War Crimes

As the New York Times remembers Hiroshima, Richard Fernandez asks us to name the two greatest losses of civilian life in the Pacific war. (“Hint. In both cases the civilian casualties were greater than Hiroshima’s. In one case the event took place on American soil.”)

Meanwhile, Donald Sensing (Sense of Events) thinks it’s past time for Western churches to stop treating Japan as victim every Aug. 6 and 9:

I refuse on principle to pollute God’s ears with prayers dedicated only to Hiroshima Day and the dead of those cities while ignoring the tens of millions of Japanese-murdered souls who cry for remembrance, but do not get it, certainly not from the World Council of Churches and its allies who have no loathing but for their own civilization. If the prayers of the WCC’s service are to be offered, let them be uttered on Aug. 14, the day Japan announced its surrender, or on Sept. 2, the day the surrender instruments were signed aboard USS Missouri. Let our churches no longer be accessories to Japan’s blood-soaked silence but instead be voices for the millions of murdered victims of its bloodlust, imperialist militarism.

(HT: Bill Cork).

Likewise, the historian Victor Davis Hanson reminds us, Hiroshima, then, was not the worst single-day loss of life in military history:

The Tokyo fire raid on the night of March 9/10, five months earlier, was far worse, incinerating somewhere around 150,000 civilians, and burning out over 15 acres of the downtown. Indeed, “Little Boy,” the initial nuclear device that was dropped 60 years ago, was understood as the continuance of that policy of unrestricted bombing — its morality already decided by the ongoing attacks on the German and Japanese cities begun at least three years earlier.

Americans of the time hardly thought the Japanese populace to be entirely innocent. The Imperial Japanese army routinely butchered civilians abroad — some 10-15 million Chinese were eventually to perish — throughout the Pacific from the Philippines to Korea and Manchuria. Even by August 1945, the Japanese army was killing thousands of Asians each month. When earlier high-level bombing attacks with traditional explosives failed to cut off the fuel for this murderous military — industries were increasingly dispersed in smaller shops throughout civilian centers — Curtis LeMay unleashed napalm on the Japanese cities and eventually may have incinerated 500,000.

In some sense, Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only helped to cut short the week-long Soviet invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria (80,000 Japanese soldiers killed, over 8,000 Russian dead), but an even more ambitious incendiary campaign planned by Gen. Curtis LeMay.

Davis concludes:

The truth, as we are reminded so often in this present conflict, is that usually in war there are no good alternatives, and leaders must select between a very bad and even worse choice. Hiroshima was the most awful option imaginable, but the other scenarios would have probably turned out even worse.

* * *

I had once asked a well-read colleague how I might educate myself on the history of this subject. He responded with the following — and while I haven’t gotten around to reading all of them, I trust his judgment enough to pass along his recommendations:

  • Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, by Richard B. Frank. The premise behind this excellent history of the concluding stages of WWII in the Pacific is that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has cast a light so bright that it has blinded historians to many of the political, diplomatic and military realities that existed before August 6, 1945. In his comprehensive study of the last months of WWII, Frank (Guadalcanal) aims to present events “as they were perceived and recorded by American and Japanese participants in 1945, not years or decades thereafter.” [Publisher’s Weekly]
  • Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, by Robert James Maddox.
  • The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb, by George Feifer.
  • BBC History of World War II: Hiroshima [Film] “This drama-documentary attempts to do what no other film has done before – to show what it is like to live through a nuclear explosion. Set in the three weeks from the test explosion in New Mexico to the dropping of the bomb, the action takes viewers into the room where the crucial political decisions are made; on board the Enola Gay; inside the bomb as it explodes; and on the streets of Hiroshima.”

On Richard B. Frank, see also his piece for the Weekly Standard — pointing out how, some sixty years after Hiroshima, we now have the secret intercepts that reveal “why Truman dropped the bomb”. (Weekly Standard August 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44):

Several American historians led by Robert Newman have insisted vigorously that any assessment of the end of the Pacific war must include the horrifying consequences of each continued day of the war for the Asian populations trapped within Japan’s conquests. Newman calculates that between a quarter million and 400,000 Asians, overwhelmingly noncombatants, were dying each month the war continued. Newman et al. challenge whether an assessment of Truman’s decision can highlight only the deaths of noncombatant civilians in the aggressor nation while ignoring much larger death tolls among noncombatant civilians in the victim nations.

There are a good many more points that now extend our understanding beyond the debates of 1995. But it is clear that all three of the [revisionist] critics’ central premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood … that “until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies.” This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.

The displacement of the so-called traditionalist view within important segments of American opinion took several decades to accomplish. It will take a similar span of time to displace the critical orthodoxy that arose in the 1960s and prevailed roughly through the 1980s, and replace it with a richer appreciation for the realities of 1945.

* * *

“Hindsight is 20/20” as the saying goes, and there’s hardly a better illustration of such than the regular denunciations of the Allied bombings that occur around this time every year: where those with crystal-clear clarity can pierce the fog of war and condemn Truman as a war criminal; or to trace, as philosopher Christopher O. Tollefsen does, the impact of consequentialist ethics of the Allied bombings on the public and private moral deliberations of today.

Countless Catholic voices have weighed in against the bombing (see “Popes Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Vatican II, the CCC, & US Bishops on the Morality of Nuking Hiroshima & Nagasaki” (compiled by Dave Armstrong). “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man.”

Suffice to say it is doubtful that Truman approached the situation with the same moral calculus as they. Rather, I expect he was sorely burdened by the prospect of what would happen had he decided otherwise.

And so I find myself torn: I find it impossible to defend such a decision on Catholic grounds (I’m aware some have tried); at the same time, I understand completely how Truman might have chosen as he did. Like Michael Liccione:

So as to forestall much pointless wrangling, I shall concede that, in the circumstances, dropping The Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many more lives than the several hundred thousand civilian casualties in the vicinity of the explosions. Given our war aim of “unconditional surrender,” the practical necessity of invading the Japanese home islands as a means of achieving that aim, and the fanatical dedication of the Japanese people to their Emperor, no other calculation was or is credible. But the question remains: was the act morally permissible all the same? The affirmative answer may have been obvious to most Americans, especially combat-weary veterans, at the time. But that doesn’t make it so …

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