minister and to write a speech justifying calling out the army to deal with violent protests. The gist of the question (shortened and paraphrased) was: It is 2040. You are prime minister. There have been violent protests in London and you have deployed the army, which has killed some civilians. Write a speech for national broadcast in which you defend your actions as necessary and moral.

The headmaster apparently defended the question by saying it was intended to gauge candidates' knowledge of The Prince. This is, if not exactly amusing, somewhat bemusing. There are, I suppose, two or three quotes from The Prince that one might, if pressed, dredge up in answering this question, but not many more than that. Machiavelli certainly does not advise the prince to kill his own subjects as a routine matter -- if you need to be cruel, he says, do it all at once and get it over with in one fell swoop -- and I think he likely would not countenance it at all except perhaps in extremis. And by the time 'extremis' is reached, the prince is probably done for anyway (cf. Bashar al-Assad).

The New Statesman columnist seems too caught up in understandable indignation to grasp that the question is a weird one even on its own (i.e., the headmaster's) premises. She has a throwaway line suggesting The Prince should be read as satire rather than as instruction manual. While both those views can be found in the literature, I think neither is very convincing. That is, I don't think it's a satire except insofar as it may be indirectly satirizing the "mirror of princes" genre that was popular at the time. But I think Machiavelli was serious about the contents. As for 'instruction manual,' that's too narrow to encompass what is better seen as, to trot out a clichéd phrase, a meditation on the nature of power and authority.  

Quote of the day

From Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire (1991), pp.97-99 (footnotes omitted):
The most powerful explanation for German expansionism...focuses on the domestic political consequences of Germany's late industrialization.... It was characterized by the comparatively abrupt development of large-scale heavy industry, centrally financed by bank capital and organized into cartels.... Its social concomitants were the divergence of agricultural and commercial interests, the organizational concentration of economic power, the immobility of investments and consequently of interests, and the emergence of mass political movements without the prior completion of a bourgeois-liberal political transformation.

This pattern had decisive consequences for the power and interests of the key actors.... Junker landowners... had an overwhelming incentive to use [their] political power to inflate the price of grain...through protective tariffs.... The military used its high degree of operational pursue...apolitical, offensive strategies for decisive victory.... Cartelized heavy industry used its market power, high-level political access, and political subsidies to mass groups to promote industrial protectionism and the building of a fleet while blocking a liberal political alliance between labor and export industry.

These group interests promoted policies that led to Germany's diplomatic encirclement: Junkers got grain tariffs that antagonized Russia; the navy and heavy industry got a fleet that antagonized Britain; and the army got an offensive war plan that ensured that virtually all of Europe would be ranged among Germany's enemies. Thus three key elite groups had the motive and the opportunity to advance policies that embroiled Germany simultaneously with all of Europe's major powers.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Likely to be of particular interest to TBA: Hew Strachan had a review in NYT of M. Hastings' 'Catastrophe 1914'. Unfortunately too tired to find and link it (am writing this Fri. night for scheduled posting Sat. a.m.). Was, on the whole, favorable.

Added later: Speaking of books, two substantial new ones on the creation of Bangladesh in '71: one recently published, the other about to be released.

Friday, October 18, 2013

(Unexciting) housekeeping note

Just now I was over at R.P. Wolff's blog, and I noticed he said that, in checking his spam filter, he had found lots of serious (i.e. legit) comments on his posts that Google/Blogger had classified as spam. This prompted me to check my own spam comments filter, which I almost never do; indeed it took me a little while just to remember how to get to it. I found one comment there and, sure enough, it was not spam. So I hit the button "not spam," thinking the comment would be published. Instead, it simply vanished. The ways of Google/Blogger are mysterious.

Anyway, the lost comment was a brief one by 'anonymous' who said, in response to my statement in this post that the last "really big interstate war" was the Iran-Iraq war, that he/she would have thought the last interstate war was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yes, that was, in its inception at any rate, an interstate war (so, arguably, was Russia-Georgia in Dec. '08, btw), but the Iran-Iraq war was considerably longer and caused more deaths. Which is not in any way to endorse the '03 invasion of Iraq which, as readers of this blog will know, I have a very negative view of, and which is still having repercussions in the violence that is continuing in Iraq today.  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

World Day for Overcoming Poverty

Today is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty; see e.g. here.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


The Atlantic runs a piece on the growing appeal of ancient Chinese philosophy to college students (with specific reference to a popular course at Harvard). [I may have some comment on this later.]

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Playing the cycles game

A flippant title for a serious subject. In the course of a thoughtful post about 'state collapse' viewed from a systemic perspective, Jay Ulfelder links to an article in Nature from last August about Peter Turchin's work on political instability, which Turchin argues goes in 50-year cycles. (The Nature piece footnotes a Journal of Peace Res. article by Turchin that looks at U.S. data from the late 18th century to the present. Presumably the idea is that this is a global phenomenon (extending how far back?), but he began with data on a single country.)

Though my inclination is to be skeptical, I have not even read the whole Nature piece, let alone the footnoted article. It struck me as interesting, however, that it was left to a commenter on the Nature article to mention Kondratieff cycles, which are posited 50-year swings in economic activity. Apparently the author of the piece didn't think the parallel was worth noting. And indeed, there are significant differences between (postulated) economic cycles and (postulated) political cycles. The former are somewhat less obviously and directly linked to or entangled with individual agency. (Not everyone will think that a valid point, of course.)

The notion of cycles of unrest/stability is not new; I believe that, w/r/t the U.S., Huntington's American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony made this kind of argument. Schlesinger's The Cycles of American History did too, though, I would guess, in a somewhat different way. 

But, to quote the Nature piece:
What is new about cliodynamics isn't the search for patterns, Turchin explains. Historians have done valuable work correlating phenomena such as political instability with political, economic and demographic variables. What is different is the scale — Turchin and his colleagues are systematically collecting historical data that span centuries or even millennia — and the mathematical analysis of how the variables interact.
Especially since I'm not going to understand the details of the mathematical analysis, who am I to say he (or they) shouldn't do this? Let a hundred flowers bloom, and it'll all come out in the wash. Or something like that. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Speaking of the central bank...

From Leo Damrosch, Tocqueville's Discovery of America, p.190:
By the time of Tocqueville's arrival, the Second Bank [of the United States] and its provincial satellites had become the focus of bitter populist resentment; a senator from Ohio charged that they did their work "not in the light of day, but in darkness and in secret, between the walls of subterraneous caverns." The banks' powers and procedures were indeed bafflingly complicated, and as a historian [Lawrence Kohl] says, "One of the important functions of Jacksonian rhetoric was to help individuals order their world. It made the unseen visible, the complex simple, the confused orderly, and the impersonal personal."

Quote of the day

Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog (WaPo):
While [George] Akerlof's books only earned him and [Janet] Yellen between $5,000 and $15,000 (which is a shame, because Animal Spirits is great and you should all read it), the couple also has a stamp collection, which Yellen apparently inherited from her mother, that's worth between $15,000 and $50,000. I'm not sure there are any policy implications here, I just think it's cool.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Nobel season

Another blizzard of Nobel prizes is upon us. The science and medicine prizes are interesting in a way but mostly don't mean much to me since I can't really appreciate, certainly not at a deep level, the achievements for which the prizes are awarded. The economics prize means a little more, sometimes more than that if I've heard of and know something about the recipient(s) (e.g., Sen, Schelling, or Ostrom, to take three from fairly recent years).

That leaves the prizes for peace and literature. Putting aside the former for now, what about the literature prize (which is apparently due tomorrow)? If you ask me who won the literature prize last year, I don't think l could tell you without looking it up. (Chinua Achebe, maybe? No. Just checked Wiki. But he died earlier this year, which perhaps is why he came to mind.)

I think the only effect of the literature prize on my reading recently was a year or two ago, when I took J.M.G. Le Clézio's Desert  (in translation) out of a library. It's haunting and poetic, particularly the parts set in the North African desert itself, and I'm quite sure I wouldn't have read it had he not won the Nobel prize (he got it in '08). But that was unusual for me, since I don't generally rush out and read the work of whatever author has just won.  


R. Lizza (of The New Yorker) on the Keystone pipeline.

Monday, October 7, 2013

And this is...

esp. for TBA, who I think will find it amusing, though others may too -- "it" being an opera called 'Scalia/Ginsburg'. An echo of 'Marat/Sade', perhaps? (Though which is which?)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Weekend linkage

-- Giap: WaPo obit. For a link to the NYT obit, see this post.

-- Another view of the govt shutdown mess.

-- Added later: Phil Arena and I discuss the Civil War (see his post here and the comments thread).

Friday, October 4, 2013

Extreme poverty in Africa: glass half full?

Sometime in the next few days I was planning to post a link to the new UNICEF figures on global child mortality (once I had taken a look at the report), but Jeffrey Sachs in the NYT (via) beat me to it (at least w/r/t the figures for Africa).

Sachs has a glass-half-full view of poverty and its effects in Africa, observing, among other things, that malaria is down by 30 percent (over what period exactly he doesn't say) and that economic growth is up to 5.7 percent in the period 2000-2010. He doesn't discuss how that growth has been distributed, however. And the child mortality figures, although better than they were, are still terrible: almost 10 percent under-5 mortality per 1000 births in 2012 (or in plain language, for every 1000 children born, 98 died before their fifth birthday). [ETA: Oh yes, the (supposedly) key figure: the percent living below the W.Bank's $1.25-a-day extreme poverty line was down to 49 percent in 2010 for sub-Saharan Africa, 21 percent for developing countries taken altogether.]  

Sachs is probably right that private-public 'partnerships' are required to make progress on further reducing extreme poverty. But structural reforms are also needed, such as, to mention just one, ending offshore tax havens that cost developing countries more money every year than they receive in official development assistance. This last point I take from a book that I've checked out of the library but as yet have only glanced at: Gillian Brock, Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account (Oxford U.P., 2009). She discusses taxation and its connection to global poverty in chap.5. (I'm assuming this particular problem is as bad now as it was several years ago when Brock wrote. In the unlikely event that's wrong, someone can correct me.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The tyranny of the minority

Tea Party and other right-wing House Republicans have brought the country's public services grinding to a halt and furloughed thousands of workers in pursuit of a profoundly anti-democratic (small "d") agenda: weakening or destroying a law they were not able to defeat in the normal course of political competition.

As both E.J. Dionne and Harold Meyerson (here) point out in op-ed columns, the strength of the Republican right wing in the House rests on gerrymandered congressional districts, ones that were drawn by Republican state legislatures after the 2010 census to ensure safe seats for right-wing members.

Dionne writes:
House Speaker John Boehner’s approach has been driven by fear: fear of the most right-wing House members, fear of rabid talk-show hosts, fear of the Frankenstein monster of fanatical organizations the party has relied upon to gin up the faithful.
The government is shut for only one reason: Boehner wants to keep his job. This is not a sufficient cause for throwing hundreds of thousands of other people out of theirs. “This is the conservative right versus the reckless right,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Budget Committee Democrat. “The country should not become the victim of the Republican civil war.”
If this is a Republican civil war, it is one that the somewhat sane part of the Republican caucus seems to be losing. The right-wing House Republicans are not simply crazy and dangerous -- though they definitely are those things -- they also have a deep contempt for the democratic process. Faced with a law they don't like but couldn't roll back through ordinary channels, they have resorted to doing an end run around majority rule and risking bringing the country back into recession in order to further their policy preferences.

Various theorists of democracy have worried about the tyranny of the majority. This is the reverse: the tyranny of the minority.

(Note: post edited slightly after initial posting)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

One functional government, at your service

Not far from the exceptionally unedifying spectacle unfolding on Capitol Hill, some WW2 veterans from Mississippi surmounted barricades to visit the closed WW2 memorial, in the company of what the WaPo article describes as "jubilant" Republican Congressmen. If I were those Congressmen, I don't think I'd be jubilant right now about much of anything.