Is nuking women and children cheaper than firebombing them?
post by lsusr
When I was a teenager, my favorite board game was the World War Two strategy game Axis & Allies. It taught me basic principles of adversarial strategy including Lanchester's laws, how to wield the law of large numbers and "chaos favors the underdog". But my favorite thing about the game is what it taught me about morality.
The game is balanced and rewards aggression. If you don't send everything you have to the front lines as fast as you can enemy forces will march through your homeland and those of your teammates. The game is long. If you lose your defeat will be protracted. It will suck. Axis & Allies is a desperate struggle for survival.
In Axis and Allies it's common to leave a single infantry unit on the front lines knowing they'll become casualties so you can destroy your enemy's more expensive tanks after the inevitable counterattack. Whether your enemy accepts prisoners of war or just shoots surrendering soldiers is irrelevant to this calculus.
Soldiers are fungible. Territory is fungible. Entire continents can be sacrificed and regained. Just holding off the enemy forces requires every trick available.
Axis & Allies supports a mechanic called "strategic bombing". Strategic bombing is a euphemism for bombing civilians. Strategic bombing is usually the wrong thing to do. Not because burning women and children alive is unethical. Strategic bombing is wrong because it does slightly less damage to an enemy's capacity for war than bombing their soldiers directly.
When I think about ethics I ask myself "If I was a 19-year-old in 1945 would I have refused to pilot a B-29 just because I was ordered to commit a war crime?"
I'm pretty sure the answer is no.
I'm not saying that bombing civilians is ever morally defensible. Or even that it was strategically effective. Just that, given my knowledge of history and my knowledge of my own personality I'm pretty sure that bombing civilians is what I would have done if I had been born in 1926 and assigned to the Air Force operating a B-29. I might've ended up on the Manhattan Project instead.
One-Sided Offensive Nuclear War
When discussing the ethics of nuclear weapons, it's easy to get drawn into calculations of how many Japanese lives they did(n't) save. Such perspective is a historical anachronism. When I'm playing Axis & Allies I throw all of my resources at the enemy as fast as I can. I don't ask "is it ethical to detonate nuclear bombs on starving civilians who never voted for their fascist government"? I ask "is nuking women and children cheaper than firebombing them"?
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comment by benjamincosman ·
2021-10-14T13:51:52.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't doubt that in the heat of battle, we're going to be asking some version of "is nuking women and children cheaper than firebombing them". But discussing the ethical questions outside of battle directly feeds into this calculation: because humanity has decided that nuking civilians is immoral, even a commander with no moral compass knows that nuking civilians may have reputational/legal impacts on themselves and their country, and may cause the enemy to retaliate in kind where it would not have otherwise: in other words, the "cost" of using the nuke has gone up, hopefully to the point that they'll decide alternatives are "cheaper".
comment by samshap ·
2021-10-14T20:32:59.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I'd highly recommend 'The Bomber Mafia' by Malcolm Gladwell on this subject, which details the internal debates of the US Army Air Corps generals during WWII.
One of the key questions was whether to use the bombers to target strategic industries, or just for general attrition (i.e. firebombing of civilians). Obviously the first one would have been preferable from a humanitarian perspective (and likely would have ended the European War sooner), but it was very difficult to execute in practice.
comment by River (frank-bellamy) ·
2021-10-14T16:22:43.724Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't think it's correct to call the bombing of cities in WW2 a war crime. Under the circumstances I think it was the correct choice. One of the key circumstances was the available targeting technology at the time - the human eye. They didn't have plane-based radar, much less GPS. They didn't have the capacity to target military production specifically, all they could do was target the cities where military production was occurring. The alternative was a greater risk of loosing the war, and all of the evils that that entailed. So yes, bombing cities with civilians in them sucks, but it sucked less than the other options that were available at the time.Replies from: TurnTrout, Kaj_Sotala, philh
↑ comment by TurnTrout ·
2021-10-14T16:35:10.749Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Whether an act was a war crime is independent [LW · GW] of whether an act was the correct choice. Shooting a civilian is murder, whether or not the action is correct.
it sucked less than the other options that were available at the time.
What if they had dropped nukes near cities—close enough to scare, far enough to not cause serious civilian casualties? Reading more, there were reasons bombing eg Tokyo Bay wouldn't have worked. So you may be right.Replies from: frank-bellamy
↑ comment by River (frank-bellamy) ·
2021-10-14T17:10:16.943Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Shooting a civilian is murder, whether or not the action is correct.
Shooting a civilian is not murder if it is self-defense or defense of others, which I think is a very good approximation to the set of circumstances where shooting a civilian is the correct choice.
↑ comment by Kaj_Sotala ·
2021-10-14T19:05:48.508Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I'm under the impression that bombing cities wasn't even effective for that goal. E.g. this discussion:
The case for strategic bombing against industrial targets is marginally better [than the case for terror bombing civilians], but only marginally. While airpower advocates, particularly in the United States promised throughout WWII that bombing campaigns against German industry could lead to the collapse of the German war machine, in the end many historians posit that the real achievement of the campaign was to lure the Luftwaffe into the air where it could be destroyed, thus denying the German army of air cover and close air support, particularly on the Eastern Front. Some dimunition of German industrial capabilities was accomplished (though it is not clear that this ever approached the vast resources poured into producing the large numbers of extremely expensive bombers used to do it, though the allies had such an industrial advantage over Germany, forcing the Germans to fight in expensive ways in the sky was a winning trade anyway), but the collapse of German industry never happened. As Richard Overy notes, German industrial output continued to rise during strategic bombing and only began to fall as a result of the loss of territory on the ground. Needless to say, ‘strategic bombing can sucker the enemy into wasting their close air support’ was not the result that airpower advocates had promised, nor could it have broken the stalemate.
I don’t want to oversimplify the continued debate over the efficacy of strategic airpower here too much so let’s just say that the jury is still very much out as to if strategic airpower works even with modern technology
↑ comment by philh ·
2021-10-18T16:39:09.789Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't have a strong object-level opinion, but I note that it's possible that some of the bombing of cities in WW2 was (or should be considered) a war crime, and some wasn't (or shouldn't be). It might be more helpful to think about specific (possibly hypothetical) bombing of specific (possibly hypothetical) cities, than about the general category "bombing of cities in WW2".