Make no mistake, America was ruthless in World War II. The national leadership of that era — Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman — demanded unconditional surrender of the nation’s enemies. To achieve that objective, the U.S. military fire-bombed cities in Germany and Japan that killed many tens of thousands of non-combatants. U.S. and Allied armies obliterated the Third Reich. America then dropped two nuclear devices on Japan that killed more tens of thousands.
The much-maligned atom bomb compelled the unconditional surrender of imperial Japan. The result of American ruthlessness led to the creation of two of the most successful democratic countries in the world. But first, the Japanese had to be defeated, come to recognize the fact and then accept the unyielding truth of it. Victory achieved, lasting peace with both countries followed.
Killing on an industrial scale was the means to achieving positive ends. No, I am not suggesting that the U.S. go nuclear to achieve its goals. Nor am I recommending that we return to the days of attempting to “bomb our enemies back into the stone age.” It is now well known that aerial bombardment can have the opposite effect desired. You need only look to current events in Ukraine to see this phenomenon in action.
However, and although no doubt arguable, the ends achieved in World War II may have justified the terrible means used. Unconditional surrender was achieved over the Japanese militarists. Hitler’s malign regime was annihilated. The ruthlessness adopted by Roosevelt and Truman may have been based in their fear of the possible existential threat posed to the American state.
Is America still willing to be ruthless to win? It does not seem so, at least while lacking an existential threat. War-fighting rules of engagement in Afghanistan became restrictive following initial repetitive battlefield successes, especially during the Obama years. The Trump White House subsequently loosened those rules. However, the Taliban cared nothing for the Western humanitarian values and international law that rules of engagement represented, butchering innocents if it served their aims. They did, however, over time, exhibit an unsurprising far greater strength of will and resolve. They were, after all, fighting on their native soil. If the U.S. is constrained by our values and respect for law, what to do?
Union Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman was right: “War is hell.” Killing is required. Innocents will suffer and die. It is tragic. It is brutal. It is bloody. But war was never kind in character. More to the point, war is the result when adversaries fail to settle disputes via reason and compromise. This remains one of the most positive selling points of genuine democracies: They do not war with one another.
With America’s non-democratic enemies, who do not share Western values, the country fights at an enormous disadvantage. Ask any foot soldier who served in either Afghanistan or Iraq or, for that matter, Vietnam. They know the “ground truth,” where life and death hang on a knife edge. The nation can and should mitigate suffering whenever possible and based on values reflected in International Humanitarian Law.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
However, assuming a just war, should the U.S. permit those admirable impulses to overwhelm war-fighting objectives if losing the conflict is the result? It is a pressing question in desperate search of an answer. War’s desired end state can be humanitarian in character, but the means — killing — never will be. Can these two truths come to occupy the same political space?
Uniformed U.S. citizens in Afghanistan fought legally and honorably, at least by way of comparison with their adversaries, who did not choose to follow the well-meaning edicts of the post-World War II Geneva Convention signed in 1949. In other words, America’s sub-state enemy, the Taliban, was utterly ruthless and committed, and the U.S. was not. Although not the whole story, this fact contributed to our defeat. The question that this administration and those to come must answer is, can America successfully prosecute a like war in future without embracing a greater degree of ruthlessness?
Robert Bruce Adolph is a former senior Army Special Forces soldier and United Nations security chief. In May 2022, he served as mission leader for a multinational team in support of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Ukraine. To learn more, visit his website at robertbruceadolph.com.