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Waterboarding and Hiroshima

The death last week of Paul Tibbets Jr., the pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, is an opportunity to revisit the debate about the strategic value and moral justification of the aerial bombardment of civilian targets in wartime. It also casts some light on the controversy surrounding Michael Mukasey's nomination to be the next attorney general of the United States.

War criminal? Col. Paul Tibbets poses next to the "Enola Gay."

Judge Mukasey will likely only squeak into office after he refused to state that waterboarding (or simulated drowning) met the legal definition of torture. "As described, these techniques seem over the line on a personal basis, repugnant to me and would probably seem the same to many Americans," he wrote in a letter to Sen. Pat Leahy and his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. "But hypotheticals are different from real life and in any legal opinion the actual facts and circumstances are critical." For his sin, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic A-team will vote to reject his nomination.

In a recent article in Commentary1, essayist Algis Valiunas recounts that when war broke out in Europe in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt "issued a plea that all combatant nations do the decent thing and refrain from bombing." And yet, he continues, "President Roosevelt's high-mindedness did not count for much once the action was under way." The Nazis, for whom terror from the skies was no more anathema than every other form of terror they practiced, were the first to bomb civilian targets, beginning with Warsaw and moving on to Rotterdam and London.

Within a couple of years, the Allies were retaliating in kind, which in current parlance would be known as "lowering oneself to the level of one's enemies." At the Casablanca conference in January 1943, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill promised to undertake "the heaviest possible bomber offensive against the German war effort." Six months later that terrible promise was fulfilled over Hamburg by 700 British bombers. In Mr. Valiunas's telling, it was a scene from the Inferno: "Oxygen starvation and carbon monoxide poisoning killed many; bomb shelters turned into ovens and roasted the persons inside, so that rescue workers days later found the bodies seared together in an indistinguishable mass; the molten asphalt of the streets engulfed those who fled the burning buildings."

An estimated 45,000 people died this way in Hamburg. U.S. and British air forces would repeat the procedure over Dresden, Tokyo, Yokohama, Hiroshima, Nagasaki -- cities of real or at least arguable military significance. Hundreds of smaller cities and towns of doubtful strategic value were also reduced to ash and rubble, bringing the total civilian death toll to about 600,000 Germans (including 75,000 children under 14) and a roughly equal number of Japanese. How can this be justified? Does it not greatly diminish Allied claims to moral superiority?

Most people would argue that it does not, even though the horror of what was done to Hamburg and the other cities dwarfs in moral scale the worst U.S. abuses in the war on terror (real or alleged), which are so frequently cited as evidence that we have debased ourselves beyond recognition. Most people would also agree that the only compelling ethical defense that can be made for the bombing campaign is that it hastened Allied victory, spared at least as many lives (on both sides) as it cost, and created the conditions for a more peaceful postwar world. In other words, the question here isn't about the intrinsic morality of the bombing. It's about whether the good that flowed from the bombing outweighed the unmistakable evil of the act itself.

Among historians, there is a lively debate about whether that result was achieved. In the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the evidence that the bombings ended the war and saved as many as a million Allied and Japanese lives is overwhelming. A somewhat better argument can be made that the bombing of Germany failed to justify its price in human suffering, particularly the bombing of non-strategic targets. Yet as historian Richard Overy has noted, "There has always seemed something fundamentally implausible about the contention of bombing's critics that dropping almost 2.5 million tons of bombs on tautly stretched industrial systems and war-weary urban populations would not seriously weaken them."

Whatever side one takes here, the important point is that the debate fundamentally is about results. Note the difference with the current debate over waterboarding, where opponents argue that the technique is unconscionable and inadmissible under any circumstances, even in hypothetical cases where the alternative to waterboarding is terrorist attacks resulting in mass casualties among innocent civilians. According to this view, it is possible to wage war yet avoid the classic "choice of evils" dilemmas that confronted past statesmen such as Churchill and Roosevelt. Or, to put the argument more precisely, it is possible to avoid this choice if one is also prepared to pay for it in blood -- if not in one's own, than in that of kith and kin and whoever else's life must be sacrificed to keep our consciences clear.

Paul Tibbets, too, had a clear conscience. "Why be bashful?" he told the Columbus Dispatch in 2003. "That's what it took to end the war." Tibbets needed no instruction in the cruelties of war. But he also understood that awful things would have to be done in order to be spared greater harms. One senses Judge Mukasey understands that too -- further evidence of his fitness to serve as attorney general.

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