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Justifiable Terrorism in Total Wars

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Justifiable Terrorism in Total Wars

Molly Thomson
201311503
Political Science 1000-03
March 18th, 2014

The word ‘terrorism’ instantly makes people shudder; the negative connotations and controversies surrounding terrorism in modern society are enough to spark a discussion of whether it is justifiable or not. In order to determine whether or not terrorism can be justified, a clear definition must be decided upon. Decades before the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, the definition of the word terrorism was hard to define. Political figures around the globe argued and disagreed on what they thought should have determined the act of terrorism. Now, there are multiple different definitions originating from distinct cultures and societies, suggesting that terrorism is in the eye of the victim. One definition of terrorism is “any violent or criminal act planned for a political or ideological purpose”; while another claims that terrorism is understood to be a direct attack on innocents. Since both of these definitions have important components to them, it can be assumed that both traits are essential to defining terrorism. For the purpose of this paper, the definition of terrorism will be understood as ‘a violent attack on innocents for the purpose of political change’. It can be hard for most people to understand the act of injuring and/or killing hundreds, or maybe even tens of thousands of people, as justifiable. However, if the innocents are seen as legitimate targets, the violent acts of terrorism can be carried out without justification. In order for innocent people to be perceived as legitimate targets or combatants, there must be a defined situation of total war. Total war is a type of warfare where a state or a nation battling and fighting with another, mobilizing all accessible resources and population to aid in the battles and the overall victory. For example, during World War II, all countries involved were deploying their civilian populations to work in factories and shipping yards, making sure that all necessary equipment and supplies were manufactured and shipped to their soldiers. The non-combatants who still resided in their own country were seen as participants in the war, becoming legitimate targets along with the soldiers who were fighting for their homes and families. Therefore, it is during times of total war, where nations are at war with other nations, where acts of terrorism can be justified. World War II is the most recent example of a total war; with the last attacks in 1945, it is the most modern example of a ‘world at war’. The Allied forces (Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia, France, etc.) were engaged with the Axis forces (Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan) and won some of the final and deciding battles of World War II. One attack that can be considered as a justifiable act of terrorism was the bombing of Dresden, Germany, 1945. Before the attack on Dresden, allied forces had developed a strategic type of bombing that could destroy cities of large sizes. By dropping bombs, followed my incendiary devices composed of flammable and explosive materials, the results were massive firestorms that could rage across entire cities for days, causing a tremendous amount of destruction. This was known as firebombing. Dresden was an industrial city, and at the time, was home to many refugees seeking sanctuary from further east. Like most industrial cities and towns during WWII, many of the civilians were working in factories, making bombs and other weapons for the Germans and Italians to use against the Allied forces.
When the British Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces decided to bomb Dresden from the thirteenth to the fifteenth of February, they knew they were going to destroy an important German city with over half a million civilians and countless refugees. In addition to the destruction, the Allied forces knew they were most likely instilling fear and terror into the German population by using an extreme form of violence, all to seek political change (in this case, the end of the war). These two forces were trying to break the civilians’ will by killing over 100,000 people, causing the remaining population to say to their governments that they had had enough. From a German point of view, this was an act of terrorism; killing tens of thousands of civilians in an effort to end the war. To the British and the Americans, it was a legitimate attack, because WWII was a total war, and those living in Dresden were considered combatants in the war. They were just as susceptible to an attack as the soldiers on the front lines. The bombing of Dresden was one of the last attacks of the war in Europe, but in August of 1945, four months after the Germans surrendered, the war in the Pacific between the United States and Japan was still ongoing. After a massive number of firebombings across Japan, the United States dropped the first ever atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Three days later on August 9th, the U.S. dropped the second and last ever atomic bomb used in warfare on Nagasaki, Japan. Both of the bombings resulted in over 250,000 deaths; some were instantaneous, while other suffered and died later on from radiation poisoning, burns, and other prolonging injuries. While Hiroshima was an industrial city with a few military units used for holding soldiers before transferring them out to sea, Nagasaki was an important pier for exporting products such as automobiles, steel and metal work, and electrical goods – neither of these cities held a significant military base or unit. Compared to the bombings of Dresden, it is fact that there were military personnel present during the attacks on Dresden, and the lack thereof in Hiroshima and Nagasaki brings out the ethical issue of being able to justify the attack due to the Americans targeting cities with little or no military forces present.
It can still be argued that the Americans targeted the cities they did for other reasons besides the lack of military enforcement. Hiroshima held soldiers before being deployed into action, making the city an excellent target for the U.S.; stopping the Japanese naval forces from gaining their new recruits. Nagasaki was not an initial target, due to its proximity to the ocean, but became a target when the Americans realized that most metals and electrical supplies (used to make planes and weapons systems) were being exported from Nagasaki. Nagasaki itself had no military significance, yet the nuclear bomb drop killed over 80,000 civilians. To the Japanese, this attack killed one percent of their overall population, and wiped out two important industrial cities that could not be restored right away due to the unknown severity of the damage of radiation poisoning. The Americans believed that they were in the right, because their acts caused the Japanese to surrender to the Allies rather quickly. The ethical discussion of justifying the Americans’ attack against the Japanese is still quite controversial. Yet, the fundamental ideologies of total war seem to support the Americans and their perception that the civilians working in shipyards, factories, and essentially everyone else who was supporting the Japanese in their war efforts, were just as much a part of the war as their own soldiers. All other major attacks during WWII are seen as horrific, exaggerated uses of military violence against others, but not all of them can be deemed as a justifiable terrorism. For example, the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour, a naval base in Hawaii, was the attack that led the Americans in joining WWII, both in the Pacific battles against the Japanese and the war in Europe against Nazi Germany and Italy. This devastating attack cannot be deemed as a justifiable act of terrorism, because the Japanese were clearly attacking a naval base by dropping bombs and firing torpedoes at possible military enemy, who became a belligerent after the attack. It was one organized, military force attacking another. If there were civilians killed in Pearl Harbour, it was still not considered to be a terrorist act because those civilians were not the target. In no way could the men and women working at Pearl Harbour be seen as non-combatants; they were part of a military force that was considered to be a threat to Japanese and the control they held over the Pacific Ocean. “It still might be justified under certain conditions, but such a justification does not change the fact that in an act of terrorism the rights of those innocents who should not be attacked are violated. It only means that in some dire circumstances certain rights violations can be justified as the lesser evil.” This quote from Steinhoff’s On the Ethics of War and Terrorism ratifies the argument that attacking those involved in the efforts of a total war can be seen as a legitimate target. This lesser evil is understood to be the non-combatants of the Axis states, rather than Germany, Italy, or Japan invading and conquering Allied nations. Essentially, the Allied forces knew they would be killing civilians. However, in total war, those civilians are seen as combatants and legitimate targets because they were responsible for the manufacturing and shipping of these deadly arms to the front lines. There hasn’t been a real-life example of a total war since World War II, making it somewhat difficult for us, in 2014, to justify terrorist acts in general. There remains a high amount of controversy surrounding international terrorism today, because it is only in times of total war, where innocents can be seen or perceived as part of the war effort, that acts of terrorism can be justified.

Works Cited

Nathanson, Stephen. Terrorism and the Ethics of War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Suter, K. “What is Terrorism,” British Army Review 56 (1977): 66-72. Accessed March 15, 2014. Web. http://www.ncjrs.gov/App/abstractdb/AbstractDBDetails.aspx?id=79267 Steinhoff, Uwe. On the Ethics of War and Terrorism. Oxford: Oxford University Press Inc., 2007.
Addison, Paul and Crang, Jeremy A., eds. Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945. London: Pimlico, 2006.
Langley, Andrew. Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Fire from the Sky. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2006.
Other References
Eubank, W. and Weinberg, L. “Terrorism and Democracy: Perpetrators and Victims,” Terrorism and Political Violence 13 (2001): 155-164. Accessed March 15, 2014. doi: 10.1080/0956550109609674
Van Evera, Stephen. “The War on Terror: Forgotten Lessons from World War II,” The Audit of Conventional Wisdom 6 (2006). Accessed March 16, 2014. http://web.mit.edu/cis/pdf/Audit_10_06b_VanEvera.pdf

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. Nathanson, Stephen. Terrorism and the Ethics of War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
[ 2 ]. Suter, K. “What is Terrorism,” British Army Review 56 (1977): 66-72. Accessed March 15, 2014. Web.
[ 3 ]. Steinhoff, Uwe. On the Ethics of War and Terrorism. Oxford: Oxford University Press Inc., 2007.
[ 4 ]. Addison, Paul and Crang, Jeremy A., eds. Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945. London: Pimlico, 2006.
[ 5 ]. Addison and Crang, Firestorm.
[ 6 ]. Langley, Andrew. Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Fire from the Sky. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2006.
[ 7 ]. Langley, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
[ 8 ]. Langley, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
[ 9 ]. Steinhoff, On the Ethics of War and Terrorism.…...

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