Americans are more likely to know the fictional histories of Middle Earth or of Westeros than actual world history. Most, however, have at least a vague idea of the Battle of Pearl Harbor, memorialized every December 7. So too it is hard to miss the story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. But few know of the Raid on Cadiz. When it comes to issues of war and war crimes, you should consider Cadiz along with these other historic events.
The Cadiz Raid of 1587 was part of the struggle between Spain and England (which was partly a religious struggle between the reformed Christian churches and the Roman Catholic Church, which is not important to the context of this essay). Sir Francis Drake can be fairly said to have been a pirate operating under license from Queen Elizabeth I. The Spanish Armada was assembling in a number of ports, preparatory to the invasion of England, following the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587, which made a Roman Catholic (and pro-Spain) succession to Elizabeth unlikely. Leading a fleet of only four vessels, Drake surprised the Spanish fleet at Cadiz and destroyed 37 ships in April 1587.
The Raid on Cadiz, in both English and American history, is a glorious moment. The following year Drake and the English navy and a fortuitous storm repelled the Spanish Armada, saving England from the Spanish Inquisition.
But what if you stop and think about whether the Cadiz Raid was right or wrong, or a war crime?
Is building an army or navy the same as actually waging a war of aggression? What if the intent is to wage war? What if the intent is to bully, so obtain some advantage without actually waging the war?
Would the Cadiz raid be legal because the English knew Spain was planning a war? Or was it illegal since negotiations were taking place that might have averted war?
[300 pages of legal and ethical discussion later...] Let's look at some other historical events using our Cadiz decision [(1) it was an act of aggression and war crime, or (2) it was an act of defense, and not a war crime] as a legal precedent.
Fast forward a few hundred years to the Battle of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. First, you need to know some important facts that are not in most U.S. history books, where Pearl Harbor is characterized as a "surprise" attack. The U.S. and Japan were already fighting in China, with the U.S. air force thinly disguised as a volunteer unit under the dictator Chiang Kai-shek. In addition, the U.S. commander in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur, had been given permission to attack the Japanese, and a large U.S. invasion fleet was steaming towards the Philippines. The U.S. had broken the Japanese cryptographic codes. The declaration of war by Japan, simultaneous with the attack, was no surprise to Cordell Hull or President Franklin Roosevelt. Though it seemed horrific, the actual attack did relatively little damage to the U.S. fleet. The U.S. was in a massive naval construction program, and had over 10 times the industrial capacity of Japan. The good new battle ships at Pearl Harbor had mysteriously sailed out to sea, well away from the battle. The Japanese sank mainly easily replaceable World War I relics.
So, back to your Cadiz choice. Maybe Pearl Harbor was Japan's Cadiz Raid. The Japanese government knew that its plan to drive the White Race out of their Asian colonies was about to lead the U.S., with its astonishing industrial capacity, to initiate a war allowing the U.S. to fulfill its dream of ruling China and Japan (and maybe take Indochina from the French, too). Pearl Harbor was defense. If you believe Francis Drake should be treated as a hero for his Cadiz raid, then you should treat the Japanese fleet as heroes too.
But what the hey, Cadiz was a long time ago, and Drake was a Brit, not an American, so maybe to preserve the "day of infamy" status of Pearl Harbor you want to go with Cadiz was an act of aggression and a war crime, as you already believe Pearl Harbor was. Then if one nation is planning to attack another nation, even a weaker nation sure to lose a war, the small nation has no right to a pre-emptive strike. They have to wait until the big bully starts the war before they can defend themselves. Like in the recent Iraq war: if Saddam Hussein had shot first, he would be a war criminal. Even though his fight with the U.S. was purely defensive, somehow he was still the war criminal.
American Presidents and most citizens actually prefer to toss out logic. America is always right! If we initiate an attack, we are right! If we are attacked and retaliate, we are right! If we kill civilians in ways that are clearly war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, we play the Americans get out of war crimes free card. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's pontificating against aerial bombardments of cities, and calling those actions war crimes, when the U.S. was not yet in World War II, did not mean his later ordering the obliteration of Japanese and German cities was a war crime.
Apparently international law is not really something peacefully agreed upon. As a man who knew something about killing people who disagreed with him once remarked, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." One nation's hero is another nation's pirate. As long as America has chumps stupid enough to buy our bonds, we can keep our guns and our national debt and our freedom from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity.