I had a number of thoughts over the weekend about the ongoing torture debate—and in particular the historical turn it seems to have taken recently—but in lieu of one of my usual insanely bloated 3,000-word posts, perhaps it makes sense to spread them out over a few posts and focus on one or two main ideas at a time. So consider this the first in a series.
One thing I find striking about both the arguments over torture and the recent revival of the old Hiroshima dispute is that it sometimes seems as though the defense of necessity is regarded as purely empirical one: We can argue whether bombing Hiroshima or waterboarding detainees saved American lives, but if it did, then that settles any question of justification. And we seem to end up with these awfully binary framings—”would you agree it was justified if it saved lives?”—where the options are “saved lives” or “didn’t save lives,” as opposed to “saved X lives with probability A, saved Y lives with probability B, saved no net lives with probability C, cost Z net lives with probability D.” This tendency isn’t unique to defenders of torture, mind you: Whether the same information could’ve been obtained by other means, or whether some particular attack would have occurred in the absence of that information, can only honestly be answered in probabilistic terms.
After the fact, though, we tend toward not only extremes of certainty, but extreme estimates of consequences. In the case of Hiroshima, several historians have argued that Harry Truman and War Secretary Henry Stimson’s post hoc estimates of American lives that would have been lost in an invasion—”half a million” gets bandied about a lot—are substantially higher than many of the prior estimates. And those estimates of consequences are seldom probability adjusted. The heart of most debates over Hiroshima is the dispute over whether—as Dwight Eisenhower and many other U.S. military commanders believed—an invasion could have been averted without the use of the bomb. I’ll revisit that argument briefly in a later post, but suppose you think there’s only a 20 percent chance this could have been avoided. If that’s the case, then at the very least you need to adjust your casualty estimate to allow for the non-zero possiblity of ending the war without either invasion or nuclear bombing. Given that any invasion would have come in November at the earliest, it also seems inappropriate to just compare the death toll at Hirsoshima and Nagasaki with your best guess at the cost of invasion. You also need to factor in alternatives like “wait for the Soviets to declare war and see what happens”—they did so right after Hiroshima, and we tend to downplay the significance of that development on the Japanese military leadership—or “moderate the demand for unconditional surrender and seek a negotiated peace.” Again, bracket for the moment how likely these options were to bring a prompt end to the war on acceptable terms. Unless you think there’s no chance whatever these would have brought about that result, you have to weigh the costs of those alternatives as well, and ask whether it was obligatory to at least try first. Don’t tell Mike Goldfarb, but it was Republican Dwight Eisenhower who said the dropping of the bomb would not merely be a crime, but a “double crime,” compounded by the failure to first attempt negotiations for conditional surrender.
I suppose, in a way, this is the inverse of the familiar Scooby Snacks Defense of brutality: “Would you waterboard to save ten lives? How about a thousand? How about a million?” The corrolary question is: What kinds of risks are we willing to accept to avoid complicity in moral horror? We tend toward these stark extremes, I want to suggest, in part because we’re quite bad at thinking about this fuzzy territory marked by uncertain estimates of the consequences of our actions.
Still, if you think of the United States as being defined, in part, by a certain set of moral ideals—if you don’t merely want your side to win international conflicts, but think that in virtue of these ideals we deserve to win—it seems very odd to then think of conduct in war as a question of pure expediency. Practicing torture or bombing civilians because it would “save lives” is, one supposes, better than doing it for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it, but sets the bar too low. I don’t mean to take the position at the opposite extreme—fiat justitia, ruat caelum—but surely “saving lives” is the beginning of what a justification of these actions might sound like, a minimum, a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition. If defenders of torture could establish that it’s effective, that it uniquely able to extract vital, reliable information that prevents more deaths than are caused by the swelling of terrorist ranks, the loss of international cooperation, the waste of resources chasing false leads—if all that were well established—that would be step one, the basis for opening a discussion of whether it might be justified.
Since recent polling suggests that regular churchgoers are more likely to believe torture is justifiable, perhaps it’s appropriate to paraphrase a certain late rabbi: If you refrain from savage acts in wartime only when brutality would gain you nothing, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. Vague talk about “saving lives” obscures a vital question: What kinds of costs are you willing to bear, what risks will you accept, in order to avoid doing evil? If you’re prepared to discard a principle as soon as there’s some significant benefit to be gotten by doing so, then it’s a principle of expediency, not morality. If you’re ready to resort to torture, or to targeting civilians, as soon as there’s some chance it would “save American lives,” then you’re declaring a commitment to abide by moral constraints, so long as observing them is free.
We are required, it seems to me, to choose: We can accept that we’re one more country like any other, guided by pure rational self interest, in which case “if it might save even one American life…” is as much justification as we can ask for any policy, and the only question (though still, of course, a difficult and complex question) is how we go about it. If, on the other hand, we think there’s something exceptional about the United States—that we’re defined by a particular moral vision beyond the universal desire for comfort and safety—we need to accept that hewing to a moral vision sometimes comes with costs, and then ask how much ours is worth to us.