The month of September brings not only the fifth anniversary of the horrific terror attacks of 2001, but also marks the passage of 67 years since the beginning of World War II. An accurate, unflinching recollection of that incomparably destructive conflagration remains indispensable in understanding some of the key issues of the bloody conflicts of our own time. In particular, the course of World War II demonstrates the complete folly of the currently trendy notion that a just war somehow must qualify as “proportional.”
Commentators endlessly invoked this concept during the recent battle between Israel and Hizbollah, faulting the Jewish state for an allegedly “disproportional response” to the invasion of its territory and the kidnapping of two of its soldiers. The resulting 34 days of conflict led to an estimated 1,000 deaths in Lebanon—more than half of them civilians – while Israel suffered a total of about 100 casualties, most of them soldiers. By the same token, some critics of American policy cite the entire war on terror as a wildly disproportional over-reaction: we lost 3,000 innocent civilians on September 11, and the Bush administration responded with the application of overwhelming force in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in perhaps 20 times the deaths (including many civilian casualties) originally inflicted on the United States. The international Left regularly and passionately decries these lopsided levels of suffering as evidence of indefensible callousness, cruelty and irresponsibility on the part of the United States and Israel.
These critics of current conflicts, however, rarely refer to the example of World War II—surely one of the most outrageously disproportional conflicts in all human history. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and killed 3,000 Americans, virtually all of them military personnel; in the US response, some 3 million Japanese lost their lives, more than 500,000 of them civilians. In their surprise attack on Hawaii, the Japanese easily could have devastated the unprotected population of Honolulu but they pointedly avoided doing so, while the United States ended the war with atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that claimed mostly civilians, as well as the even more devastating fire-bombing of Tokyo (that destroyed sixteen square miles of the city, with one fourth of its buildings, leaving at least 100,000 dead and more than a million homeless). By contrast, the Japanese never succeeded in inflicting any civilian casualties on American victims on American soil. The comparative death toll of noncombatants on native ground, in other words, stands at 500,000 to zero.
Does the grossly disproportional nature of this conflict somehow undermine the morality of the American war effort? Do the appallingly unequal figures of sacrifice and suffering suggest that FDR, Truman and the other U.S. war leaders deserve censure for their bloodthirsty tactics? The answer remains obvious and undeniable: the American political and military leadership did what it needed to do to bring the war to the quickest possible conclusion, thus sparing the lives of additional Americans (and Japanese). Proportionality of casualties bears no connection whatever to the justice or decency of a war effort; no truly moral leader could possibly justify prolonging the death and destruction in order to avoid the “embarrassment” of one-sided casualty figures. All the greatest commanders in human history—Alexander, Genghis Khan, Henry V, Napoleon, Lord Nelson, Stonewall Jackson—have inflicted horribly uneven casualties on their opponents. In one sense, the whole purpose of war is to make the enemy bleed and die more than you do. As General George Patton reportedly observed, “The goal of war isn’t to die for your country. It’s to make the other poor bastard die for his country.”
The way to judge the morality of a military effort isn’t to consider the level of enemy death and suffering but to examine the purpose for which that destruction has been inflicted. By that token the aggressive strikes by Japan at Pearl Harbor, or Al-Qaeda against New York City and Washington D.C., stand as far less justifiable than the essentially defensive (but vastly bloodier) American responses. Whatever one’s belief about the list of Islamic grievances against the Western world, or Japanese complaints about U.S. hostility to the Rising Sun Empire, no one could reasonably expect that surprise attacks on American targets would somehow reduce the level of combat and bloodshed in the world. U.S. responses, on the other hand—like the Israeli response in Lebanon –clearly meant to reduce or eliminate the chance of future conflict. Israel and the United States fought to make themselves safe from attack or intimidation, not to seize territory or to conquer other nations or to advance dreams of global domination. One may attempt to argue that recent U.S. (or Israeli) policies did little to enhance the security of the populace and proved counter-productive to their announced purposes, but no one could confuse the long-range goals of these democracies, so eager to bring their troops home at the earliest opportunity, with the aims of unabashedly aggressive, imperialist powers like the Japanese Empire or Islamo-Nazi fundamentalists, with their open dreams of international supremacy.
The whole idea of judging wars by comparing casualty rates depends upon the assumption of moral equivalence: since there is no meaningful distinction among powers, no significant contrast between the United States, say, and the old Soviet Union, then the only way to evaluate the performance of these nations is to consider the relative damage they’ve inflicted. That argument leads to the conclusion that the Soviet intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia to impose Communism counts as less objectionable than the (ultimately successful) U.S. intervention in Greece to resist Communism – because more people died in Greece than in the restive Eastern European satellite nations. Only if one employs the values of moral relativism – that we can’t judge al Qaeda more harshly than the U.S., or Hizbollah more harshly than Israel – does the talk of “proportional” war make any sense at all.
Of course, context counts far more than merely counting dead bodies: not all nations are created equal, and not all military struggles deserve equivalent respect or support. The obsession with “proportionality” represents one more misguided contemporary attempt to substitute the bogus application of “objective,” numerical analysis for value judgments – the necessary distinctions between good and evil, decent and corrupt – which still constitute the core of all contemporary conflicts.