Is deliberately killing an opposed military leader assassination?

Over in the thread on Japanese generals in WWII, there’s been a bit of discussion on whether or not the US’s killing of Yamamoto qualifies as assassination. And by discussion I mean I think it is, and everyone else doesn’t. And I have to admit, the dictionary definition doesn’t quite fit, since it includes the word ‘murder’, which I wouldn’t call it. Wikipedia, on the other hand, specifically includes Yamamoto’s death in the article on assassination. So, I’m curious what y’all think.

To me, assassination simply implies targeting and killing a public figure - no implication of illegitimacy. In this case, the US knew Yamamoto would be on an inspection tour, and sent a fighter group to intercept and shoot down his transport. I call that assassination. Allesan disagrees:

And on a gut level, I have to say I wouldn’t consider that assassination. The difference, in my mind, is between taking the opportunity to disrupt a battle by eliminating a leader, and going out of your way (very far out of your way in this case - more than 430 miles) to kill them outside of a battle. I’ll certainly acknowledge a strong difference between this and civilian assassination, but I just don’t have a better word than assassination to describe it.

The proper word, I think, would be “kill.”

Now, let me ask something:

Did Yamamoto have a radio in his plane?

Because if he did, then at that very moment he was commanding all of Japan’s naval forces in the Pacific, which had to have been engaged in combat somewhere. WW2 battles may have lasted much longer and were spread out across much larger areas than those of Napoleon’s period, but the essence of command was the same.

Besides, I think that this hesitancy involving killing commanders smacks of classism. It seems to indicate that the life of a soldier with general ranks on his shoulder is worth more than that of one with private stripes.

I’d say that there is a key difference between Nelson’s and Yamamoto’s deaths. On one hand, the captain of the Redoutable has specifically trained his marines for accuracy and told them to concentrate fire on the quarterdeck and fire at anything shiny, but this was just a matter of tactics. It was largely Nelson’s own strategy (and Hardy’s maneuvering) that fouled her with the Redoubtable. Redoubtable may as well have engaged any other ship in the British fleet, so his killing was, though fortunate for the French, unspecific.

Yamamoto was on the other hand very specifically targeted, and very much so when he was known to be in transport and poorly defended, and his death was in itself a strategic goal.

So assassination or the destruction of a valuable strategic asset? I would say that the difference lies in the sheer audacity of it. Carpet bombing Yamamoto’s house or sinking his flagship are brute actions, sending a squad of P-38s 600 miles flying at wavetop level to take out two planes is as surgical as you get.

Yammoto’s flight comprised two bombers, one of which he was in, and six A6M Zero fighters. Given that Yamamoto was the more important passenger, his staff could have been sacrificed leaving all six Zero fighters to defend him.

Given that Yamamoto was a military commander conducting military actions in a declared war, and given that he had protection from the best Fighters (and presumably, the best pilots) Japan had, and given that his death accomplished a military goal rather than a political one, I would not call it an assassination. It was a surgical strike just like any sniper would make. Yamamoto just happened to be higher in the chain of command than most sniper targets.

I do have some sympathy for him. He was against the war, and warned against it. But he did his duty. Had he survived, and then not been executed as a war criminal, he might have been a strong ally after the war.

How much of your reluctance to call it assassination is due to your assumption that assassination is a bad thing?


But it’s also a matter of civilian versus military. Assasination is, essentially, a civilian act, carried out by civilians against civilians. Yamamoto was a uniformed soldier killed by other uniformed soldier; the term doesn’t apply.

Sorry for the hijack, but this is a fascinating question that really never occured to me. Do you think he would have been prosecuted?

Most Japanese commanders were.

Seems to me that the problem is that, in many folk’s minds, assassination is morally wrong, whereas killing in open battle is not.

To my mind, I don’t see why. If killing one man can harm the enemy as deeply as killing a thousand in battle, surely it is morally superior (assuming you have the moral right to fight at all) to kill the one rather than the thousand.

I believe the current euphemism is “attack on command and control systems”. In any case President Ford’s Executive Order 11905 only prohibited “political assassination”, not military ones.
Even the limit on political assassinations seems to be pretty much a dead letter, unless you think dropping a bomb or a missile on a building or car you think his is in isn’t an attempt to kill him.

Reagan Gaddafi 1986
Clinton Bin Laden 1998, 2000
Clinton Milosevic 1999
Bush Bin Laden 2001-2009 ($25-50 million dollar award)
Bush Saddam Hussein 2003
Bush Various Al Queda and Taliban leaders 2001-2008
Obama ditto 2009-2010

I’m sure I’ve overlooked some.

I actually think that assassination is more moral than killing 18 year old draftees and probably functions as a better deterrent. I remember Poul Anderson’s SF short story, “A Man to My Wounding”, where all wars were conducted by assassination.

As RickJay notes, most commanders were. And he was the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In my opinion, this ‘unprovoked and dastardly attack’ would definitely have been seen as a war crime. I’d have to look it up, but I believe that Nürnberg bears this out.

Yamamoto said that merely defeating the U.S. in the Pacific would never be enough. The only way Japan could win a war with the U.S. would be to fight all the way across the continent and ‘dictate the terms in the White House’. There was another sentence after that, where he wonders if the politicians realised this implying that the course was ill-advised. Only the last sentence wasn’t widely-spread, and his statement could be purposely construed to mean that Japan should invade the continental United States and that it would be victorious.

If he didn’t take his own life, he would have been hanged.

I’ve always figured that a military commander is not a legitimate target. The building he happens to be in at any given time, however, is another story.

My take is that we’re investigating how the word “assassination” is normally used, not debating the similar question of when it is ok. I think an assassination usually means a particularly covert or targeted killing. And most of those we see as illegitimate, but they don’t have to be.

So, in my vocabulary, if you sent a soldier to sneak into a military camp to kill the commander and then sneak out again, that would plainly be called assassination.

If you bomb the whole camp, even if it’s primarily to kill the same guy, that would probably not be called assassination.

I think Yamamoto is somewhere between those ends: the US army planned to kill him specifically, but did so with normal air-to-air combat. So could go either way, and doesn’t really matter.

I’m kinda suprised at the debate, a quick google yields plenty of support for defining the targeted killing for military reasons as assasination

‘‘Assassinations may be prompted by religious, ideological, political, or military reasons’’

Can soldiers intentionlly kill other soldiers who aren’t commanders? Like, an enemy infantry company?

In my opinion, if you’re trying to kill a particular individual it’s an assassination.

As for the euphemism of “targeting the enemy command structure” or whatever, I’d say the dividing line is whether the target would be attacked anyway if the enemy leader wasn’t present. You’d sink a battleship even if there was no admiral aboard but you wouldn’t send a fighter squadron out 400 miles to shoot down one particular plane unless you knew there was an admiral on board.

That’s interesting. Would he have- I can’t recall any particular war crimes he committed. With Shiro Ishii and Tojo as examples the involvement seems clear cut. However Yamamoto seems to have been opposed to war in Manchuria and somewhat removed from war crimes.

Indeed, if Yamamoto had survived and been seen as a potential ally, perhaps he too could have been granted any immunity (if necessary).

Nevertheless, he planned the Pearl Harbor attack. He was in charge. Being part of starting a war was determined to be a war crime.

Sorry- edited that as it was wrong …

A good point might by Karl Donitz—he was put on trial atNuremberg for for various crimes, including “planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression.” On the other hand, while he was convicted of several counts, he only got ten years.

I guess it would be up to a jury to decide on Yamamoto’s case. And of course, he died over two years before the war ended. Who can say what more he might have become responsible for, legally (even assuming they caused no major changes to history), if he’d survived to Japan’s surrender; or if he’d have gotten a better “deal” at trial if he’d just been captured in 1943, even if he weren’t actually tried immediately.

(None of this taking post-war politics into account, 'natch.)