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Monday, October 12, 2015

Debating the Morality of Hiroshima

Each year at this time — the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima — the world pauses. The pause is less to mourn the dead than to debate a moral question: whether the bombing was justified and, by extension, whether the United States unnecessarily slaughtered tens of thousands of people on Aug. 6, 1945. The debate rarely focuses on a careful analysis of war and morality and is more frequently framed by existing views of the United States. The debate is rarely about Hiroshima or about World War II. It is a debate about the moral character of the United States. This is not an illegitimate subject, and Hiroshima might be a useful point with which to begin the debate. But that isn't possible until after we consider the origins of Hiroshima, which can be found in the evolution of modern warfare.

Innovations in Industrial Warfare

Warfare became industrial for a simple reason. The introduction of firearms brought to the battlefield a weapon with tremendous strength and an overwhelming weakness. The strength was the ability to kill or disable an enemy at distances far beyond the range of previous weapons. The weakness was that without extraordinary training and talent on the part of the soldier, firearms are quite inaccurate. For a soldier under the pressure of combat, loading and effectively aiming his weapon — particularly with muzzle-loaded firearms — was not an easy task.
To compensate for the inaccuracy of firearms, larger forces could all fire at the same time. Simultaneous firing increased the probability of inflicting casualties on the enemy, and simultaneity, choreographed as it was in multiple lines of troops — with some firing, some waiting and some reloading — maintained near-continuous fire. The solution on the other side was more soldiers pouring more fire on their enemy. Thus, the inaccuracy of a deadly weapon required ever-larger armies.
It also required increasing innovations in weaponry. Firearms evolved from muzzleloaders to breechloaders, then those able to hold clips of multiple rounds and finally the machine gun, which compensated for its own inaccuracy per shot by saturating the horizon with bullets. It was said that in World War I it required 10,000 bullets to kill one soldier. I have no idea where this calculation came from, but it was true in essence. Given the inaccuracy of most riflemen, masses of them were needed. The machine gun made riflemen far more effective.
The approach to warfare that made it less efficient is at the heart of the real issue leading to Hiroshima. Armies surged in size and had to be equipped. Rifles and machine guns were not the work of master smiths but had to be mass-produced in factories, as did a wide range of products needed to support multimillion-man armies. These factories were the key enablers of war. Killing one solder eliminated one rifle, but destroying a factory eliminated the combat power of large numbers of soldiers. Therefore, destroying factories mass-producing the means of war was the most efficient counter to the massed armies made necessary by inaccurate weapons. These factories typically were in cities. In order to function, they had to have efficient transportation links with other factories manufacturing precursor parts, and thus tended to be located near other factories, transportation hubs, and their workers and the systems that employees needed to live and work — houses, grocery stores, schools and so on.
Master military strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued that the key to war was to attack the center of gravity of the enemy's capacity to wage war. By World War I, the center of gravity was no longer the army but the factories and the workers who produced the engines of war. The distinction between soldier and civilian, critical to all modern notions of military morality, dissolved. The ability to wage war disappeared when the factories did. But given the location of factories, by necessity in cities, any attack on these factories would kill not only workers but also their children, and the milkman's children. This was, by definition, total war — the only war that could be waged in the industrial age.
At the outset of World War I, there was no way to destroy war-critical factories or populations from a distance. But as with most things, a problem found a solution close at hand. Aircraft made their appearance on the European battlefield during World War I — first as observation planes, then as fighters tasked with shooting down observation planes, and then as bombers tasked with destroying targets identified by reconnaissance aircraft.

Targeting the Industrial Plant

Geopolitically, it was clear that World War I had not solved the fundamental problem of Europe and that another war was inevitable. Among those who believed this were the theorists of air power. Chief among these was Giulio Douhet, an Italian who thought through the reality of war at the time and concluded that the chief solution would be the destruction of the enemy's war-making capacity. Douhet believed this would best be achieved by aircraft attacking cities en masse and destroying them. Joined in this view by the American Gen. Billy Mitchell and Britain's Hugh Trenchard, Douhet argued that the key to warfare was to use large numbers of massed bombers to annihilate cities. This would achieve two things: It would destroy the enemy's industrial plant and trigger a revolt by the public against the government. Because both sides would have massed bombers, the key to war was to launch attacks greater than the enemy's potential response by both having a larger air force and destroying the enemy's ability to produce more aircraft.
The inter-war air strategists were in part shaped by the carnage they saw in protracted trench warfare. Douhet believed that the role of air power was almost purely offensive, requiring rapid and destructive attacks against first the opposing forces' aircraft and then against civilian industrial and commercial centers. Trenchard, like Douhet, saw air power as a strategic and valuable force. Where Trenchard differed from his Italian contemporary was in considering ground forces still important and suggesting joint ground and air operations against enemy airfields. Early American air theorists, including Mitchell and the Army Air Corps Tactical School, viewed the role of strategic bombing as targeted against the war-making capacity of the enemy, rather than against the enemy morale, as Douhet and some European counterparts considered. Mitchell saw attacks on industry, communications and transportation as the real objectives of strategic air power and saw the armies in the field as false objectives.
Douhet implicitly recognized the weakness of aircraft, which was the same as the weakness of rifles: They were extremely imprecise. In 1940, when the British began launching attacks on Germany, the imprecision of the bomber was so great that German intelligence could not figure out what they were trying to bomb. Only massing bombers and destroying cities would work.
The Germans used this dual strategy in the Battle of Britain. They failed both because of lack of sufficient weapons and an air force not designed for strategic bombardment (which is what attacks on cities were called) but for tactical support for ground warfare. The British adopted nighttime area bombardment, making no secret that their goal was the destruction of cities to suppress production and generate political opposition.
The United States took a different approach: precision daylight bombardment. The Army Air Corps Tactical School sought to make bombing more efficient by finding and identifying bottlenecks in the opponent's supply chain. Targeting the bottleneck would reduce the total number of bombers, men and bombs needed to achieve the same ultimate goal as large city bombing. The Americans felt that they could solve the problem of inaccuracy and total attacks on cities through technology. They developed the Norden bombsight, which was supposed to enable the dropping of iron bombs with precision. The bombsights were delivered to the planes by armed guard, and the bombardier was ordered to destroy the bombsight at all costs if shot down. Regardless of this technology, U.S. bombing was not much more accurate than the deliberate randomness of the British.
By the time the air war focused on Japan, there were no illusions that there was precision in bombing. Curtis LeMay, who commanded U.S. air forces in the Pacific, adopted the British strategy of nighttime attacks with incendiary bombs. On the night of March 9, 1945, 279 B-29s conducted an incendiary bombing attack on Tokyo that destroyed more than 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) of the city and killed an estimated 100,000 people.
The Tokyo bombing followed Douhet's logic. So did the creation of the atomic bomb. Douhet's point that destroying cities was the key to winning wars drove Allied strategy against Germany and in Japan. The atomic bomb was a radically new weapon technologically, but in terms of military doctrine it was simply a logical step forward in the destruction of cities. The effects of radiation were poorly understood at the time, but even with acute radiation deaths included the death toll was less than 166,000 in Hiroshima. The development of the atomic bomb was one of the greatest scientific undertakings of all time, but it was not needed to destroy cities. That was already being done. The atomic bomb simply was a way to accomplish the goal using only one plane and several billion dollars.

Hiroshima's Aftermath

The Japanese themselves were not certain what happened in Hiroshima. Many of Japan's leaders dismissed U.S. claims of a new type of bomb, thinking that this was simply a continuation of the conventional destructions of cities. It was one of the reasons that no decision on surrender was made. The Japanese were prepared to live with extraordinary casualties. The firebombing of Tokyo did not lead to talk of surrender. And the argument was that since Hiroshima was not a special case, it did not warrant surrender. Recent research into archives shows that the Japanese were not planning on surrender. True, Japan had put out diplomatic feelers, but it is often forgotten that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in the midst of negotiations. It is in this context that feelers have to be considered.
There are those who are confident that the Japanese would have surrendered without the bombing of Hiroshima. But they did not surrender because of the Tokyo bombing. Submarine warfare — not just bombing — had crippled Japan's industry, but this had been the case for many months. And the example of Okinawa, with its kamikaze attacks and civilian resistance to the death, was sobering. You and I may know what was coming, but President Harry S. Truman did not have the luxury.
There are two defenses from a military perspective, then, of the American bombing. One is that no one at the time could be certain of what the Japanese were going to do because a reading of the record shows that even after Hiroshima, even the Japanese didn't know what they were going to do. Second, a doctrine and reality of war was unfolding — a process that began hundreds of years earlier. But those who would challenge these defenses are compelled to explain how they would have dealt with monstrous regimes like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
The focus on Hiroshima is morally justifiable only in the context of condemning several centuries of military development. It can be condemned, but I don't know what difference it makes. The logic of the musket played itself out ineluctably to Hiroshima. But the core reality that played out was this: Over time, the distinction between military and civilian became untenable. War fighting began in the factory and ended with the soldier at the front. The soldier was a capillary. The arteries of war were in the city.
There is a tendency in our time to demand that someone do something about evil. There is a willful denial of the truth that anything that is done requires actions that are evil. The moral lesson of Hiroshima is twofold. The first is that military doctrine, like other things, is ruthlessly logical. The second is that in confronting Germany and Japan, moral purity was impossible, save for the end being pursued, which was destroying the prior evil. President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the logic of strategy and the logic of morality, in my opinion. For him, choices were shaped by military doctrine and the nature of the evil he faced. Truman had even less choice.
Hiroshima was an act that flowed logically from history, and we cannot in retrospect claim to know what the Japanese would or would not have done. However, I think that had I been there, knowing what was known then — or even what is known now — I would have been trapped in a logic that ultimately justified itself: Japan surrendered, and Asia was saved from a great evil. 
"Debating the Morality of Hiroshima is republished with permission of Stratfor."

Israel: The Case Against Attacking Iran

On Aug. 21, Israeli Channel 2 Television aired a recording of Ehud Barak, Israel's former defense minister and former prime minister, saying that on three separate occasions, Israel had planned to attack Iran's nuclear facilities but canceled the attacks. According to Barak, in 2010 Israel's chief of staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, refused to approve an attack plan. Israeli Cabinet members Moshe Yaalon and Yuval Steinitz backed out of another plan, and in 2012 an attack was canceled because it coincided with planned U.S.-Israeli military exercises and a visit from then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The fact that the interview was released at all is odd. Barak claimed to have believed that the tape would not be aired, and he supposedly tried unsuccessfully to stop the broadcast. It would seem that Barak didn't have enough clout to pressure the censor to block it, which I suppose is possible. 
Yaalon, like Ashkenazi, was once chief of staff of Israel Defense Forces but was also vice premier and Barak's successor as defense minister. Steinitz had been finance minister and was vocal in his concerns about Iran. What Barak is saying, therefore, is that a chief of staff and a vice premier and former chief of staff blocked the planned attacks. As to the coinciding of a U.S.-Israeli exercise with a planned attack, that is quite puzzling, because such exercises are planned well in advance. Perhaps there was some weakness in Iranian defenses that opened and closed periodically, and that drove the timing of the attack. Or perhaps Barak was just confusing the issue.
A number of points are worth noting: Ehud Barak is not a man to speak casually about highly classified matters, certainly not while being recorded. Moreover, the idea that Barak was unable to persuade the military censor to block the airing of the recording is highly improbable. For some reason, Barak wanted to say this, and he wanted it broadcast.
Part of the reason might have been to explain why Israel, so concerned about Iran, didn't take action against Iran's nuclear facilities. Given the current debate in the U.S. Congress, that is a question that is undoubtedly being asked. The explanation Barak is giving seems to be that senior military and defense officials blocked the plans and that the Israelis didn't want to upset the Americans by attacking during a joint exercise. The problem with this explanation is that it is well known that Israeli military and intelligence officials had argued against an Israeli strike and that the United States would have been upset whether or not joint exercises were occurring.
It would seem, intentionally or unintentionally, that Barak is calling Israeli attention to two facts. The first is that militarily taking out Iranian facilities would be difficult, and the second is that attempting to do so would affect relations with Israel's indispensible ally, the United States. Military leaders' opposition to the strikes had been rumored and hinted at in public statements by retired military and intelligence heads; Barak is confirming that those objections were the decisive reason Israel did not attack. The military was not sure it could succeed.

The Potential for Disastrous Failure

A military operation, like anything else in life, must be judged in two ways. First, what are the consequences of failure? Second, how likely is failure? Take, for example, the failure of the U.S. hostage rescue operation in 1980. Apart from the obvious costs, the failure gave the Iranian government reason to reduce its respect for U.S. power and thus potentially emboldened Iran to take more risks. Even more important, it enhanced the reputation of the Iranian government in the eyes of its people, both demonstrating that the United States threatened Iranian sovereignty and increasing the credibility of the government's ability to defend Iran. Finally, it eroded confidence in U.S. political and military leaders among the U.S. public. In reducing the threat and the perception of threat, the failure of the operation gave the Iranian regime more room to maneuver.
For the Israelis, the price of failure in an attack on Iranian nuclear sites would have been substantial. One of Israel's major strategic political assets is the public's belief in its military competence. Forged during the 1967 war, the IDF's public image has survived a number of stalemates and setbacks. A failure in Iran would damage that image even if, in reality, the military's strength remained intact. Far more important, it would, as the failed U.S. operation did in 1980, enhance Iran's position. Given the nature of the targets, any attack would likely require a special operations component along with airstrikes, and any casualties, downed pilots or commandos taken prisoner would create an impression of Israeli weakness contrasting with Iranian strength. That perception would be an immeasurable advantage for Iran in its efforts to accrue power in the region. Thus for Israel, the cost of failure would be extreme.
This must be measured against the possibility of success. In war, as in everything, the most obvious successes can evolve into failure. There were several potential points for failure in an attack on Iran. How confident were the Israelis that their intelligence on locations, fortifications and defenses were accurate? How confident were they that they could destroy the right targets? More important, perhaps, how certain could they be that the strikes had destroyed the targets? Finally, and most important, did they know what Iran's recuperative capabilities were? How quickly could the Iranians restore their program? Frequently, an operationally successful assault does not deal with the strategic problem. The goal of an attack was to make Iran incapable of building a nuclear weapon; would destroying all known targets achieve that strategic goal?
One of the things to bear in mind is that the Iranians were as obsessed with Israeli and U.S. intelligence efforts as the Israelis and Americans were obsessed with the Iranian programs. Iran's facilities were built to be protected from attack. The Iranians were also sophisticated in deception; knowing that they were being watched, they made efforts to confuse and mislead their observers. The Israelis could never be certain that they were not deceived by every supposedly reliable source, every satellite image and every intercepted phone call. Even if only one or two sources of information were actually misleading, which sources were they?
A failed Israeli assault on Iran would cause a major readjustment among other regional players in the way they perceive Israel and Iran. And for Israel, the perception of its military effectiveness is a strategic asset. There was a high risk of damaging that strategic asset in a failed operation, coupled with a strong chance that Israeli actions could unintentionally bolster Iran's power in the region. The likelihood of success was thrown into question by Israel's dependence on intelligence. In war, intelligence failure is a given. The issue is how great the failure will be — and there is no way to know until after the strike. Furthermore, operational success may not yield strategic success. Therefore, the ratio of potential risk versus reward argued against an attack.

Considering Iran's Capabilities

There is another side to this equation: What exactly were the Iranians capable of? As I have argued before, enriched uranium is a necessary but insufficient component for a nuclear weapon. It is enough to create a device that can be detonated underground in controlled conditions. But the development of a weapon, as opposed to a device, requires extensive technology in miniaturization and ruggedization to ensure the weapon reaches its target. Those who fixated on progress in uranium enrichment failed to consider the other technologies necessary to create nuclear weaponry. Some, including myself, argued that the constant delays in completing a weapon were rooted both in the lack of critical technologies and in Iranian concerns about the consequence of failure.
Then there is the question of timing. A nuclear weapon would be most vulnerable at the moment it was completed and mounted on its delivery system. At that point, it would no longer be underground, and the Israelis would have an opportunity to strike when Iranians were in the process of marrying the weapon to the delivery device. Israel, and to an even greater extent the United States, has reconnaissance capabilities. The Iranians know that the final phase of weapon development is when they most risk detection and attack. The Israelis may have felt that, as risky as a future operation may seem, it was far less likely to fail than a premature attack.

Barak's Motivations

Whether intentionally or not (and I suspect intentionally) Barak was calling attention, not to prior plans for an attack on Iran, but to the decision to abandon those plans. He pointed out that an Israeli chief of staff blocked one plan, a former chief of staff blocked a second plan and concern for U.S. sensibilities blocked a third. To put it in different terms, the Israelis considered and abandoned attacks on Iran on several occasions, when senior commanders or Cabinet members with significant military experience refused to approve the plan. Unmentioned was that neither the prime minister nor the Cabinet overruled them. Their judgment — and the judgment of many others — was that an attack shouldn't be executed, at least not at that time.
Barak's statement can be read as an argument for sanctions. If the generals have insufficient confidence in an attack, or if an attack can be permanently canceled because of an exercise with the Americans, then the only option is to increase sanctions. But Barak also knows that pain will not always bring capitulation. Sanctions might be politically satisfying to countries unable to achieve their ends through military action or covert means. As Barak undoubtedly knows, imposing further restrictions on Iran's economy makes everyone feel something useful is being done. But sanctions, like military action, can produce unwelcome results. Measures far more painful than economic sanctions still failed to force capitulation in the United Kingdom or Germany, and did so in Japan only after atomic weapons were used. The bombing of North Vietnam did not cause capitulation. Sanctions on South Africa did work, but that was a deeply split nation with a majority in favor of the economic measures. Sanctions have not prompted Russia to change its policy. Imposing pain frequently unites a country and empowers the government. Moreover, unless sanctions rapidly lead to a collapse, they would not give Iran any motivation not to complete a nuclear weapon.
I don't think Barak was making the case for sanctions. What he was saying is that every time the Israelis thought of military action against Iran, they decided not to do it. And he wasn't really saying that the generals, ministers or the Americans blocked it. In actuality, he was saying that ultimately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked it, because in the end, Netanyahu was in a position to force the issue if he wanted to. Barak was saying that Israel did not have a military option. He was not attacking Netanyahu for this decision; he was simply making it known. 
It's unlikely that Barak believes sanctions will compel Iran to abandon its nuclear program, any more the current agreement does. My guess is that for him, both are irrelevant. Either the Iranians do not have the ability or desire to build a bomb, or there will come a point when they can no longer hide the program — and that is the point when they will be most vulnerable to attack. It is at that moment, when the Iranians are seen arming a delivery system, that an Israeli or U.S. submarine will fire a missile and end the issue.
If Barak didn't want a strike on Iran, if Netanyahu didn't want a strike and if Barak has no confidence in agreements or sanctions, then Barak must have something in mind for dealing with an Iranian nuclear weapon — if it ever does appear. Barak is an old soldier who knows how to refrain from firing until he is most certain of success, even if the delay makes everyone else nervous. He is not a believer in diplomatic solutions, gestures to indirectly inflict pain or operations destined for failure. At any rate, he has revealed that Israel did not have an effective military option to hamper Iran's nuclear program. And I find it impossible to believe he would rely on sanctions or diplomacy. Rather, he would wait to strike until Iran had committed to arming a delivery system, leaving itself wide open to attack — a nerve-racking solution, but one with the best chance of success.  
Israel: The Case Against Attacking Iran is republished with permission of Stratfor.