I need someone to explain something to me. It’s a moral question, so naturally I need help.

Sixty five years ago we fought a war with Japan following their attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a matter of a few months we were burning down Japanese cities. The Japanese of that era favored wood construction and we dropped incendiary bombs. Later, when the technology became available, we dropped atomic bombs.

You can argue one way or the other whether there were significant, legitimate military targets in each and every case, but let’s take it as granted that there were. Nevertheless, incendiaries in packed cities full of wood houses, I think we knew what would result. I think we knew the firestorms might suck the oxygen from the lungs of children as well as adults, women as well as men, opponents and supporters of the regime alike.

Fair enough so far?

Question: were we right or wrong to do it?

Don’t try to fall back on “war of necessity.” That’s a bullshit distinction. After we had pushed the Japanese back past Midway they ceased being an active threat to the US. We could quite easily, and at far less cost in lives and cash, have instituted a regime of containment. We could have said, “You guys stay on that side of the Pacific, we’ll stay over here and build a huge Navy, and what goes on between you and the Chinese, or you and various French colonies, is your business.”

We didn’t do that. We chased the Japanese all the way back to Japan, burned their country down around their ears, occupied them, put an American general in charge as a demi-god, wrote them a constitution and put a gun to their heads and said, “sign here.”

Were we right or wrong to do it?

Well, it worked out pretty well, didn’t it? Not so well for the people who died, not so well for the people who were burned, but in the grand geopolitical scheme of things, pretty well.

I’m not much of a moralist, I tend to be a pragmatist. And I’m enough of a chauvinist to conclude that in a straight-up choice I’ll value an American life more highly than someone else’s. But I’m not pushing the ends-justify-the-means argument as true in every situation. I’m asking if it was right or wrong to burn Japan in view of their attack, in view of the continuing pillage they’d have inflicted on Asia, and yes, as an element of the equation, the fact that it seems to have worked.

And I’m asking for a reason. Because any time I suggest that we might have to consider a similar form of warfare in dealing with Islamic extremism, Islamofascism, jihadism, call it what you like, I get shocked looks and cries of anguish.

We have two ideas at cross-purposes: First, that we are all in terrible danger, it’s a war for survival, we’re losing, help, help us please God. Second: we’re doing all we can, we can do no more.

Well, we’re clearly not doing all we can, which is what I’d think we’d be doing if we really believed we were in a war for survival. Cry havoc and let slip the puppies of war? I wonder whether we have taken real war off the table. I want to know whether real war is even an option any more. Not saying let’s do it tomorrow, not arguing it’s usefulness in this situation, I’m asking what arrows we have in our quiver.

So, going back to burning down Japan. Setting aside the strategic advisability of it for the moment, setting aside whether it would work, we can debate that another time, could we burn down Islamabad or Tehran or Mecca? Could we in theory? Could we do it and feel okay about it 65 years later? Or are we now evolved past the point where we have the stomach for terrible deeds in defense of our nation?

Is the western way of war, war of annihilation, still on the table? Or not? If not, why do we sttill own thousands of nuclear warheads?

If your answer is no, we don’t do that anymore: were we right or wrong to do it 65 years ago? If wrong, what changed in 65 years? Explain, because as a moral question, setting aside strategy, I don’t get it.

(cross-posted from Sideways Mencken.)

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