“But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

August 10, 2005

[Belated Thoughts on the 60th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki]

[Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005  The portion of this post appearing below in boldface has been revised.  Please see endnote for details.]

There’s a couple of reasons why I’m a theoretical physicist.  For tonight, the pertinent one is this:  I can feel numbers.  To me, they’re not symbols long since divorced from the consequences they were meant to quantify.  Instead, in my imagination, their consequences are palpable, sometimes vividly so.   Thus, while I can intellectually understand the truth behind those now immortal cynical sayings of good ol’ Senator Dirksen ("A million here and a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.") and mean ol’ General Secretary Stalin ("The death of one man is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic."), I don’t personally feel their truth.    Rather, I personally feel a million dollars as the accumulation of a lifetime or two of paychecks, and a million deaths as an utterly satisfactory reason to emulate Job and blaspheme God to His Face should He ever take the time out of His very, very busy eternity to grant me the ultimate honor of some individualized revelation. 

Now, as you can see from the above examples, my natural knack for internalizing numerical knowledge doesn’t so much have to do with any mathematical facility per se, but rather an ability to imagine something personally poignant in place of the numbers.  And so, gentle reader, if in recent days you have pondered the morality of dropping atomic weapons on Japan and have found yourself confounded by all the cold counteractuals it entails, and if–more importantly–you’re now willing to partake in some moderate emotional masochism, then let me commend to you the following excerpt of Errol Morris’s stunning 2003 documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War.  Better than anything I’ve ever seen, it conveys the brutal emotional truth behind the cold, hard statistic that in the five months leading up to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US firebombing campaigns on 67 Japanese cities directly killed at least 175,000 civilians and burnt to the ground the homes of at least 8,000,000.

The excerpt is entitled Lesson 5: Proportionality should be a guideline in war.  In it, McNamara’s words alone do a good job of conveying the magnitude of the devestation wrought on the civilian population of Japan in the months leading up to the atomic bombings for McNamara conceives of a chilling set of analogies between Japanese and American cities.

MORRIS: The choice of incendiary bombs—where did that come from?

McNAMARA: I think the issue is not so much incendiary bombs. I think the issue is: In order to win a war, should you kill 100,000 people in one night, by firebombing or any other way? LeMay’s answer would be, clearly, “Yes.”

[Speaking rhetorically] McNamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing 100,000—burning to death 100,000—Japanese civilians in that one night we should have burned to death a lesser number or none and then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you’re proposing? Is that moral? Is that wise? Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan?

And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama’s roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which, by the way, was dropped by LeMay’s command.

However, the true genius of Morris’s film in this excerpt is that he breaks away from his characteristic close-ups of his subject’s face to extend McNamara’s analogy of Japanese and American cities to all 67 cities that were the targets of LeMay’s firebombing campaign.   Morris shows a series of bomb damage photographs at speeds that eventually become subliminally fast.  He first captions these with titles in red letters that give the name of the Japanese city bombed and the fraction of its area that was thus burned to the ground, and he then switches to a caption in black letters giving the name of an equivalent US city.  If one is neurotic and masochistic enough to watch in slow motion, one can catch all 67.  As I don’t wish for you, gentle reader, to partake in that much emotional masochism, I transcribe them here in the order shown

Japanese City Equivalent American City Area Destroyed
Yokohama Cleveland 58.0%
Tokyo New York 51.0%
Toyama Chattanooga 99.0%
Nagoya Los Angeles 40.0%
Osaka Chicago 35.9%
Nishinomiya Cambridge  11.9%
Shimonoseki San Diego 37.6%
Kure Toledo 41.9%
Kobe Baltimore 55.7%
Omuta Miami 35.9%
Wakayama Salt Lake City 50.0%
Kawasaki Portland 35.2%
Okayama Long Beach 68.9%
Yawata San Antonio 21.2%
Kagoshima Richmond 63.4%
Amagasaki Jacksonville 18.9%
Sasebo Nashville 41.4%
Moji Spokane 23.3%
Miyakonojo Greensboro 26.5%
Nobeoka Augusta 25.2%
Miyazaki Davenport 26.1%
Ube Utica 20.7%
Saga Waterloo 44.2%
Imabari Stockton 63.9%
Matsuyama Duluth 64.0%
Oita Saint Joseph 28.2%
Hiratsuka Battle Creek 48.4%
Tokuyama Butte 48.3%
Yokkaichi Charlotte 33.6%
Unyamaoa Columbus 41.3%
Ogaki Corpus Christi 39.5%
Gifu Des Moines 69.6%
Fukui Evansville 86.0%
Tokushima Fort Wayne 85.2%
Sakai Fort Worth 48.2%
Hachioji Galveston 65.0%
Kumamoto Grand Rapids 31.2%
Isezaki Sioux Falls 56.7%
Takamatsu Knoxville 67.5%
Akashi Lexington 50.2%
Fukuyama Macon 80.9%
Aomori Montgomery 30.0%
Okazaki Lincoln 32.2%
Shizuoka Oklahoma City 66.1%
Himeji Peoria 49.4%
Fukuoka Rochester 24.1%
Kochi Sacramento 55.2%
Shimizu San Jose 42.1%
Omura Santa Fe 33.1%
Chiba Savannah 41.0%
Ichinomiya Springfield 56.3%
Nara Boston 69.3%
Tsu Topeka 69.3%
Kuwana Tucson 75.0%
Toyohashi Tulsa 67.9%
Numazu Waco 42.3%
Choshi Wheeling 44.2%
Kofu South Bend 78.6%
Utsunomiya Sioux City 43.7%
Mito Pontiac 68.9%
Senoai Omaha 21.9%
Tsuruga Middletown 65.1%
Nagoka Madison 64.9%
Hitachi Little Rock 72.0%
Kumagaya Kenosha 55.1%
Hamamatsu Hartford 60.3%
Maebashi Wheeling 44.2%

When Morris returns to McNamara’s face after this devestating montage, McNamara’s words are absolutely chilling:

McNAMARA: Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50 to 90% of the people in 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional in the minds of some people to the objectives we were trying to achieve.  [Bill’s Note: This 50-90% figure is not to be taken literally.  See endnote for context.]  I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S.-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history. Kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize, is that the human race prior to that time and today has not really grappled with what I’ll call “the rules of war”. Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death 100,000 civilians in a night? LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He’d, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

Endnote (Sept 4, 2005):  In the original version of this post, which appeared on August 10, 2005 at 2:22 AM—and thus, like most every other post on this blog, was a post written in a state of aggravated sleep deprivation—the "cold, hard statistic" that appears above in boldface

…in the five months leading up to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US firebombing campaigns on 67 Japanese cities directly killed at least 175,000 civilians and burnt to the ground the homes of at least 8,000,000.

instead read

…in the five months leading up to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US bombing campaigns killed over 50% of the populations of 67 separate Japanese cities.

In my sleep deprived state, having just rewatched The Fog of War, I had misunderstood McNamara’s quote to be a statement of the actual results of the firebombing campaign.  Later that day, when it finally dawned on my sleep-reinvigorated mind that if McNamara’s statement were literally true then the US firebombing campaign in 1945 would have killed roughly 10,000,000 (!!) Japanese civilians, I placed the following notice atop the post:

UPDATE IN PROGRESS: Aug 10, 1:22 PM.  I believe there is some sort of major misstatement in this post’s key statistic (found in boldface below) regarding civilian casualties due to the non-nuclear component of the US bombing campaign against major Japanese cities in 1945.  Please note, however, that the misstatement is not my own.  The statistic is an accurate quote of Robert McNamara’s own words describing his World War II service doing statistical analysis in General Curtis Lemay’s Pacific Bombing Command as recorded in the Errol Moris documentary The Fog of War. (For the full quotation see the very bottom of this post.)    I am currently trying to figure out how exactly McNamara misspoke, for example, perhaps confusing civilian fatalities with total civilian casualties and/or the number of civilians rendered homeless.

I must say that I was rather embarassed, given how I’d prefaced the post with all that purple prose about how I’m a theoretical physicist since I have such a keen intuitive and emotional grasp of numbers.   Sleep deprivation is no excuse to be off by 2 orders of magnitude…one maybe… any physicist can be off at first by one order of magnitude… but two!, that’s ghastly.

Anyway, after quite a bit of reading, including the companion book to The Fog of War and several portions of the comprehensive, official US Strategic Bombing Survey, I must honestly say I still don’t know precisely what Messrs. McNamara and Morris were thinking.    However, I think the most likely explanation is that McNamara was speaking of the potential worst-case effects of the bombing, which certainly would be relevant to any ethical discussion about proportionality.   For example, US estimates of the potential effects of the first spate of firebombings on Japan’s 6 largest cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, Kobe, and Kawasaki) were the burning down of 70% of the civilian housing [1]. Granted, overall deaths in these estimates were much lower than 70% of the civilian population, being around 500,000 civilians [1], which would have been about 4% of the population in these 6 cities [2]. And of course, the actual results of these raids were even lower: 124,362 deaths and the burning down of the homes of 5,578,000 Japanese, which are 0.94% and 42.5% of these cities’ 1944 populations respectively [2].  But there’s no doubt that the firebombings were planned with knowledge that they well could burn down the vast majority of these cities’ residential areas, and the bombings weren’t going to wait for guarantees that the Imperial Japanese government would implement effective firefighting and evacuation plans. 


[1] Schaffer, Ronald.  Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II,  (Oxford University Press, 1985), page 116

[2] Table 30 of the "United States Strategic Bombing Survey — The Effects of Air Attack on Japanese Urban Economy (Pacific Report #55): Summary Report (Urban Affairs Division, March 1947)" as reprinted in MacIssac, David, ed., The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Volume IX,(Garland Publishing, 1976).


4 Responses to ““But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?””

  1. Brian Says:

    Let me get this right, if the U.S. Lost the war with Japan, a war initiated by Japan, a war of self-defense for america, america would have been treated as war criminals????????????

    It seems to me, when you initiate a war with a country on the other side of the globe from you, its pretty hard to see how anything that happens as a result can be considered a war crime.

  2. Brian, at my first level of analysis, I view the ethical question at hand as highly analogous to the following much less provocative (or at least much more familiar) ethical scenario:

    Individual homicide in peacetime is a crime, period. If one kills someone else, one will be (and quite rightly should be) prosecuted by the state. However, we have the concept of “justifiable homicide,” and this is instituted both in terms of defenses whose validity are explicitly recognized by the state in its law (such as self-defense and insanity / lack of moral understanding) and defenses that are implicitly recognized by the state by instituting a trial by one’s peers (i.e., sufficient conflicts between justice and the law will mean a jury of the criminal’s peers will either not unanimously agree to convict or even unamiously agree to acquit the criminal—presumably on behalf of the criminal’s service rendered to greater community vis-a-vis the counterfactual situation where the criminal not committing his or her crime would have, beyond some sufficient threshold of doubt, allowed a greater crime to be committed.)

    So, at my first level of analysis, I’d say the situation with the US bombing campaign against Japanese cities is:

    1) Systematic killing of noncombatants is a war crime, period.

    2) However, systematic killing of noncombatant populations with an aim to prevent further war crimes especially further systematic killing of other noncombatant populations by the government under which the first group of noncombatants unfortunately lives may be judged a justifiable war crime. And given the incredibly bloody record of Imperial Japan in the 30’s and 40’s, I would say area bombing of Japanese cities, in general, was a justifiable war crime.

    My second level of analysis, however, would get specific. Was every act of area bombing committed on civilian population centers justifiable? In this case, I really do feel McNamara and Morris analogy between US and Japanese cities is helpful. If, God forbid, I lived in some bizzaro universe where the US went on a massive imperialistic campaign against its neighbors, intentionally killing millions of noncombatants in the process, then I could understand if other nations bombed *major* US cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston in an attempt to bring the US to heel as quickly as possible. But what about “minor” US cities. Wheeling, West Virgina? Lincoln, Nebraska? Kenosha, Wisconsin? Granted the line is fuzzy, but once these other nations started killing women and children in Kenosha, I’d submit that the line’s might well have been crossed.

    I hope this suffices as an explanation for the moment.

  3. Barney Says:

    Wow Bill,

    Those are humbling statistics. I watched Fog of War also, and thought it was quite an eye opening documentary.

  4. hiutopor Says:


    Very interesting information! Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: