Hiroshima, moral purity and moral blindness

A thoughtful, poignant post by Shaun Mullen at The Moderate Voice (and in a longer version on his own blog, Kiko’s House) reminded me that today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Mullen opens with a heartbreaking image of human suffering — the death of a three-year-old boy who was outside riding his tricycle when the bomb hit. Then, he examines the arguments made in favor of Harry Truman’s decision to approve the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (avoiding the huge losses of both American and Japanese lives that would have inevitably resulted from a mainland invasion, freeing millions of people under Japanese occupation as well as hundreds of thousands of POWs in danger of death), as well as the arguments against it. He concludes:

[I]n my humble view, President Truman made the right decision in 1945 under circumstances so extraordinary that it is difficult to imagine them being replicated at some future time. I pray that I am not wrong.

Oliver Kamm, British commentator and liberal hawk, has a piece making the same argument in The Guardian, challenging the “alternative history” which claims that Japan was already on the brink of surrender and the nuclear bombs were dropped in order to intimidate Stalin’s Soviet Union. Writes Kamm:

Contrary to popular myth, there is no documentary evidence that his military commanders advised him the bomb was unnecessary for Japan was about to surrender. As the historian Wilson Miscamble puts it, Truman “hoped that the bombs would end the war and secure peace with the fewest American casualties, and so they did. Surely he took the action any American president would have undertaken.” Recent Japanese scholarship provides support for this position. Sadao Asada, of Doshisha University, Kyoto, has concluded from analysis of Japanese primary sources that the two bombs enabled the “peace party” within Japan’s cabinet to prevail.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often used as a shorthand term for war crimes. That is not how they were judged at the time. Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire – and for Japan itself. One of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties. The destruction of two cities, and the suffering it caused for decades afterwards, cannot but temper our view of the Pacific war. Yet we can conclude with a high degree of probability that abjuring the bomb would have caused greater suffering still.

Here, I will say that my knowledge of World War II is limited. I don’t know who is factually correct about the situation in the Pacific theater at the end of the war. (The revisionist case is made here by the Hoover Institution’s David Henderson.) The argument that the primary goal of dropping the bombs was to intimidate the Soviets doesn’t make much sense to me, given that after the war ended we allowed the Soviet Union to keep all of Eastern Europe, half of Germany, and the Baltics as part of its empire. If Truman mainly wanted leverage against the Soviets, he didn’t make much use of it. Some argue that alternative means of forcing a surrender, such as dropping the bomb on a military target first, could have worked. Others dispute that. I don’t know the answer.

On a purely instinctive level, I am of course appalled by justifications for the killing of about 150,000 civilians, many of them children. One cannot, if one is a normal person, justify such an act without doing violence to one’s moral sense. But are there times when the unspeakable is the lesser of two evils? Obviously, arguments that noble ends can justify terrible means can lead to some pretty dark places, and such arguments have also served countless tyrants and dictatorships as excuses for barbarism. The danger of becoming “as bad as the enemy” is real.

But the view that all use of terrible means is equal represents the opposite extreme: it is a kind of moral laziness that abdicates critical distinctions and context. Assassinating Hitler with a car bomb in the middle of World War II, even if the bomb also kills some innocents, is not morally equivalent to assassinating Martin Luther King. When some have the will to do evil things — enslavement, mass murder — there is generally no way to stop them except by force, and when one chooses to use force, terrible choices must sometimes be made. What if the only way you can stop a death squad is to destroy the camp that serves as its base, and you know that some members of this death squad have children living in this camp? (Neo-neocon has an interesting post on the subject from two years ago.)

I don’t dispute that even necessary violence, particularly when it kills innocents, damages the soul. I will even agree that we should all find it a little harder to live with ourselves when we pause to think that the victory over evil in World War II was bought with the lives of so many innocents, not only at Hiroshima but also in Dresden or in Tokyo, where the men, women and children killed by “conventional” firebombing were as dead as the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I also agree that it’s a sign of moral progress that such wanton slaughter of civilians is now considered off-limits as a war tactic, at least by civilized nations). Nonetheless, it was as clearcut a victory over evil as there has ever been in history.

And that’s why what truly shocked me was the responses to Oliver Kamm on the Guardian website. Not all the responses, to be sure; but many of the anti-Kamm posts were truly striking in their venom and their strident moral equivalency:

The funny thing is, Oliver Kamm demonstrates what Noam Chomsky said years ago about war crimes; war crimes are defined by the victors of the war and not be (sic) any objective standard.

You could argue, that Kamm is supporting terrorism: as several posters has pointed out, with the kind of logic he espouses, Al Qaeda is perfectly entitled to target civilians in order to end the WOT.

What a disgusting article. For me, the dropping of an atomic bomb on any town anywhere is entirely despicable. In my opinion it proves beyond a shadow of doubt that whilst Americans may be lovely people when they are getting their way, they will stoop to any depths to ensure their personal gain in the face of opposition. They will also, always hide behind “holier than thou” reasons for their contemptible behaviour.

Do you believe that what you wrote actually justify intentional killing of babies, women and old folks? If so, what is wrong with Taliban killings of Korean hostages? They just want to save their own people at the moment in Afghanistan prisons.

Yes, of course, Oliver, nuclear bombs save lives, so let’s offer our unique form of salvation to the Iranians. Zonist (sic) and neo-con interests and oil have nothing to do with it.

Only idiots, cretins and evil people try to rationalize dead babies. There is no cause worth this evil. If we use evil to defeat evil, we ourselves have become evil.

Wow. Americans are just shocking in their denial. By this sick logic the jihadis are completely justified when they attack American civilians in massive acts of terror – which I might add are mere blips in comparison to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We live in a sick culture, where 60 years have passed, and there isnt even a shred of shame with regards to this heinous crime. For the sake of our species – Boycott America.

this is a truly disgusting article by a truly disgusting war monger who has now become famous for constantly suggesting war and violence against brown, black and yellow people – Lebanon, Iraq and now a justification of nuclear weapons against Japanese,
next we will get an Oliver Kamm article that says drop a nuke on Bahghdad for the sake of the Iraqis and to save American casualities,
what is the different between Oliver Kamm and the guys with long beards who glorify jihad and say things like drop drop drop the bomb?

“Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome.”
The other side also did similar terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome which became war crimes.
It is the winner who decides what is or is not a war crime.

Apologists for Western war crimes are two a penny. But why would such a person imagine they were left wing?

Most people can justify anything, even killing millions of humanbeings as long as they are not among the killed.It is sad to read such an article in the Guardian

America has ever been a psychopathic bully ever since it’s first days and the genocide against the indiginous Americans. Why all these attempts to justify what was clearly a war crime greater than all others?

The demand of unconditional surrender is in itself a war crime. It convinced the Germans (the generals not least)that they would have to fight to the last man, since no mercy could be expected from the Allies. Germany was to be destroyed rather than merely conquered. The same with Japan.

The US has never learned the lesson of treating one’s enemies with grace and magnanimity once those enemies have lost–it is always vindictive, always demands unconditional surrender, complete acquiescence to US subjugation. The US and will destroy an entire country in order to prove a point instead of giving in to one very small, insignificant condition.

What is completely absent from these comments (and many others like them) is any awareness of things like the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March, or even the Holocaust for that matter; or of the fact that America’s supposed determination to “destroy” and crush her enemies manifested itself in rebuilding postwar Germany and leaving Japan with a political system that allowed it to prosper and become a strong economic rival to America herself. (There is also very little awareness that tens of thousands of German civilians died in British bombing raids.) A few commenters suggest that America should have allowed the Soviets to end the war by invading Japan, blithely unaware of the hell on earth that would have awaited the Japanese under Soviet occupation. This isn’t mere ignorance; it’s a profound conviction that only evil done by the West, and above all by “psychopathic bully” America, truly matters. Meanwhile, posters who point out Japanese atrocities in World War II are rebuffed with accusations of “the implicitly racist overtone [of] recounting the endless ‘savagery’ of the Japanese.”

When anti-Americanism becomes so extreme that it turns the U.S. into the bad guy of World War II, that’s truly frightening and depressing. Even one poster highly critical of American foreign policy today was moved to point out:

Now I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything in the defence of the United States, but there is a time for everything. The naivety of certain comments above is astonishing.

It is not racist to state that Japan during the 1940s was in the grip of a pseudo-religious nationalistic fever and would have fought to that last man rather than allow foreigners to invade their land. The inhumanity of the Japanese regime was akin to Nazi Germany. Had the situation been reversed and the Japanese had the bomb, there would not be a hamlet left standing in the United States.

It is difficult to imagine given the current American tendency of mindless warmongering, but there was a time when the US fought a just war, and there was unfortunately no alternative way of ending it to save hundreds of thousands of American lives and millions of Japanese lives.

Many of the Guardian posters were convinced that the real purpose behind Kamm’s defense of Hiroshima was to defend the use of nuclear weapons against Iran or Iraq today. I don’t know what Kamm thinks on the subject, but I do know that Shaun Mullen thinks it would be insane to use nukes in the War on Terror. So, the argument that the U.S. was justified in dropping the bombs in 1945 is not necessarily, folks, a transparent rationalization for incinerating Baghdad or Tehran in 2007.

As for whether the bombing was indeed the least evil of all available options: again, I don’t know. I’m sure there is room for legitimate debate on this issue. But that debate is almost entirely drowned out by hate and self-righteousness. The insistense on moral purity has turned to moral blindness.


Filed under moral issues, the left, War

11 responses to “Hiroshima, moral purity and moral blindness

  1. Shaun Mullen

    Hi Cathy:

    Thank you for the links, but Mr. Kamm really nails it.

  2. Anonymous

    There’s a major point that is often overlooked:

    Had Japan surrended 4 to 6 week later than it did, there would’ve been a Soviet occupation of Hokkaido to deal with, instead of merely being the current Russian occupation of a few small islands in the southernmost Kuril chain.

    The Red Army was planning to land troops on the northernmost island of Hokkaido in September. Based on the casualty rate of civilians in Manchukuo and Karafuto, tens of thousands of Japanese civilians would’ve died. Not to mention the additional thousands of Japanese who would’ve died in Siberian camps throughout the late 40s.

    Furthermore, it’s possible that Japan would’ve been partitioned like Germany and Korea, with a “People’s Democratic Republic of Japan” or suchlike, with millions of people living under occupation.

    I can’t see how that would be a positive development.

    I’m surprised that this point isn’t made more often.

  3. Susan's Husband

    It’s not made often because, as you can see from the quotes, none of the people you would make it too would believe that being occupied by the Soviets would have been worse than the American occupation.

  4. Cathy Young

    anon: actually, as I noted in my piece, several of Kamm’s posters refer to a Soviet invasion of Japan as a positive alternative.

  5. Anonymous

    Oh, didn’t notice that 😦

  6. Anonymous

    Why doesn’t anybody talk about the almost suicidal behavior of the Japanese leadership in waiting so long to surrender? By the beginning of 1945 the Japanese had lost total control of their own air space. Curtis LeMay had already burned down 50-60 cities with conventional weapons by August ’45. And still Japan would not surrender.

    Leaving their civilian population defenseless like that was one of the great crimes of the Japanese leaders.

    By the way, if Japan had surrendered earlier in 1945 they wouldn’t be facing a hostile North Korea.

  7. Anonymous

    Another point that gets overlooked is that (as the Japanese later determined after the war) throughout 1945 anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 civilians were dying each day from treatable disease or starvation.

    By the time the bomb was dropped, anywhere from 600,000 to one million civilians had died in 1945 alone

  8. Steve Culley

    My father was on the way to Japan for the invasion when the war ended. There is a damn good chance I wouldn’t be here if the invasion of Japan became a reality. Total surrender brought about the modern Japan and Germany. To have left militarists and fascists in power would have meant a much different world than we know today.

  9. Donald Douglas

    I’m always blown away by this debate. Dropping the bombs saved – in capitals, SAVED – hundreds of thousands of lives.

    I teach “dropping the bomb” as one of my case studies in international relations. For the most part, people dismiss Japan’s nasty, horrendous agressions that precipitated the war, and anti-U.S. types conveniently forget that the Japanese state was arming grandmothers and children in a home-guard defense against an American invasion – Japan was prepared to fight to the last. More people were killed in the incendiary raids, of which you mentioned.

    Lastly, an atomic bomb is just one more military instrument. Because there is now a tremendous taboo against the use of nukes, it’s easy for America-bashers to demonize the U.S. for August 1945 and Japan. Don’t forget we used the bomb on a non-white population, and that feeds the multicultural anger.

    This is an interesting debate. You’re right about the moral relativism, but ultimately we did the right thing, and the history of international relations – with Japan as America’s most loyal ally today – shows that Truman made the right decision.

    Burkean Reflections

  10. mabman

    There’s always a tendency to review and judge the acts of the past by the standards of the present. Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not occur in isolation – they were the culmination of 14 years of escalating barbarity, from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and its far more brutal “China Incident” to German bombings of civilian centers, the “Final Solution,” the unimaginable horrors of the Russo-German War, the vicious racialism underlying the attitudes and motivations of both Japanese and Western forces in the Pacific, and finally the mass bombings of German and Japanese cities. Freeman Dyson had a brilliant passage in his book Weapons and Hope, describing the “moral creep” he experienced working for the RAF in WWII as the strategic bombing campaign steadily escalated from 1940 to 1945.

    It’s true that civilized nations shouldn’t annihilate cities full of civilians, but there was nothing “civilized” about WWII other than the technologies used to wage it. I think that if any good came from city-bombing, it was that it filled the Western world with such revulsion after the fact that it was never again considered a justifiable strategy. We didn’t bomb Pyongyang or Hanoi out of existence, nor did we destroy Baghdad (we may be doing that indirectly now, but that’s another story).

    Let’s not kid ourselves – the Pacific War wasn’t going to end without a lot of dead people, one way or another. Starving the Japanese into surrender might have taken another 6 – 12 months, and millions of Japanese civilians would have died of disease and malnutrition – they were already living on less than 900 calories a day by the summer of 1945. An invasion would have been incredibly costly – the only guy who thought it might be cheap was McArthur, and he was a grandstanding bozo who was pressing for one. To provide some idea of the possible civilian casualties in an invasion, as many Okinawans as Japanese soldiers died during that campaign (~100,000), and the number of Japanese civilians who died on Saipan was close to the number of military dead. The Japanese Army and Navy had over 4,000 aircraft stationed on Kyushu alone for kamikaze attacks on the Third Fleet, and they wouldn’t have hesitated in mobilizing the civilian population to resist – they were issuing bamboo spears to civilians in the summer of 1945!

    I have mixed feelings about Hiroshima and Nagasaki – my mother was ~100 miles outside Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and I can easily imagine her taking the wrong train trip at the wrong time. OTOH, my dad was in the 8th Army in the Philippines on that same day training for the invasion of Japan that fall, and as he freely admits, he was pissing his pants at the idea. For purely selfish reasons (i.e. my current existence), I’m kinda glad things worked out the way they did.

  11. tanyaa

    The bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 turned into powder and ash, in a few moments, the flesh and bones of 140,000 men, women, and children. Three days later, a second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki killed perhaps 70,000 instantly. In the next five years, another 130,000 inhabitants of those two cities died of radiation poisoning.No one will ever know the exact figures, but these come from the most exhaustive report available, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, put together by a team of thirty-four Japanese scientists and physicians, then translated and published in this country in 1981. Those statistics do not include countless other people who were left alive, but maimed, poisoned, disfigured, blinded.

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