Combatants, Non-Combatants, and Double Effect

I write this essay on my birthday, August 7. I mention this only because my birthday happens to fall between the anniversaries of the August 6 Hiroshima and August 9 Nagasaki nuclear bombings. August is therefore the month in which some Catholics are sure to excoriate other Catholics because these “other” Catholics do not automatically conclude that the dropping of these two bombs was unjust, immoral, and indefensible. Some Catholics do their best to make sure these “other” Catholics know how corrupt they really are for not vilifying the United States for deliberately (according to the “some”) targeting innocent non-combatants with the most devastating weapons in existence back in 1945.

That might seem like a reasonable, though harsh, assessment of certain “other” Catholics. The immense destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki boggles the mind—and the heart. Time and time again over the decades, popes and other Church leaders have decried the carnage inflicted and the horror unleashed by the atomic bomb.

Yet, as far as I can tell, there is one thing that no pope or magisterial source has ever done. The Church has never declared that the decision to drop the two bombs was itself unjust, immoral, or indefensible.

This is a hugely significant distinction. No one in their right minds could ever deny the terror and devastation inflicted by the A-bombs. So, why doesn’t the magisterium go ahead and do what “some” Catholics seem to do gladly—excoriate those who made the decision to use the weapons, and anyone else who might think the decision was justifiable?

I would propose a simple answer: the Church already teaches us that it is up to legitimate civil authority to make those determinations, not the Church. And not “some” Catholics. Legitimate civil authority is entrusted with preserving the common good, and such authority has the obligation to act in accord with established moral principles.

Consider that paragraph 2309 of the Catechism says this of just war: “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy [of just war] belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” Similarly, I’d assert that the evaluation of conditions for moral legitimacy of the individual decisions that comprise the “just war” belongs not to armchair opinion-givers, but to those who are really responsible for those decisions.

With this in mind, it seems to me that the magisterium wisely refrains from attempting to judge whether such a decision as dropping the A-bomb was itself moral, or not. The Church rightly condemns indiscriminate destruction of cities and civilian populations. But it never says that those who decided to drop the atomic bombs were guilty of that atrocity. The Church really couldn’t condemn the US leaders on that basis, because it’s clear that Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t acts of indiscriminate destruction. Like so many previous deadly attacks on Japan, the nuclear bombings were, rather, intentionally planned and targeted attacks—but of unprecedented destructive power.

Part of the difficulty with the morality of the A-bombs is that their uniquely destructive capacity tends to overshadow the fact that the same moral principles are brought to bear regardless of whether it’s the A-bomb, or the conventional-weapon firebombing of Japan that preceded Hiroshima, or any other consideration of combatants and noncombatants in any other time or place in history.

When trying to untangle the morality of a wartime decision to attack the enemy, the principle of double effect comes into play. When an action being considered has both good and bad effects, it may be morally permissible to choose the action under certain conditions. To describe the four necessary conditions, I am borrowing the phrasing found here:

  1. The action must be morally good, or indifferent, as to object, motive and circumstances.
  2. The bad effect(s) may only be tolerated, not directly willed.
  3. The good effect must be caused at least as directly as the bad.
  4. The good effect(s) must be proportionate to compensate for the bad effect(s).

Assuming a nation is engaged in a just war, how might this apply to combatants in war, and innocent non-combatants?

First, it is utterly immoral to target innocent non-combatants. Obvious, right? Intentionally killing innocents is rightly called murder.

So, the just-war question then becomes: is there a legitimate wartime target that the action under consideration is intended to neutralize? If so, there will be a “good effect” to the action. Such a planned attack would be in itself a morally legitimate act of self-defense against the aggressor, according to the moral “object” of the act.

Now, what about any foreseen bad effects? If aerial bombing is planned on a target, for example, what about the risk to innocent lives of those who are civilians, non-combatants? Suddenly we are confronted with a foreseen bad effect resulting from the choice to bomb a legitimate wartime target. Innocent people could get killed, too.

We must make a final—and crucial—judgment. Is the good effect proportionate to compensate for the bad effect?

Such a decision-making process is required at every point in a just war—and if an attack on the enemy would yield a disproportionate relationship between the bad effect and the good effect, the attack ought not take place. So, with the principle of double effect in mind, let’s go ahead and consider the US decision to drop the atomic bomb not once, but twice, on Japan.

First question: who or what was the target? In both cases, the bombs were targeting legitimate military targets—facilities key to the ongoing industry of wartime Japan. So there seems to be no justification for claiming that innocents themselves were targeted indiscriminately.

Rather, the real question at hand is: knowing the massive destructive capability of the atomic bomb, couldn’t those targets be neutralized by less destructive means? Wasn’t it obvious to the United States leaders that the legitimate military targets would not be the only areas destroyed by such a blast?

At this point, one of the less-talked-about aspects of this moral equation must be considered: how did Japan itself define “combatant” and “non-combatant”? As was the case on other fronts of the Second World War, Japanese aggression against the United States was in the form of “total war.” The blurring of lines between combatant and non-combatant was likely never greater than on Japanese soil. The entire population was mobilized to support the war effort. Men, women, and children were to be prepared—and compelled by the Empire—to fight the enemy tooth and nail, if it came to it.

In Japan, everyone was effectively considered a combatant.

With this knowledge, the United States leaders presumably would apply the same approach with the atomic bomb as had already been applied with prior conventional bombing. It was the Japanese government that was compelling its own population to embrace the “total war” mentality, whether a citizen wanted to, or not. In a just war, how does a country like the United States defend against—and attack—a “total-war” enemy like Japan?

As I see it, US leaders aimed the A-bombs not only at legitimately targeted facilities, but they also knew full well that their force would be unleashed against those the Japanese government itself claimed were combatants in the total war against the United States. The magnitude of the blast, whether at a primary or secondary target (which Nagasaki turned out to be), was not intended to strike Japanese non-combatants or innocent civilians, but was intended to significantly cripple the total war machine at the heart of the unrelenting Japanese Empire.

In fact, the US warned a number of Japanese cities via air-dropped leaflets to leave areas considered military targets prior to dropping the A-bomb. After the Hiroshima bomb fell, some in other locations (including Nagasaki) were able to move at least some of their children and the elderly away from potentially targeted areas, but even the destruction at Hiroshima didn’t persuade the Japanese Empire to surrender—or to release its war-industry work force from their duties at these military targets.

Thus, the destructive force of the atomic bomb was knowingly levelled at the significant percentage of the Japanese population who were either committed or compelled to stay at their posts in the face of their enemy’s fiercest attacks. They were resolved to fight to the last man. And last woman. And even the last child, sad to say. The atomic bombs, in effect, not only attacked the total-war industry but also might break through the total-war mentality of Japanese leaders. It was that stubborn mindset that drove the whole war machine. Two attacks, not just one, were ultimately needed to vanquish Japan’s resolve to fight to the last man, woman or child. Japan’s leaders surrendered only when it became clear that the United States really could effectively reduce Japan to that last man, woman or child. Such is the cold and chilling “logic” required for victory over an enemy devoted to total war.

The nuclear age dawned, gravely and with unspeakable carnage, upon the broken and barren horizon of Japan’s devotion to total war. In such a context, I would propose that it is conceivable that our US leaders could, in the framework of just war and via the principle of double effect, arrive at a morally defensible decision to drop the first and second atomic bombs. The expected high number of casualties, not only with the A-bombs but with prior bombing raids, too, were not viewed as the result of indiscriminate bombing. The notion of a general population being viewed as and used as “combatants” arose not from the United States but from the Empire of Japan.

Even so, no morally sane person thinks that thousands upon thousands of war dead is a good thing. No one thinks death and suffering and radiation sickness and cancer are good things. Was there “proportionate reason” to drop these apocalyptic weapons on Japan? Some say yes, some say no. I say it’s possible. I also say, thank God it wasn’t my prudential judgment that had to make that decision.

Remember, too, that this is about double effect. One clear good effect was that Japan really surrendered and the cataclysm of total war came to an end.

On a personal note, I think it’s even possible that my having a birthday on August 7 could be one of those gazillion consequences arising from the abrupt end of total war. You see, my Dad was a young army sergeant newly stationed in Korea, poised for action, in that summer of 1945. God only knows what he might have had to confront—and whether he would have made it out alive—if that good effect, Japan’s surrender, had never occurred.

So, while it’s a fact that the heart-wrenching, unimaginable violence wrought by the atomic bomb should be decried and we should say “never again” to total war and nuclear attacks, it’s also a fact that a lot of people owe their lives to the ending of that war. Maybe you do. Maybe I do.

Either way, it’s up to us, the living, to never forget the cost of war, and the price of peace.

Deacon Jim Russell


Deacon Jim Russell serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis and writes on topics of marriage, family, and sexuality from a Catholic perspective. He can be reached via e-mail at