When is a war crime not a war crime?

My very first article for MercatorNet was a piece on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was convinced, and still believe, that the widespread public endorsement of the intentional killing of civilian non-combatants and subsequent justification of “doing evil that good may come” was in turn responsible for what we might call the ‘cultural revolution’ of the West: the rejection of traditional moral, social, and political order as corrupt, inhumane, and ultimately self-destructive.

I’ve since learned that criticising the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from an ethical perspective brings out some very convoluted and inconsistent arguments and conclusions from people who otherwise claim to believe in the sanctity of human life and oppose utilitarian ethical calculations.

Yesterday’s anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo is another reminder of the incoherence in our collective moral history:

The subtext of the war crimes with which we are most familiar is that they are gratuitous, unnecessary, and especially vicious; actions that make little sense from a strictly military perspective, or which do not belong in the standard array of weapons and tactics…

But these types of cases are by no means the sum total of war crimes or of just war theorising, it just seems that way because our attention is fixed on the examples of war crime that are easiest to identify and which we are most comfortable repudiating.  We can pick the obvious acts of opportunism and gratuitous violence, but we lose our certainty in the harder cases, as the line between legitimate act of war and war crime becomes blurred. Yet it is our ignorance – sometimes our wilful ignorance – of the rules of war and just war theory that leaves these lines more blurred than they ought to be.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s