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.