McNamara on the impossible moralities of war

This was in Robert McNamara’s Times obit yesterday, but it’s also a line I remembered from “The Fog of War.”

“We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women and children,” Mr. McNamara recalled; some 900,000 Japanese civilians died in all. “[General Curtis] LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals.”

“What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” he asked. He found the question impossible to answer.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the morality of war over the past few years, and probably longer. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how readily we(as the American public) accept civilian deaths from air power compared to our acceptance of civilian deaths at the hands of our soldiers. Executing women and children outside the hut, My-Lai style, brings outrage and criminal charges. But dropping a bomb that kills 20 civilians in an attempt to get a few enemies is more or less kosher(or, 900,000 Japanese, as was the case in WWII.)   The main difference, it seems to me, is in the proximity to the killing.

There’s a lot more I want to write on this subject–it’s an argument that would take a few thousand words to try to do justice to–but I’m not going to do that right now. I want to get back to McNamara.

McNamara’s quote is so fascinating because he’s posing a very serious question about the morality of war that we rarely–in the media, in our politics, in our life–address. “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” he asks.

The obituary writer, Tim Wiener, says McNamara found the question “impossible to answer.” But who in public life has ever even tried to answer it?

It’s a very uncomfortable question. The simplest answer is: in war, there is no difference, or very little difference, morality-wise between the winners and losers in terms of the actions taken required to win. Our belief that we’re morally superior to our enemies–that we don’t stoop down so low and do such horrendous things–almost always requires a good dose of magical thinking. (Except for the Nazis, whose actions were the greatest gift to war lovers, ever. Raise the specter of Hitler, and you can justify most things.)  Perhaps this magical thinking is required so societies like ours can have a healthy, if delusional, self-image. So we can feel good about ourselves and the like, get up every morning with pep in our step and commerce in our souls.  (For instance, if I really thought about the morality of how many Native Americans we killed so I could wake up, 200 years later, and drink my coffee with a nice view of Lake Champlain, I probably wouldn’t get much writing done. )

Anyway. I think it’s rare for a public figure like McNamara to have admitted this kind of thing. Guys like McNamara are supposed to maintain the myths we have of ourselves as Americans, to maintain the fragile illusions our civilizations are based on, not tear them down. With Iraq(and it seems, Afghanistan) our political leaders seem to have committed McNamara style mistakes. When will they have the guts commit McNamara style self-reflection?

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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