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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

11 August 2005

A-bomb at 60

Sixty years have passed since the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet the morality of the decision remains hotly debated, underscoring our own inability to cope with the logic of war.

Our uneasiness with dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reflects nothing more than our uneasiness with war itself—its barbarity and its senselessness. Yet the quest to offer a definite answer to the perennial dilemma—was Truman right to drop the bombs?— reveals our own limitation in grasping the reality of war; it confuses the moral with the political, and in doing so, leads us to the mistaken conclusion that morality and war can mix well.

Contemporary wisdom believes war has to be clean—few casualties, minimal collateral damage, and only used as a last resort. From this idea have sprung the laws of war—laws to define and codify the rights and responsibilities of combatants and non-combatants. It is easy to think of these laws in moral terms—to think that we have limited the scope of war because it is right to do so; and that when these laws are violated, it is natural to feel outraged.

But the laws of war, much like war itself, is about politics, not morality. Countries have agreed to them because it makes political sense—according your enemy POW status makes it more likely that your troops that are captured will be treated humanely; and the targets that are off limits are largely the targets that offer little tactical advantage once destroyed.

Why is this important? Because the world is entering a new era of warfare where the distinction between peacetime and wartime fades, as does the separation between combatants and non-combatants. All the while, Western societies are changing their perception of war as well: they demand clean wars, “exit strategies,” while their tolerance for the immoral (Abu Ghraib comes to mind) is proving all too limited.

The point is not that warfare needs to be brutal; just that it is likely to be. Consenting to a war on the caveat that it will be clean is the equivalent of going to cook expecting not to get your hands dirty. It is not only that it won’t happen, it’s also less likely that your food will taste good if you cook that way.

Which brings us back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two bombs remind us that war knows no bounds and that faced with a mortal threat countries will go to any extreme to win. There is no morality, just politics. After all, it is the winners that write the history books.


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