August 6

At the tail end of the day — actually, tale end would work just as well — a moment’s pause to acknowledge the Hiroshima anniversary.

On one of the bike club email lists I subscribe to, one mostly for Berkeley folks and our ilk, one member sent out a mildly worded note that he planned a ride out to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory today to reflect on “human intelligence and human stupidity.” Good for him. Then, to underline his feelings, I guess, he appended a simplistic screed copied and pasted from someplace on the Web that declared that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the “two worst terror acts in human history.”

That set off a chain reaction of responses that fell into two familiar camps:

–It was essential to use the bomb to avoid the slaughter that would have attended a U.S. invasion of Japan’s home islands. And besides, war is hell. And here were similar or worse atrocities and mass deaths during the war, some due to Allied bombing.

–Japan was about to collapse. The argument about preventing mass casualties is a myth. The bombings were entirely avoidable and amount to mass murder, plain and simple.

At one point, I would have veered toward the second camp. And I still can’t accept there was no acceptable alternative to dropping the bomb on a virtually defenseless civilian target. That being said, it’s disappointing that the discussion is reduced to such absurd oversimplifications and dominated by the need for an uncomplicated answer.

Easy for us, most of whom have no direct experience of the magnitude of violence unleashed in modern warfare to try to justify or condemn the bombing. The reality was terrible, and terribly complex. Just one example: The immediate backdrop to the bombing was the battle of Okinawa. Three months. Two hundred fifty thousand killed; 100,000 civilians killed. There was good reason to dread the next step in an invasion of Japan.

As I said, I can’t buy that dropping the bomb was the only option. But what did the decision really come down to? Callous disregard for life? Desire to avoid sacrificing U.S. troops in a bloody invasion? Reckless use of a lethal and perhaps imperfectly understood technology? Lasting animosity for a nation that hit us with a sneak attack? Underlying racial and cultural hatred? Desire to show the Soviets what would be in store for them if they got out of hand? Impulse to do something, anything to finish off a fierce and much-feared enemy?

I choose all of the above.

2 Replies to “August 6”

  1. A great analysis of the complexity of the situation. While in America I felt like the demonification of Japan in many people’s minds to the point that any means were exceptable to defeat them was appalling. Now that I am in Japan I have witnessed the reverse, the victim mentality taken to the point where the horror wreaked by the Japanese army (especially in China) can be ignored. Luckily for Japan this has developed in a pacifist way but I still think looking at all sides of what happened is important step in the process of moving forward. I was saying to Sakura on the 6th that while I disagree with the use of the bomb, even if it was unnecesary it does not mean that the people making the decision to drop it found it unnecesary. Noone except the people involved in the decision understand what making that decision entailed.

  2. I remember listening to Uncle Bill go on about how the bombings were a great crime. I said to him “I guess that makes Harry Truman a war criminal.” Being a fan of Harry’s, he was thoughtfully silent about that one. The Iwo Jima-Okinawa backdrop is good place to start. Also, the Japanese were no angels when they retreated from Manila the previous fall, leaving that city a smoldering wreck with tens of thousands of civilians killed. And after all…these were Hitler’s allies.
    I reckon if Truman had not used the bomb and allowed the invasion of Japan to ahead as it was being planned, and if it had come to grief (“grief” could be losing the battle or winning it and taking 150,000 or 200,000 casualties in either event) he would have been impeached when Americans found out he could have used the bomb to try to end (win) the war. I also think that if people could envision the horrors they would unleash by starting a war they would think again before setting off on such a course. What Japanese would have favored bombing Pearl Harbor if he could have imagined the bombings of Nagasaki, Hiroshima or for that matter, Tokyo? What antebellum Southern gentleman or belle would have been sanguine about fighting the Yankees if they could imagine Richmond and the South in ruins; 600,000 dead? Likewise the Europeans in 1914. I guess the best lesson is for thoughtful-wise leadership to weigh these sorts of decisions better. The citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not just victims of the bomb but of profoundly stupid and greedy leadership in their own country. I suppose that somewhere in these events is a lesson for anyone whose leaders want to deliver them to some abstract destination of glory.

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