Can We Tell the Truth about Hiroshima 60 Years Later?

, the crew of the Enola Gay hit the city of Hiroshima with the first of two nuclear weapons that have been used in wartime.

At The Picket Line I spend a lot of words waxing opinionated about ethics and responsibility and the relationship between people and institutions, especially as these issues come out in wartime. The bombing of Hiroshima is a well-worn case study in these areas, and I hoped to have something useful to say today to mark the occasion.

I’ve spent several hours over the past few days trying to reacquaint myself with what’s been said before on the subject. Now, while I’m writing this, I have a headache and I’m feeling sick to my stomach. Reading doesn’t usually affect me this way, and I can’t point to anything specific that I read that hit me particularly hard.

But I feel more confused and helpless now after wrestling with this. Today’s Picket Line entry ends with someone else’s decades-old unanswered question, which is also mine: “What can a man do about it all?”

That awful thing

Hiroshima does represent a dividing line of sorts and the dawn of a new era and so forth, but from the point of view of personal ethics and war there isn’t really much new or qualitatively different in the decision to drop the bomb there. The line had already been crossed, and mass slaughter had already become commonplace. There still were, of course, the individual ethical decisions of whether or not to personally become involved in this slaughter, but there too nothing really changed on .

The serious arguments given in favor of the decision to bomb, then and today, are typically utilitarian ones. The decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the decision to maim, burn and kill tens of thousands of innocents — but, goes the argument, the alternatives were even worse.

I don’t know whether or not that is true, but it is certainly arguable. Even critics of the bombing sometimes concede the point inadvertently, like one Hugh “D.J.” Carlen, who was quoted in the Guardian recently: “I don’t think we really needed to do it. We darn near had the country starved to death. We could have effected a blockade.”

Sure enough, starvation had taken hold by that time in Japan and what was left of its empire. The first to starve to death were, naturally, not the Japanese but their captives — but before long the rest could have been starved into submission too. The allies even named one of their campaigns “Operation Starvation.”

One alternative to the Hiroshima bombing that is suggested by today’s back-seat generals is a campaign to destroy the rail centers and paralyze food transport within Japan (the ports were already mostly destroyed).

But if you advocate mass starvation as a way of defeating Japan, what about the atom bomb offends you?

Plenty of people in Japan’s ruling class probably knew they had lost the war by , another argument goes, so why not let them surrender on something more like their terms rather than inflicting more and more suffering to gain an unconditional surrender?

But the junta in charge of Imperial Japan had been and continued to be inflicting tremendous suffering. It is a good thing, at least, that they were not simply defeated but were crushed.

All of these arguments aside, at the time the bomb was dropped the case actually seemed much less clear than its modern defenders can make it seem. Those who were horrified at the bombing of Hiroshima and who disapproved of it were not just the usual pacifist suspects.

On , two days after the bombing, former Republican President Herbert Hoover wrote to a friend that “[t]he use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.” General Eisenhower thought “it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” White House Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy thought that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan” and that “we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”

More telling are the contemporary accounts of the people who defended the bombing.

“The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” That was President Truman, on , in a radio address to America.

“We have used [the bomb] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor,” Truman said, “against those who have starved, beaten and executed American prisoners of war, and against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.”

Of course Hiroshima was a city, not “a military base.” And though the tens of thousands of victims may have included some who brutalized American prisoners of war or who committed crimes against what was left of the laws of war, these were certainly outnumbered by schoolchildren, or Korean slave laborers, or other completely undeserving people.

I say this not to try to begin forming an argument against the bombing, but to point out that even those who were defending the decision to bomb at the time found it necessary to grossly distort what had happened in order to do so.

Later , Truman was more frank: “It occurred to me that a quarter million of the flower of our American youth were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.”

The quarter million figure was probably already highly exaggerated when Truman brought it out, but it is a number that grows with each telling. Soon it became “at least half a million,” then “a million” and then “over a million.” More recently, George H.W. Bush said that the bombings were justified because they “spared millions of American lives.”

The common, vulgar defenses of the Hiroshima bombing are of this sort — they find it necessary to defend a Hiroshima bombing that never happened, presumably because they find the one that did happen hard to defend.

The worst of these lines of defense carry on the tradition of Truman’s claim that the attacks weren’t really on the people who actually lived in Hiroshima, the ones who suffered and died in the attacks, but against some abstract and evil They which was itself guilty of the collected crimes of Imperial Japan:

What did they expect… They started it.… They deserved payback for their “sneaky” little attack on Pearl Harbor.… They would have done it to us if they had had the chance.… The Japanese atrocities in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia including rapes and pillage of civilian populations deserved some kind of retribution.… How can the bomb be criticized considering what the Japanese did to their war prisoners. They broke every civilized rule of war.… If the bomb was so bad, why didn’t they surrender after Hiroshima. Why did they make us drop a second bomb?… It is a bit much to have them talk about the sanctity of life. Kamikaze isn’t exactly an American word. It was they who had the suicide bombers.

Machines and morals

The Hiroshima bombing is an ethical landmark not because of the decisions that were made on . Any ethical lines that were crossed then had already been crossed many times over.

But the development of nuclear weapons put enormous destructive power into the hands of just a few people. Hundreds of thousands of our lives have been enjoyed only at the whims of the powerful.

Anyone in the chain of decision to launch a nuclear missile is performing acts that defy the restraint of ethical instinct. Someone turns a key or presses a button or nods his head, and somewhere else a fireball erupts in a city center.

Here’s one argument from a critic of the utilitarian defense of the bombing of Hiroshima: “Suppose that, when we invaded Germany , our leaders had believed that executing all the inhabitants of Aachen, or Trier, or some other Rhineland city would finally break the will of the Germans and lead them to surrender. In this way, the war might have ended quickly, saving the lives of many Allied soldiers. Would that then have justified shooting tens of thousands of German civilians, including women and children? Yet how is that different from the atomic bombings?”

This argument highlights that our ethical instinct is to be revolted when presented with the senseless deaths of individual innocents, killed face-to-face, but somehow this same instinct is not triggered by the incineration of thousands from a distance. (Or, as Stalin is said to have noted: “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”)

From a utilitarian standpoint, the ethical challenge would have been the same for the pilot of the Enola Gay as for some imaginary invulnerable paratrooper dropped into Hiroshima with a perpetual flamethrower, going from house to house and burning his victims one by one.

(Maybe Paul Tibbets would have volunteered for just such a mission. He is proud of his role as the pilot of the Enola Gay, and unsentimental about civilian casualties: “If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: ‘You’ve killed so many civilians.’ That’s their tough luck for being there.” He has his own website, that celebrates the bombing and offers for sale a hot sauce called “CaBoom!” in a grenade-shaped bottle.)

Our instinctual ethical judgment is too primitive to guide us in the decisions that we are now capable of making. These instincts were designed for face-to-face encounters with people, and fail us where we need them most today.

Our instincts were designed to guide us in the environment we evolved in. In that environment, they work well. We don’t rely on instruments to tell us how to swing our arms while we walk, but we also aren’t foolish enough to “just eyeball it” when landing a jet. We know that our instincts fail when our bodies and our senses are exposed to conditions they did not evolve in.

, Truman wrote in his diary “I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries.” We have extended with technology our abilities, but we have not found any equivalent way of amplifying, extending, or enhancing our ethical instincts. The same mental faculties that have to make the decision of whether or not to get in a fist-fight over an insult now are being called on to decide whether or not to call in an airstrike. Someone who must decide whether it is right or wrong to extinguish a hundred thousand lives with the push of a button must rely on just eyeballing it.

As General Omar Bradley said in his speech: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”

Nuclear giants and ethical infants

These nuclear giants and ethical infants go by names like Mao, Nixon, Kim, Sharon, Stalin, and Dubya. This ought to terrify us, but for the most part it seems like we’ve gotten used to it. we’ve been “carrying on as if the nuclear stockpiles amassed during the Cold War had all been converted into solar panels and parakeet swings under Boris Yeltsin’s kindly gaze.”

In fact, we may very well be in as much danger now as we were then. An antagonistic rival Soviet Union has been transformed into a cranky also-ran Russia, but one in which WMD facilities [are] protected only by padlocks, and top-tier weapons scientists kept in Russia only by starvation wages.”

The dangers of keeping nuclear forces on a high-alert, launch-on-warning footing were real enough during the Cold War, when U.S. and Russian command and control systems were reliable and followed a strict line of authority. This is no longer the case. Not only do Russian generals today have the power to launch Russian missiles independent of their political masters, Russia’s ability to accurately detect incoming missiles has eroded badly , adding to Russian insecurity and increasing the likelihood that confusing radar data could lead to a nuclear launch order.

The most famous example of this danger occurred on , when Norway launched a weather research rocket to explore the Northern Lights phenomenon. When Russia’s radars picked up the missile trajectory, it seemed to have been fired from a U.S. submarine in the Norwegian Sea — long suspected by the Russians as a likely first move in a U.S. surprise attack. Russian nuclear forces scrambled into position and bunker commanders inserted their launch keys, awaiting the order to turn them. Yeltsin, reportedly fuming drunk at the time, opened his nuclear briefcase and consulted with the frenzied General Staff. With their nerves screaming, together they watched the missile trajectory slowly turn away from any conceivable Russian target. When the crisis finally ended, they had less than two minutes to make a decision. (U.S. submarine-launched missiles can reach Moscow in 10 minutes.)

The Norwegian government had warned the Russian embassy in Oslo in advance about the test, but the information never made it to the Russian General Staff. As described by former CIA analyst Peter Vincent Pry in his book War Scare, it was “a clerical error” that brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since .

And while Americans don’t wring their hands in public about nuclear weapons like they used to in the days of Dr. Strangelove and Do the Russians Love Their Children Too?, the U.S. government and military/industrial complex haven’t heard that the arms race is over:

Measured in “real dollars” (that is, adjusting for inflation), ’s spending on nuclear activities is equal to what Ronald Reagan spent at . It exceeds by over 50 percent the average annual sum ($4.2 billion) that the United States spent — again, in real dollars — throughout .

U.S. policy & Osama’s creed

In the wake of the attacks, Dubya asked America to forget Hiroshima, and Osama asked the world to remember it.

Dubya said: “Americans have known the casualties of war, but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks, but never before on thousands of civilians.”

Osama said: “When people at the ends of the Earth, Japan, were killed by their hundreds of thousands, young and old, it was not considered a war crime; it is something that has justification.”

and certainly , bin Laden has seen the United States as the principal invader of the Muslim world because of its support for the Saudi royal family, Israel and other Middle Eastern governments he labels apostate. In often tedious debates with comrades during , he has argued that only by attacking distant America could al Qaeda hope to mortally wound the Middle East’s frontline authoritarian governments.

His inspiration, repeatedly cited in his writings and interviews, is the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he says shocked Japan’s fading imperial government into a surrender it might not otherwise have contemplated. Bin Laden has said several times that he is seeking to acquire and use nuclear weapons not only because it is God’s will, but because he wants to do to American foreign policy what the United States did to Japanese imperial surrender policy.

Listening to him on tape after tape, it is difficult to doubt bin Laden’s intent. There is evidence that he and his allies have experimented with chemical and biological weapons, typically low-level toxins. But in public, bin Laden talks mainly about nuclear bombs.

If circumstances are desperate enough, if the alternatives are terrible enough, and if a utilitarian calculation justifies it, using a nuclear weapon against a city is justified. This is the creed of Osama, and the policy of the U.S. government.

What can I do?

What can a man do about it all? If, as Carlyle once remarked, “The end of man is an action and not a thought, though it were the noblest,” thinking and writing and reading ought to be followed by something else.

But is there any individual “act” in relation to war which has a real meaning — a meaning for war, as much as for the individual? , a writer in the Memphis Press-Scimitar told of his experience in serving in the late war under a major general who had been a regular army man for twenty-eight years. The time was ; the occasion, the news that an atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. As the Press-Scimitar reporter tells it:

In that first excitement, I gave no thought to the consequences. I just ran into the office of my chief, Maj. Gen. Archer L. Lerch, and blurted out to him the confused story that I had heard.…

He was sitting at his desk, working on some papers when I entered. He listened to what I had to say and then leaned back in his chair and stared off into space for a few minutes.

Then he looked back at me — and very slowly and very softly said:

“I hope that report you have heard isn’t true.”…

How many individuals are there who, behind the facade of military resolve, and despite their impotence as individuals, are staring off into space, today, and wishing that the things they know to be true weren’t true?

What does that wish really mean? How do you start turning such wishes into acts? In a world where moral responsibility is supposed to count for something, there ought to be a way in which individual feelings can make themselves felt. Lest conscience make us cowards, shall we let war make zombies of us all, and, until the end of our days, stare sadly off into space?