I received this piece from Stuart Koehl, and as it bears on the discussion (now closed) earlier on Hiroshima, I thought I’d post it. Bill Tighe had commented:
I am mildly surprised that the notion of "unconditional surrender" has not once been criticized on this thread. One might think that God is the only "entity" that has a moral claim to demand unconditional surrender -- but perhaps, given the expressions of "Neanderthal Christianity" on this thread and the implicit quasi-deification of the State (so long as it is "democratic") that is not a surprise, after all.Stuart wrote:
I believe Bill misconstrues the meaning of the term in a military context, which are profoundly different from those in a philosophical/theological one. "Unconditional surrender" grew out of the informal conventions that governed war from the end of the Thirty Years War through the "Age of Reason" in which wars were conducted with limited means for limited objectives. Armies were largely professional, frequently mercenary, expensive to raise and expensive to maintain. Pitched battles, therefore, became the exception rather than the rule, as generals fought what came to be known as "wars of position"--rather than fighting, they would maneuver the enemy out of his defensive positions, while the enemy tried to do the same, both armies dancing a sort of armed minuet. Fortresses played an important role in this kind of warfare, as they protected lines of communication, served as depots and garrisons, and acted as barriers to enemy movement. Sieges therefore became the dominant form of war in this period, and sieges were governed by their own rules and logic.I will leave the comments open for now. Regarding the Japanese surrender, I recommend the film, Japan's Longest Day.
Under the famous French military engineer Vauban, fortresses became subject to mathematical design, and sieges (of which Vauban was also a master) were therefore also run on a mathematical basis, with such precision that, from the time the besieging army opened its first trench, it became possible to predict when the fortress would have to surrender, give or take a couple of days. Here, the laws of war became quite elaborate: the trenches would advance until batteries could be emplaced to suppress the fortress guns and allow a second line of trenches to be dug, closer to the walls. A second set of batteries would then focus on a specific spot along the walls in which to batter a hole, called a breach. When the breach was large enough for troops to storm, the breach was deemed "practicable", and an assault would soon follow.
But, in practice, this seldom happened. One a practicable breach was achieved, the defenders would call for a parley and negotiate terms. If the defense had been particularly meritorious, or if the attacker wanted the defender out of the fortress as quickly as possible, then "full honors of war" would be granted: the troops could march out, flags flying, playing one of their own marches, bearing their personal weapons, plus a few token cannon, and could march back to their own territory. There were a number of steps down from this, each of which reflected on the honor of the defeated. If the defense was particularly poor, or if the attacker was particularly ruthless, he would call for "unconditional surrender"--meaning that the defeated would become prisoners, would not be allowed to march home, would not be allowed to retain their flags or their muskets. In practice, most of the prisoners would be paroled--made to sign a piece of paper saying they would not fight again until properly exchanged; a number might be induced to go over to the winning side (they were mercenaries, after all).
Note what unconditional surrender is not: it is not a loss of all rights and privileges. It is not license for the victor to butcher the vanquished. It does not allow the losers to enslaved. (Though let us be frank and state that totalitarian regimes--such as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union--did all these things and more as a matter of course, but then, they only use the laws of war as a fig leaf to cover their complete contempt for the rule of law in general).
What it does is announce, in no uncertain terms, that the loser has been absolutely defeated, that the victor can dictate the terms, which, more often than not, leads to conflict termination, and the end of the killing. Unconditional surrender ends wars, whereas conditional surrenders or negotiated truces usually allow them to continue, either immediately or after a brief pause. There is no ontological similarity between military unconditional surrender and the kind of spiritual unconditional surrender demanded by God. To conflate the two is the kind of error one sees in fundamentalists who condemn Catholics because priests are addressed as "father", and Christ said to call no man father. Yeah, the words are the same, the context is very different.
It is in that context that one must view the demand for unconditional surrender during World War II. The First World War had ended with an armistice that saw German armies largely intact, German territory inviolate. Germany had to pay an indemnity, lost some territory, and was restricted in its armaments: it was a very Old Regime kind of ending for the first modern war. The armistice satisfied nobody, but it did create smoldering resentment in Germany, which sooner or later would seek revenge. World War II could, therefore, be considered simply Round 2 after a 20-year hiaitus. The Allied rulers--particularly Roosevelt--advocated unconditional surrender because they perceived the failure to make Germany admit defeat as the cause of World War II (Stalin would have done what he did, regardless of the terms announced, but that's another story).
In the case of Japan, the conditions laid forth in the Potsdam Declaration were considerably short of the kind of "unconditional surrender" demanded of Germany, and any other country in Japan's position would have grasped at it--but Japan isn't any other country, and so they kept fighting until Hirohito made them stop. In the kind of politico-military situation that pertained in World War II, unconditional surrender was not only necessary, it was probably unavoidable. In other kinds of war--like insurgencies, for instance--it may not be appropriate or even relevant. But in this case, it was both.