When U.S. military forces dropped atomic bombs on Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 275,000 men, women, and children were killed. Ever since, the killings have been justified by the claim that the bombings shortened the war and, therefore, saved the lives of American servicemen.
Actually, the bombings constituted war crimes for which the perpetrators should have been tried and sufficiently punished.
In war, there are standards of behavior to which civilized nations must adhere, even when fighting barbarians. Prohibited acts include: rape; pillage; torture and killing of prisoners; and the intentional killing of noncombatants. Traditionally, in war, armies fight armies. To the extent possible, it is impermissible to kill civilians, especially unarmed ones.
Suppose an infantry battalion enters an enemy city. The enemy soldiers have retreated. Left behind are their wives and children. The murder of the women and children will demoralize the enemy soldiers, encouraging them to lose their will to fight. Should the infantry commander order his troops to shoot the women and children?
“But that is different,” the critic says. “Dropping a bomb on women and children is not the same as shooting them in cold blood.” How is it different? Simply because the bomber, unlike the infantryman, cannot look his victims in the eye before he kills them?
“But I would have died if we had had to invade Japan,” the critic claims. And so? Everyone dies, some sooner than others. And soldiers are apt to die sooner than the rest. That is the nature of war. It is a nasty business. The soldier who wants defenseless women and children killed so that his life can be extended is certainly no hero. In fact, he is simply a coward. And a soldier with that mind-set dishonors a battlefield with his mere presence.
If rape shortens a war, is it moral for a commander to order it? Pillage? Torture, mutilation, or killing of prisoners? No. These constitute war crimes. The same holds true for the intentional killing of noncombatants. A civilized nation does not stoop to the level of its enemy, not even in war.