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Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and My Lai Were All War Crimes


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On the 70th anniversary of the US government’s nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are still people coming out in favor of the bombings. They’re saying that since the bombings shortened the war by bringing a quick surrender of Japan in World War II, the targeting of those two cities was morally and legally justified, especially since it saved the lives of US soldiers who would have been killed in an invasion of Japan.

If those killings were justified, then was it wrong for the Army to criminally prosecute Army Lt. William Calley for killing innocent people at My Lai during the Vietnam War? Couldn’t the same have been said of his actions — that by killing the residents in that Vietnamese village, who were considered to be communists, he was helping to bring the war to a speedier end? Why was Calley treated as a war criminal rather than praised and glorified, as President Truman has been for targeting the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The reason that Calley was prosecuted was that it is a war crime for a soldier to intentionally kill innocent civilians.

This might come as a shock to some people, but in war there are rules. If a soldier violates those rules, he is subject to criminal prosecution. The adage “anything goes” does not apply to war, not even if enemy soldiers are violating the rules.

For example, simply because a soldier is fighting in a war, that doesn’t permit him to rape women he encounters within the war zone. If he rapes women, as many Soviet soldiers did in their invasion of Germany in World War II, he is subject to being prosecuted as a war criminal. The only reason that Soviet soldiers or their commanders weren’t prosecuted at Nuremberg or anywhere else is that the Soviet Union won the war. Neither it nor its wartime partner, the United States, had any interest in prosecuting Soviet rapists for war crimes.

After World War II, US military officials criminally prosecuted a Japanese army general named Tomoyuki Yamashita for war crimes. Yamashita himself did not personally commit the crimes but the men under his command did. Even though US forces had destroyed Yamashita’s command and control facilities and his means of communication with his troops, and even though he had prohibited his men from engaging in war crimes, US officials prosecuted, convicted, and executed him for simply being in command of the men who committed the war crimes.

How were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki different from Calley’s massacre of civilians in Vietnam? They weren’t different at all. Calley targeted innocent civilians at My Lai. Truman and his bombers targeted innocent civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the fact that Calley was an Army infantryman while the bombers were Air Force personnel is a distinction without a difference when it comes to war crimes.

Did the atomic bombings save the lives of US soldiers by shortening the war? Undoubtedly (although many historians have persuasively shown that Japan was ready to surrender anyway), but that still does not operate as a legal or moral justification for targeting innocent civilians. If Truman was concerned about the US soldiers who would die in an invasion of Japan, he had another option: abandon President Roosevelt’s ridiculous “unconditional surrender” demand and negotiate an early end to the war.

Soldiers die in war. That’s the nature of war. Targeting innocent civilians in the hope of sparing the lives of soldiers is illegitimate, both morally and legally. The killing of the people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was as criminal as the killing of people at My Lai.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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