Is nuking women and children cheaper than firebombing them?

post by lsusr · 2021-10-14T08:25:42.272Z · LW · GW · 17 comments

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[1], 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"?

  1. We added many homebrew rules, including rules for nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are not in vanilla Axis & Allies. ↩︎


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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 Dagon · 2021-10-14T13:24:16.471Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't learn too much from fiction (including games with non-real-world rules).

There are no actual sentient beings harmed by the actions in A&A.  There is no moral impact from where you choose to use your plastic pieces.  

In real life, some violence is likely justified to prevent worse outcomes.  Whether any given war meets that standard, and what actions within a war are overall beneficial, are at best "difficult to determine".

Replies from: raydora, LVSN
comment by raydora · 2021-10-14T15:58:14.505Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Games with non-real-world rules are how everyone who fights wars prepares for wars.

Replies from: Dustin
comment by Dustin · 2021-10-15T00:44:42.840Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also fighting in other wars. (I'm under the impression that this was maybe more the case in the past than it is today, but I'm not super confident in that.)

comment by LVSN · 2021-10-14T16:41:57.716Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The confusion here is in the word "cost". In the context of lsusr's post, costs and cheapness are framed in terms of monetary costs and cheapness, yet I ask: why not consider moral costs as real, decision-critical costs? Then seek to reduce all decision-critical costs, whether moral, instrumental, or otherwise.

Replies from: robin-1, Richard_Kennaway
comment by Robin (robin-1) · 2021-10-15T09:53:58.534Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then you run into the big problem of how to measure moral cost. There will be situations where you can minimise monetary cost by increasing the moral cost. To minimise for both you need to put a price tag on morality in dollars. How much does a dead civilian cost?

Replies from: samuel-shadrach
comment by acylhalide (samuel-shadrach) · 2021-10-16T08:30:25.775Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Point is you will have to answer that question - whether after deliberation or instinctly - and then move on to a hundred other decisions and calculations relevant to the situation. And if you fumble too much, your superior might replace you with someone who is more prepared to make such decisions.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-10-16T12:58:33.780Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because money is bounded, but depravity is not.

Replies from: LVSN
comment by LVSN · 2021-10-28T22:23:11.452Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You know what else is depraved? Kissing. You're literally putting orifices against orifices. Also homosexuality is depraved. But thank god cost-benefit analysis wins out sometimes over "waah waah, depravity".

Replies from: Richard_Kennaway
comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-10-29T15:30:46.631Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You said that, not me.

Replies from: LVSN
comment by LVSN · 2021-10-29T21:45:04.565Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depravity is not a real problem. 

Anyways I'm confused by your initial reaction. I'll pretend you said something other than depravity; I'll pretend you mentioned some kind of actual real problem, like non-[meta-wanted] unwanted suffering. 

Just measure the suffering and do the calculation. 

I understand one's uncertainty about how much (non-[meta-wanted] unwanted) suffering a human life is worth, as well as one's uncertainty about how much money is worth how much suffering.

But the global facts of your conditional perferences don't go away just because the local facts (a subspace of all possible situational facts) you have to deal aren't the facts of the conditions of those preferences. Not thinking about the questions doesn't make them go away.

This is why I value ideal speech situations. I can't pretend to have solve ethics by myself. Someone will have good, hard questions for whatever my theory is. And I don't trust (at this time)* Committees For Solving Ethics to give due reverence to ideal speech situations, nor [good, hard] questions. 

*(I may be surprised.)

Endorsed counterperspective: suffering-upon-learning-about can turn out to be a good heuristic for structural issues related to suffering. It might also be inherently meaningful, but hopefully there is something deeper than just culture underneath the unhappiness-upon-learning-about, otherwise there are some bullets to bite about so-called social progress, which I find too implausible. 

Nature does not create ideal situations for doing things that do not harm others; that's the problem. Then humans rationalize the cruelty of nature.

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".