Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Human Smoke: Review

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII and the End of Civilization is a haunting and sometimes horrifying revisionist look at the lead up to and early years of the Second World War. The book is composed entirely of small vignettes (ranging in length from a paragraph to a few pages) drawn from newspaper accounts, diaries, memoirs, official documents, and other largely contemporary sources. While this style leaves little room for direct argumentation, the main theses of the book are fairly clear and may be summarized as follows:

1. The Allies during WWII (particularly Britain) engaged in numerous atrocities, violations of civil liberties, etc. during the war, and in some cases did so before the Germans.

2. The leaders of the Allied powers (particularly FDR and Churchill) wanted war, and in the case of FDR did everything in his power to provoke an attack.

3. That the Allied powers didn’t particularly care about the Jews, and that the Holocaust could have been averted had the United States and Britain allowed Jews to immigrate as refugees (something which was considered but rejected).

4. That Hitler was a madman in the literal sense of the term. Continue reading

April 19, 2009 Posted by | History, War and Peace | 1 Comment


Valkyrie tells the story of the 20 July plot to kill Hitler carried out by German officers in the summer of 1944. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the central figure in both the organization and execution of the plot.

I thought the film was executed well. It manages to maintain suspense despite the fact that for most of the movie not that much is actually happening, and while I can’t call the film especially insightful or moving, the compelling nature of the subject matter does a lot to carry the film forward.

Watching the film did raise two issues , neither of which (for understandable reasons) were explored in the film, but which may warrant further reflection.

The first has to do with the nature of oaths. After Hitler came to power in 1933, he required all German officers to swear an oath of loyalty to him personally. In many cases, it appears that one of the things holding a given officer back from joining one of the many anti-Hitler plots was the knowledge that this would require violating their oath. The oath is alluded to several times in the film, but the moral issues involved are never really explored, presumably because having characters agonize over whether it was right to kill Hitler would not have worked dramatically. Still, the matter does raise some interesting questions. St. Thomas More, for example, was canonized largely based on his firm position on the moral sacredness of oath taking, and while I have little doubt that one can reconcile treating both More and Stauffenberg as heroes, exactly how one goes about doing so could have profound moral implications.

The other issue has to do with speculation on what would have happened had the coup gone off successfully (I trust I won’t be spoiling the ending for anyone if I reveal that the plot is unsuccessful). After seeing the movie, a friend opined that perhaps it was a good thing the 20 July plotters were not able to kill Hitler. His reasoning was that if the plotters had succeed and ended the war just after the Normandy invasion, this would have left them vulnerable to the charge that Germany had once again been “stabbed in the back” and the whole cycle would have repeated itself again.

Maybe. I’m inclined to think, though, that a phenomenon like Hitler was not likely to recur again. Ending the war in 1944 would have saved Europe from a great deal of death and destruction, and would likely have prevented Eastern Europe from falling under Soviet domination for the next 40 years. Avoiding these certain evils seems worth the uncertain risk of other evils down the road.

January 14, 2009 Posted by | Film, History, War and Peace | 1 Comment

Bush Stops War

It looks like my previous worries on the subject may prove to be groundless:

Israel gave serious thought this spring to launching a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites but was told by President George W Bush that he would not support it and did not expect to revise that view for the rest of his presidency, senior European diplomatic sources have told the Guardian.

The then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, used the occasion of Bush’s trip to Israel for the 60th anniversary of the state’s founding to raise the issue in a one-on-one meeting on May 14, the sources said. “He took it [the refusal of a US green light] as where they were at the moment, and that the US position was unlikely to change as long as Bush was in office”, they added. Continue reading

September 26, 2008 Posted by | Israel, Nuclear Weapons, War and Peace | Leave a comment

A Rationally Irrational Iran, Etc.

This week’s EconTalk Podcast featured Bruce Bueno de Mesquita discussing Iran, and the threat (or lack thereof) it poses to the United States. Some of the stuff in the podcast was old news to me: Ahmadinejad, while he gets a lot of attention, doesn’t have much actual power, and those who really are running things have proven to be fairly pragmatic.

Of course, the obvious question is: if the real leaders of Iran are so pragmatic, why do they let Ahmadinejad run around saying all the crazy things he does? According to Bueno de Mesquita, Iran’s actions can be seen as an example of the so-called “Madman Theory” used by Nixon in Vietnam. The basic idea is that if you act like you’re crazy (or, as the case may be, pick a President who really is crazy, but isn’t really in charge) people won’t want to mess with you. Continue reading

August 13, 2008 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Israel, Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, War and Peace | 1 Comment

On the Atomic Bombings of Japan II

Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. On the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, I posted the first part of what was going to be a debate last year between myself and Shawn of the blog Rerum Novarum on the morality of the bombings. Prior to the debate, Shawn and I agreed that the atomic bombings would be justified only if two conditions were met:

1) the bombings did not involve the intentional targeting of noncombatants; and

2) the bombings saved lives, that is, any alternative course of action would have resulted in even greater loss of life.

In my previous post, I argued that the first condition was not met. In this post, I argue that the second condition also was not met. Prior to the debate, Shawn had argued that the second condition, proportionality, had been met by the bombings, and had cited in support some figures on the high number of casualties (both American and Japanese) that could have resulted from a land invasion of Japan. I responded as follows: Continue reading

August 9, 2008 Posted by | America, History, Just Wage, Morality, Nuclear Weapons, War and Peace | 17 Comments

The War in Georgia

Russia sent columns of tanks and reportedly bombed Georgian air bases Friday after Georgia launched a major military offensive Friday to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia, threatening to ignite a broader conflict.

Hundreds of civilians were reported dead in the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won defacto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. Witnesses said the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali was devastated.

“I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars,” said Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, who had fled with her family to Dzhava, a village near the border with Russia. “It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.” Continue reading

August 8, 2008 Posted by | War and Peace | Leave a comment

On the Atomic Bombings of Japan I

A little over a year ago, Shawn of the blog Rerum Novarum issued a challenge to Catholics to debate him on the morality of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of WWII (he was pro). I accepted the challenge, and we emailed back and forth about logistics, and I prepared an initial post setting out the against side of the question. Unfortunately the proposed debate never ended up happening, for reasons that I won’t go into now.

Since today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, I thought I would post what would have been my initial contribution to the debate. As it is rather long, I have broken it up into two parts. During our email exchange, Shawn and I had agreed that, in order for the bombings to be justified from a Catholic perspective, it had to be the case both that:

1) the bombings did not involve the intentional targeting of civilians; and

2) the bombings saved lives, that is, any alternative course of action would have resulted in even greater loss of life.

This post addresses the first condition, and argues that the bombings did, in fact, involve the intentional targeting of civilians. In the second part, I will argue that the second condition, proportionality, was also not met. Continue reading

August 6, 2008 Posted by | America, History, Just War, Morality, Nuclear Weapons, War and Peace | 6 Comments

What Caused the Peace of Europe?

After century upon century of periodic warfare, the continent of Europe has, for the last 60 years or so, enjoyed a period of unprecedented peace. Why is that? To hear many Europeans tell it, the recent spate of peace in Europe is due to the advanced moral sentiments of its peoples. After enduring centuries of bloodshed, in the 1940s Europeans finally grew up, and learned to settle their disagreements peacefully (unlike the warmongering Americans).

This explanation is only plausible to the extent one ignores just how fragile and limited the peace of Europe since WWII has actually been. One can say that Europe has known 60 years of uninterrupted peace only if one ignores the Cold War that left half the continent under Soviet domination with the other half under constant threat of total annihilation, as well as repeated wars in the Balkans, the IRA in the United Kingdom, ETA in Spain, Greece’s civil war and conflict with Turkey, French wars in Algeria and Indochina, the Suez crisis, British military engagements ranging from Malaysia to the Falklands, not to mention participation by numerous European countries in the Korean war, Afghanistan, and one or both of the Iraq conflicts, to give but a partial list. If what European peace does exist is the result of some moral advancement and conflict resolution skills developed by the Europeans, then it is unclear why the above mentioned conflicts occurred. Continue reading

July 20, 2008 Posted by | Democracy, History, Trade, War and Peace | 1 Comment

McCain Wants to Start WWIII, Re-Institute Draft

Okay, so not really. But given the way some of McCain’s prior statements have been twisted, I can almost imagine the DNC running an attack ad based on that premise:

Only World War III would prompt Republican presidential candidate John McCain to bring back the military draft, McCain said on Tuesday.

Many Americans are fearful the U.S. government will be forced to reinstitute the draft given the prolonged Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Asked about that possibility by a potential voter in Florida during a telephone “town hall meeting,” McCain said: “I don’t know what would make a draft happen unless we were in an all-out World War III.”

June 26, 2008 Posted by | Election, Media, War and Peace | Leave a comment

Will McCain Get the Chance to Bomb Iran?

There was an interesting discussion yesterday in the comments to this post, at Vox-Nova on the likelihood of McCain’s bombing Iran. It seems to me, though, that we may have gotten ahead of ourselves on this. According to Intrade, there is about a 33% chance of McCain’s being elected President. Meanwhile, there is a 25-30% chance that the U.S. and/or Israel will execute air strikes against Israel prior to December 31, 2008.

The possibility that President Bush would engage in a “lame duck bombing” is one that has concerned me for a while now. It seems to me that he wouldn’t want to strike prior to the election, as doing so could cause, shall we say, inconveniences for the Republican candidate. But if Obama were to win the election, and Bush firmly believed both that Iran’s getting nukes was an unacceptable threat and that an Obama administration would do nothing to stop it, he might very well decide that an attack in December or early January was the only way, in his view, to keep America safe.

Exactly what the fall out from such an attack would be is impossible to say. Certainly it wouldn’t make him very popular either at home or abroad. The question is whether people would see the problem specifically as resting with Bush (in which case Obama’s quick succession afterwards would blunt the negative consequences of the attack), or not, in which case the incoming Obama administration would have quite the mess on their hands. It’s not a situation I care to contemplate all that much, but that doesn’t mean the possibility isn’t real.

June 18, 2008 Posted by | Election, War and Peace | 1 Comment