Monday, October 11, 2010

Clouds of War

We don’t know where the electron is. All we know is its probability of being, well, inside this cloud, right here. Statistics conquers all. Based on the most recent orthodoxy, there are no “laws” of nature—only high and low probabilities that matter will behave in certain ways. True. The probabilities that I will fall when I walk out of the tenth story window of this building, right here, are extraordinarily close to one. But in theory at least—meaning that it is permissible to think this—somewhere, sometime, a million years ago but, for that matter, perhaps tomorrow, someone will go on a walk and start rising into the air, getting ever more desperate, until, not even visible to the naked eye of his dog, who lives by other odds, he gets into the stratospheres where the oxygen’s no more.

Destruction at a distance is my subject, actually. It is associated with artillery, bombing, and drones. In David McCullough’s biography, Truman, Truman is quoted as saying (p. 439 of the 1992 Touchstone edition), “It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.” Reasonable estimates from Japanese sources put deaths in Nagasaki at 87,000, in Hiroshima at 90,000, suggesting that the trade of 177,000 for 250,000 was numerically the better bet—provided, of course, that the same probabilities applied in both cases and that only two cases were possible—an atomic attack or the slow grind of warfare on land. It wasn’t at all certain that a quarter of a million Americans would die; different strategies might have kept numbers much lower; that around 170,000 Japanese civilians, among them a small number of Japanese soldiers and sailors, would be boiled, burned, and blasted to ash—that was a great deal more probable. The case is further “clouded” by the fact that the civilian inhabitants of the two Japanese cities (and surely some were children) were not, as it were, organized state forces opposing that flower of our manhood.

The third way might have been to stop U.S. advances and to tighten what was no doubt a serious blockade of the island of Japan. Time would have eventually produced a Japanese surrender. Japan was already on its last leg. But inside the vast clouds of public opinion, impatient expectations, and the mood of the times generally, the rational solution wasn’t even contemplated.

Destruction at a distance by an explosive device—or bio-bomb—treats opposing states as if they were single bodies made up of cells and directed by a single mind. Therefore the laws of war have been obsoleted by another rather questionable and very nebulous theory under which non-combatants, not least children, are combatants, become combatants by the mere fact of belonging to the enemy domain.

We don’t know where the enemy is. All we know is its probability of being, well, inside these borders here. Shock and awe will do it.

Thinking of drones, it occurs to me that small numbers of casualties and shielding verbiage, as in collateral damage, in no way change the underlying moral situation in any way. I ought to withhold a carefully calculated amount from my income taxes because drones are immoral; I am, after all, as a U.S. citizen, directly responsible. But it turns out that the amount I should withhold gets washed out by the mere fact that TurboTax rounds numbers before submitting them to big brother, one of whose obedient cells I happen to be.

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