Unsurprisingly, my review of Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb generated a discussion on the ethics of the United States using such bombs on Japan in 1945.
In the same book, a moral question with some similar characteristics comes up. Describing the American attack on Iwo Jima, Rhodes explains:
Washington secretly considered sanitizing the island with artillery shells loaded with poison gas lobbed in by ships standing well offshore; the proposal reached the White House by Roosevelt curtly vetoed it. It might have saved thousands of lives and hastened the surrender – arguments used to justify most of the mass slaughters of the Second Worlld War, and neither the United States nor Japan had signed the Geneva Convention prohibiting such use – but Roosevelt presumably remembered the world outcry that followed German introduction of poison gas in the First World War and decided to leave the sanitizing of Iwo Jima to the U.S. Marines.
In the end, 6,821 American marines were killed and 21,865 were injured. 20,000 Japanese troops died, with 1,083 ultimately surrendering.
I presume most readers think the use of poison gas would have been more immoral than attacking with Marines, despite how similar numbers of Japanese troops would likely have been killed in either case. What I am curious about is the reasoning. Is the use of certain kinds of weapons fundamentally unacceptable, regardless of the consequences of their use or non-use? Or would using poison gas on Iwo Jima have established a harmful precedent that would have caused greater suffering later? Or is there some other justification?