Every year in August, someone is moved by the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to say this or that about the morality of the first – and only – use, by anyone, of the Americans’ very own patent medicine of mass destruction. First, a well-meaning liberal of some kind says, “Gee, ain’t it awful what happened in August 1945?” Sometimes he or she will say that use of the Bomb against Japan is just more evidence of deep and ineradicable American “racism” because we would never have used it against the Germans. Such writers seem rather unaware of what happened to Dresden and other German cities, which suggests to some of us that the U.S. would have been quite happy to use the new bomb in Europe – except that the damned thing wasn’t ready yet. (Anyway, it was a liberal war – and liberals love bombing European Christians.)

The well-meaning liberal, or whatever, then meets with tirades from Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, and other respectable conservatives, and sometimes with remonstrances from liberal foreign-policy “realists.” Irritable veterans write letters to the editor about how some terrible commie pinko was allowed to question the inevitability and morality of our bomb and our use of it. And, then, the topic goes away for a year.

I was reminded of this when I went to look at Mr. Bill Kaufmann’s piece on the A-bombs. The link brought up, with the essay, the angry responses of about twenty outraged “patriots,” who, judging from their spelling, syntax, and commitment to loud name-calling, must be recent victims of American public “education.” One might as well have been at a Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) meeting in 1968 or so, where those tasteless nuke buttons and slogans – “Drop It” – kept company with pretended scholarship – “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton.” This last, properly understood, is probably good advice, but I doubt that the bomb-addled YAFers of 1968 had any idea what it meant, or if they did, had actually read Eric Voegelin, from whose work the phrase came.

Now, I don’t really care if the anti-Kaufmann yelpers are xenophobes. A nation of xenophobes who left the world alone might well be “narrow,” but on the other hand, they would be leaving the world alone, and who could complain about that? Probably not the world. A nation of xenophobes who want to mess with the world, however, has no room to complain if the world messes back. Since Kaufmann’s piece had appeared in the Calgary Sun, the patriots concluded that Kaufmann is that terrible thing – much worse than an ordinary commie pinko or bleeding heart liberal – a Canadian! I mean, look at them. They just sit up there in all that tundra, making fun of Uncle’s domestic woes, pointing out that their police can conduct a siege without reducing everything to smoking rubble and corpses, that they can live with a permanent constitutional crisis and still remain fairly civil. Pretty smug, eh? Pretty arrogant, eh? And they claim to make better beer, eh? (Largely true, eh?)

Of course, I would be the first to agree that the Canadian critique of American life is off track in many ways. Canada suffers from a sort of left-wing nationalism in which all the ills of the world are caused by markets, free trade, capitalism, and the United States, which “stands for” all those evils. Even where they are correct about being better off, they don’t seem to know why that might be. Lower population? The fact that they were missing in action during the Vietnam War, with the result that their police haven’t militarized themselves as much? Less power and resources, so that they – necessarily – can eschew the temptations of Empire? Anyway, if Mr. Kaufmann is a Canadian, I expect it is a surprise to him and to the many readers of his very interesting book, America First, a manifesto for peaceful American, i.e, U.S. “xenophobia.”

The bombing issue came up recently in the Atlantic Monthly (March 1999). Near the end of a long piece on the naval aspects of World War II, historian David M. Kennedy remarked that use of the A-bomb was not a break with American practice because the “moral threshold” had already been crossed by deliberate Allied bombing of German and Japanese civilians well before August 1945. By the June issue, readers were complaining that the Germans and Japanese “did it first” – so to speak – reasoning, apparently, that if one power crosses the moral threshold, then another power has no choice whatsoever about doing the same. Kennedy conceded the point a bit too quickly.

Actually, the moral threshold was crossed in the 1920s in the colonial empires. British aerial bombardments in their informal colony of “Mesopotamia” (now mostly Iraq) in the twenties may be the first example of the new art form. Mr L.S. Amery, Secretary of State for the Colonies, remarked that “[i]f the writ of King Feisal [the British puppet] runs effectively throughout his kingdom, it is entirely due to British aeroplanes. If the aeroplanes were removed tomorrow, the whole structure would inevitably fall to pieces.”1 Italian forces were fairly liberal with bombs in Ethiopia, as were the Japanese in China, both in the early 1930s. Hitler’s Blitzkriegs rested on the coordinated use of airpower, tanks, and infantry; the role of airpower was a tactical one. As sloppy and unconcerned about civilians as they might have been, the point – for them – was to use airpower to defeat the enemy’s armed forces.

Goering’s grandstanding about how the Luftwaffe could win the war with Britain and Hitler’s frustration that England refused to deal with him when he wished their Empire no harm as such (which was true enough, since he wanted to dominate and abuse the Continent), led to German bombing of London and other cities with bombers that were not designed for the task. The result was losses so heavy that the Luftwaffe retired in disarray. Britain, on the other, had designed and built bombers of the type necessary for strategic or carpet bombing, and the Americans followed suit, once they were in the war. For every British civilian killed by German bombing, the Allies killed ten Germans. So, in effect, the Allies crossed that particular moral threshold ten times as often.


This brings me in a roundabout way to an important question which discussions of this sort always imply: is there to be no moral distinction between combatants and civilians and, if not, precisely how many foreign civilians is it permissible to kill off to save the proverbial “one American life”? Judging by some of the commentary in the last two wars – Iraq and Serbia – the ratio approaches infinity. I remember how, at the outset of the Gulf War, excitable patriots wrote into our local newspaper (local, if anything owned by Gannett can properly be said to be “local”) that we must “nuke” Baghdad at once. I’m afraid I never understood that. Perhaps these fellows were victims of unscrupulous rug merchants but couldn’t tell one foreign wog from another. I seriously doubt that swarthy Middle Eastern types had ever laid siege to their condos or blown up their dog.

That same week, a local radio station carried Joe Sobran’s scathing commentary on U.S. obliteration of an Iraqi bomb shelter with about 500 deaths (disguised as a “military target,” no doubt). Scores of outraged citizens called in to complain – about Sobran, not the bombing – and the poor fellow taking the calls was obviously surprised when I said I hoped he’d replay Sobran’s remarks because I thought they were true. (Right on target?)

Perhaps a trained statistician could get at the trend for us based on analysis of the foreign civilian/U.S. combatant ratio found in recent wars. Based on the Serbo-American War, the ratio would be about 2000+/0, but more numbers may yet come in. Unfortunately, this ratio does approach infinity.


Well, fellow patriots, try this on: If it is unthinkable that any American combatant should ever be killed in war, then the best thing we can do is to give up running the world. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about such things. That, or we can take the present moral theory to its logical conclusion. To save that “one American life” we must wipe out the entire population of the enemy-country-of-the-week before they even know (much less “suspect”) that they are at war with us. That would certainly clarify the wog-ratio situation, but perhaps at the risk of making new, added, further, additional, supplementary enemies for ourselves.

As for running the world, we’re not very good at it, we’re not especially qualified for it, and nobody asked us to (leaving aside heroic allies on our payroll, lo! these many years). We have a couple of high-minded public documents – the Declaration of Independence and the actual Constitution – and we acquired a lot of contiguous real estate from sea to shining sea without being entirely scrupulous about our methods. That ought to have been enough. We are good at making stuff. We had a huge and largely free internal market which allowed for plenty of growth, even if special interests hobbled that market as soon as possible with protective tariffs. We had, have, two oceans – count them, one, two – making life difficult and supply-lines long for any would-be invaders other than the Mexicans and those devious Canadians. (They have already infiltrated our cultural apparatus with their actors and comedians, and as for Neil Young, “Southern man don’t need him around, any how.”) I will be told that I have overlooked the foreign airplanes and missiles. Well and good. If we can’t actually defend the place, why do we spend so much money on “defense”? Perhaps those who built the “force structure” around considerations of imperial “reach,” should be fired, possibly to be replaced by those who could devise a strategy of genuine defense. Just a thought.

If we really minded our own business, why would anyone want to send bombers and missiles against us? Sheer envy? Hatred of our sitcoms? Dislike of our so-called culture? But, alas, our current policies make us a lot of enemies. In what may be a sign of the times, Richard K. Betts – described as a real member of the real Council on Foreign Relations – looked into the problem in Foreign Affairs (January-February 1998: “The New Threat of Mass Destruction”). There is no conspiracy here, just good ole CFR doing what it does under cover of openness. Now this is evidently not the same Richard Betts who played lead guitar for the Allman Brothers Band after Duane Allman’s motorcycle wreck. You could defend that Richard Betts, after all, particularly when he took the band in a country direction, a trend he took to its height in his solo album, “Highway Call.” (In Florida, we take the Allman Brothers very seriously.)

No, this Betts worries about disgruntled foreign wogs and governments which, having come up against Uncle’s terrible swift sword once too often, are angry and unhappy and want to lash out at Uncle’s friends, relations, mistresses, and creditors, or at least the American people, right here in our homeland. With the new, cheaper chemical and biological weapons now available, this becomes a nightmare scenario, and Betts spares us nothing by putting “homegrown militias or cults” on his Disgruntled List. This may just reflect the self-centeredness of the elites in that they expect all their enemies and critics to ape Uncle’s methods and go in for “mass destruction,” just because Uncle crossed that moral bridge a while back. (Some observers date Uncle’s commitment to the doctrine of Total War from the 1860s, although, admittedly, Atlanta and Columbia were flammable cities, vulnerable, one imagines, to the first Yankee who didn’t take Smokey’s advice and put his cigarette out properly.) On the other hand, having made so many enemies, Uncle may be right to think that some of them can and will follow his moral example. He trained a lot of them, remember?

What to do, then? Betts observes that having fewer interventions might reduce the problem, but quickly recovers from this lapse towards “isolationism.” No, no, we might be a bit more prudent, of course, but in general we must forge ahead, waist-deep in the Global Big Muddy because an Uncle’s gotta do, what an Uncle’s gotta do. Any how, if we stopped now, it wouldn’t solve the problem, because we’ve already made so many enemies that they will target our homeland no matter what we do now, so we might as well do some of what we’re doing anyway, even if, perhaps, we don’t do quite so much of it. Ergopostpropter, my dear Watson.

So who made this legion of enemies and who gets to suffer from their existence? Not the same folks, I’m afraid. The overgrown Beltway Boy Scouts, striped-pants Northeastern twits, corporate advance-men, and military technicians, who have made these enemies (and imagine even more), expect the American people to fall into formation and march to the tune of a thoroughgoing new system of “civil defense.” Betts says that salvation from the consequences of our leaders’ folly may involve letting these same leaders “[stretch] limits on domestic surveillance.” These leaders just can’t lose and we just can’t win. This resembles the history of 20th-century American “liberalism” generally. Everything they do fails but they always get to demand more money and power to do it over again, and if they fail again – well, I wouldn’t put even paper Weimar Reichsmarks on their ’fessin’ up and resigning their various sinecures and posts.

As I say here from time to time, the Old Right warned us against a foreign policy of endless intervention. One reason they gave – leaving aside blood and treasure lost to wars – was precisely the domestic spill-over, including curtailment of republican liberty. You bet. And watch our for those aeroplanes.

[1] Quoted in L.S. Stavrianos, Global Rift (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981), p. 535.