You know that Simpsons episode where the doctor explains that Mr. Burns is simultaneously suffering from almost every disease known to man, but remains healthy because they’re in a precarious equilibrium, like a horde of obese men simultaneously trying to squeeze through the “door” of his immune system? And in honor of that image, they dub the condition “Three Stooges Syndrome”? This is often how I feel reading Michael Goldfarb, because when someone is confused in so many different ways over the span of two short paragraphs, it’s easy to get paralyzed. But let me take a shot:
It comes at about the 5:50 mark. Cliff May asks [The Daily Show's Jon] Stewart whether Truman’s use of the atomic bomb was a war crime, Stewart ruminates and then responds with an unequivocal “yes.” He’s certainly not the only American who would take that view, but it’s a useful reminder that the most vocal and popular criticism of the Bush administration’s war on terror policies comes from people who, if they were being as honest as Stewart, would also judge Lincoln (suspension of habeas), FDR (internment), and Truman (use of nuclear weapons) as war criminals or tyrants or worse.
Stewart repeats the charge again later in the interview, but you have to wonder whether this was one of the rare times that he just got outmaneuvered on his own show. Serious people have debated Truman’s decision for 60 years, but even those who disagree with that decision rarely describe it as “criminal.” And if it was criminal, whatever crimes the left alleges of President Bush seem pretty trivial in comparison.
I realize it’s probably not a position taken often at the offices of the Weekly Standard, but the suggestion that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes is not, in fact, crazy or rare. A Japanese legal review concluded as much two decades after the fact, Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard described it as such*, and indeed, the Wikipedia article devoted to the debate serious people have been having for 60 years contains a lengthy section titled “the bombings as war crimes.” To the extent it’s a controversial claim, it’s controversial because we don’t like calling U.S. presidents war criminals, not because it’s a difficult question whether obliterating entire areas inhabited by large civilian populations with the flimsiest of military targets as a pretext should now be regarded as a war crime. There might be some genuine question as to whether it was a war crime under the understanding of international law that obtained in 1945, but as evidence for the proposition that it counts as a war crime under the current widely accepted definition, we can cite no less an authority than John Bolton:
A fair reading of the treaty [founding the International Criminal Court], for example, leaves the objective observer unable to answer with confidence whether the United States was guilty of war crimes for its aerial bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan in World War II. Indeed, if anything, a straightforward reading of the language probably indicates that the court would find the United States guilty. A fortiori, these provisions seem to imply that the United States would have been guilty of a war crime for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is intolerable and unacceptable.
Bolton, of course, takes this to be a knock-down argument against the ICC, but note that he doesn’t actually have an argument beyond finding it “intolerable” to acknowledge a rule of war under which Harry Truman would have been a war criminal. Whatever ambiguity existed in 1945 was a function of the fact that we had overt rules dealing with poison gas, not nuclear explosions; the broad principle that military attacks should be targeted to avoid indiscriminate killing of civilians is a long established one. You might argue that it was a “necessary crime” that avoided the far greater loss of life that would’ve otherwise been incurred in an invasion—and you would, given what we now know, be completely wrong—but that’s a different question.
All that said, it’s not clear exactly what the questions have to do with each other. At first blush, it looks like this is supposed to be a classic reductio: If you conclude Bush committed war crimes, then you will apply the same judgment to Truman; that’s outrageous; therefore the premise is falsified. But “war crimes” isn’t some catch-all meaning “bad stuff people do in wars,” there are a series of specific but distinct codified and widely accepted laws of war. There’s a set of rules governing bombing of civilian targets. There’s a set of rules about treatment of captives and torture. They’re different. Goldfarb seems a little fuzzy on this, since he throws in the internment of the Japanese and Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, both of which may have been unconstitutional—certainly the view that Korematsu was wrongly decided is now pretty mainstream—but neither of which would appear to be as war crimes.
In any event, I understand the form of argument, “if interrogation method X used by Bush is torture, then you must classify method Y the same way.” I don’t know what to do with the argument: “If Bush violated laws of war prohibiting torture, you must conclude Truman violated laws of war protecting civilian populations.” We have always understood the prohibition on torture to encompass waterboarding. That fact doesn’t obviously depend on how we want to interpret the prohibition on indiscriminate aerial bombing of civilian populations.
Maybe it’s supposed to be a more indirect argument: The sort of people who think Bush committed war crimes have an unseemly disposition to regard the actions of beloved presidents as criminal. I’m not sure what to do with that one either; it’s not a response to any particular claim about any particular purported violation, and Goldfarb doesn’t actually argue that the view of Hiroshima & Nagasaki as war crimes is wrong; he just falsely asserts that it’s an unusual one.
Dwelling on that last line a bit, I think the actual argument is something along the lines of: “Look, do we really want to risk the twilight of the idols that would ensue if we judged all our own leaders by the same standards we expect the rest of the world to follow? If we do it in Bush’s case, we’ll probably have to conclude that Truman’s decision was more heinous by an order of magnitude.” The cases are different enough that, again, I don’t think that’s so much a direct entailment as a “opening the floodgates” argument against the crimethink of passing moral judgment on the military decisions of American presidents. I leave it to the reader whether that’s a compelling consideration. To my mind, blotting out torture and the killing of civilians seems like an awfully high price to pay for keeping our monuments polished.
* I initially misattirbuted Szilard’s characterization to his friend and colleague Albert Einstein. Though Einstein also became a vocal opponent of atomic weapons, and condemned their use against Japan, I have no evidence that he used the word “crime” in that context.