January 19, 2012 columns

Near and Far Acts of Violence

What is the moral distinctions between the My Lai massacre and the Hiroshima bombing? Kuznicki discusses.

Bryan Caplan asks:

In the My Lai Massacre, a company of American ground troops killed between 347 and 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in a village suspected of harboring Communist guerrillas (the VC).  After the massacre became public knowledge, Captain Ernest Medina denied giving orders to kill women and children.  But some platoon leaders testified (without plea bargains, as far as I can tell) that Medina had explicitly ordered them to kill every living thing in the village.

In Hiroshima, the American crew of the Enola Gay killed 90,000 to 166,000 people in a mid-size Japanese city with an atomic bomb.  According to the best estimate I could find, about 12,000 of the dead were Japanese soldiers.  The rest were unarmed civilians.  No one disputes that the Enola Gay’s crew was following orders.

The My Lai Massacre is now almost universally considered a heinous war crime.  The Hiroshima bombing, in contrast, enjoys bipartisan admiration.  What moral distinctions might you draw between the two?

Caplan runs through several attempts at distinguishing the two.  Most are obviously inadequate.  His seventh and eighth are a bit more challenging:

7. You could say that Hiroshima successfully ended the war and saved lives, and My Lai plainly failed to do so.  But My Lai was much smaller than Hiroshima.  If My Lai tactics were applied on a vast scale - say 300 villages to make the body count comparable to Hiroshima’s - maybe they too could have ended the war and saved lives.  In any case, by this logic, Hiroshima would have been a massive war crime if it failed to make the Japanese surrender.

And, disturbingly:

8. The soldiers in My Lai murdered people they could see face-to-face.  The crew of the Enola Bay dropped a bomb from a high distance and flew away.

300 My Lais may not have done it, though — with Hiroshima, the demoralizing effect of an entirely new and unprecedented weapon was possibly the key factor in the Japanese surrender.  The Japanese had no chance of building an atom bomb and they knew it, or so the thinking goes.  

Still, that’s not necessarily the whole of the story.  History is rarely so neat.  The Soviet entry into the eastern theater of war, taking place on the same day as Nagasaki, may have been sufficient all by itself.  If so, the bombings are harder to justify.

So, contentiously, I’m going to go with #8 as at least part of the explanation.  A parallel reasoning also explains why Michael Vick became a national pariah, while the meat industry went unaffected.  Whatever you think about animal rights — and I’m personally a skeptic — the inconsistency remains.  It’s likely due to our varied intuitions about near and far acts of violence.  And, because I can’t resist some shameless self-promotion, this month’s Cato Unbound is highly relevant as well.