My father held The Bomb affectionately at arm’s length. While he was pretty certain that – on balance – it had saved both Japanese and American lives (including those of his fellow servicemen), he was simply appalled by the carnage it packaged into a single shell.
Like everyone of my generation, I grew up under its radioactive shadow. As children, we could not eat snow because of the fallout from nuclear tests. We practiced “duck ‘n cover”.1 A couple of my friends’ families had elaborate underground fallout shelters in their back yards.
Starting with John Hersey’s Hiroshima, I wound up reading books about the nuclear weapons industry, the politics of Mutually Assured Destruction, the physiology of radiation sickness and flash burns, and how the bombs are made. At one point in high school, I considered an apprenticeship program for welding for nuclear facilities, with an eye to working at the Hanford facility (which is now mostly shut down.)
It’s fascinating stuff, if you can suspend judgement long enough to learn about it. In my reading, I’ve only scratched the surface.
But what about the bombing?
A lot of people are naive about the carnage wrought by conventional bombing in WWII. It’s as if they think that it’s somehow more horrible to die in an atomic bombing than a conventional one. For the victim, there probably isn’t that much difference. The difference in horror, if any, is abstract; something for us to debate in following years.
The main sticking point, as I understand it, is that nuclear destruction is so economical.2 Firebombing a city required a lot of planes, masterful coordination, and ideal weather conditions. Nuking a city just seems so… easy, as if that meant one might not give it serious consideration before pushing the button.
Well, there could be a point there. If a lot of people are involved in an attack, there’s always the chance they might balk if the attack isn’t justified. History does not give much support to that hope, but hey; it could happen. A nuclear weapon, once finished and deployed, places a lot of trust in the judgment of very few people.
Was it necessary to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Can I answer that with another question? How about this: can we judge the past by the standards of the present?
Historical figures were not cartoons; they were people. Remember that many historical decisions were the first of their kind. It is simply disingenuous to ask them to know everything we know, or to see things from our perspective.
For many, the point of studying history seems to be to pass judgment on the people who lived then, on their decisions, by present standards of “evolved” morality. You know the song and all its verses; Jefferson was a racist, so was Lincoln. The Bomb was an atrocity. Well let’s face it… that’s all the history some people know. It’s pretty much Romans, Dark Ages, American revolution, Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq. Their entire grasp of history wouldn’t fill a thick phamplet. But they sure can tell you what was right and wrong about those who went before.
We forget that someone, someday, will apply the same treatment to us. So a little humility is in order, along with some study.
I’d like to think our morality has evolved, and it has. But evolution doesn’t have headlights. If you know anything about evolution, you know about blind alleys and ecological niches.5 Our moral understanding might easily have adapted to circumstances that don’t exist anymore and we will be seen as the bad guys.
History should help us decide what to do next. Not because we say; “They were wrong,” but because we know what “they” did and can reflect on it and say “What will we do?”
In those days, warfare was about “strategic targets.” It still is. We’re just using a better magnifying glass.
As military technology has become more “granular” (that is, capable of delivering its effect to smaller and more well-defined targets) there is less public support for incinerating entire cities full of people. Today’s morality might say: “If you have a beef with that leader, kill him.” It is our leaders who are afraid of assassination, which might be returned in kind. For people on the street, assassination has a certain ring to it.
It wasn’t, after all, the cities full of children and their parents, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. The fact is that our range of moral options derives from our range of practical possibilities.
If we had a similar conflict with Japan today, we’d launch one cruise missile.3 It would fly low, winding its way around mountains and hills, under power lines. It might even fly right down a street, turn right at another street, and into the front door of the Imperial palace. It could carry conventional explosives, or a small nuke, half the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima.4
If you got this far expecting me to say; “It was wrong to drop the bomb,” or “Dern tootin’ it was the right thing to do!” I am sorry to disappoint you. I’d have more to say about using The Bomb today, but that (contrary to popular opinion) is an entirely different essay. It would have to be informed by, but not directed by knowledge of the past. The ambiguity of such a terrible event is summed up quite well in the ending of a National Geographic article about Hiroshima. It says something like this:
“At ground zero there is a simple monument bearing a plaque which reads: ‘May the dead rest in peace, for the mistake will not be repeated.’ But it is not clear which mistake: The Bomb? Or Pearl Harbor?”
- Despite its comical reputation, if you are outside the zone of complete destruction, “duck ‘n cover” is a very useful exercise likely to improve your survival chances. I never understood why people thought it was so futile.
- It’s pretty unlikely the captain and crew of the USS Indianapolis would have thought The Bomb to be economical. They paid rather dearly for it.
- There were some cruise missiles during WWII; the Nazis built them. While incredibly advanced for their time, they couldn’t pull off that kind of surgical strike.
- The popular image of Hiroshima as totally incinerated is not correct. Thousands of people survived, and later were subject to prejudice by their own society for reasons I still cannot quite fathom. In any case, huge numbers of people survived exposure to radiation – according to one report 120,000 of them are still alive today and constitute the largest human study of radiation exposure.
- Moral arguments from scientific knowledge such as evolution are at best an anology. Don’t put too much weight on them.
- One of the interesting facets of WWII is that cities are practically immortal. Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki existed for some economic reason – transportation, rivers, etc. Nearly wiping them off the face of the Earth had little long-term effect. Today, they are bustling cities, and tourists are more likely to visit monuments than residents are.
- Our faith in a future may be somewhat irrational. If there are real threats to our existence, popular understanding of them will face an uphill battle.
- Mostly Cajun weighs in on Hiroshima – pretty close to my dad’s point of view.
- Orac picks up the bomb, weighing the present against the past and including a list of well-chosen links about Hiroshima.