Today is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sixty-seven isn’t a particularly exciting anniversary, being neither divisible by five or ten, but I get the feeling that it’s been talked about more this year than it was in the last few years. Maybe it’s all of the concderns regarding Iran and the Middle East? Maybe because it’s the first anniversary post-Fukushima? I’m not sure, but something’s in the air.
67 also happens to be the number of Japanese cities we firebombed before dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I wrote up a short, quick essay on the anniversary of Hiroshima for a group that didn’t pick it to be used (which is fine), but I thought I’d share it here. I’ve added some illustrations, because you can do that with blogs.
THE LINE WE CROSSED
We have been debating the morality, strategy, and history of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for sixty-seven years. From their first use, the bombs were the subject of intense adulation and exuberance, as well as deep anxiety and ambivalence. Almost immediately the bomb was viewed as something completely new, and after the Japanese declared their surrender days later, the bomb was given the credit for ending the war.
Whether it deserved that credit, or whether the war could have been ended without it, has been the subject of debate for nearly that long. Over the decades various arguments about the reasons for using the bombs, and their possible justifications, have been aired, confronted, revised, and rebutted. But even the arguments in favor of the bombing acknowledge that the United States crossed a line when it used the first nuclear weapons on inhabited cities. (Those who argue against the use of the bomb necessarily invoke such an argument.) The justification for such a “special” weapon — to use the terminology of the day1 — was that it was necessary to “shock” the Japanese into rapid submission for a net saving of lives.
But was a line really crossed? The atomic bombs killed tens of thousands of civilians immediately in each city, with more casualties attributed to their lingering effects over time. Looked at in a vacuum, this certainly looks like a particularly egregious moral transgression.
Within the context of the time, however, the atomic bombs were merely a refinement of an existing “art”: the mass firebombing of cities. This “terror bombing,” as it was sometimes called, reached its highest form under the leadership of Curtis LeMay in the Pacific theatre, where B-29s in massive numbers flew repeated, low-altitude nighttime raids against sixty-seven Japanese cities. They dropped explosives, napalm, and thermite onto streets of wooden houses, creating massive, inextinguishable conflagrations that sucked the air out of shelters and burned people alive. The incendiary bombs were specially developed for the destruction of Japanese houses: the small bomblets were designed to break through the ceilings, stop on the first floor, and spray a cone of flaming, jellied gasoline into the interior. The thermite and magnesium were added so that the existing fires would burn too hot to be put out.
Over two long nights in March 1945, over 300 B-29s were sent to burn the megalopolis of Tokyo. Estimates vary as to the exact numbers, but in the neighborhood of 100,000 people were killed, with another million people injured, and another million made homeless. Success was measured in raw percentages of the total area destroyed.
In such a context, it is hard to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the attacks that crossed the line. The line was already crossed — we were already burning men, women, and children by the thousands. Hiroshima and Nagasaki added the effects of radiation (which were little understood at the time by those who ordered the use of the atomic bombs2), but the firebombings were not without their lingering, scarring effects on the survivors, either.
How did this happen? As was the case with the decision to develop, produce, and use the atomic bomb, it was a process of gradual accumulation. Small decisions seemed to lead to big “inevitable” consequences. Strategic bombing began as an attempt to find clever, scientifically-informed ways to shut down the enemy’s war-making capability, and it ended with a butchery that would have been recognizable to Genghis Khan.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki crossed a line only insomuch as they were more spectacular, ripped straight out of science fiction — the burning of civilians alive with atomic fire rather than gasoline.
The lesson is not that nuclear weapons do not demand a “special” consideration — indeed, by the time they were put onto long-range rockets, and had their explosive power increased to levels impossible to replicate with conventional means, they certainly deserved to be considered a new moral problem.
Rather, the lesson is that nations do not arrive at these big decisions from a state of innocence. We gradually acclimate to the moral climate we produce from a multitude of smaller decisions. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the product of one fateful moral debate, but the accumulation of a thousand small choices. We should be mindful of this especially in this age of drone assassinations, cyber attacks, and indefinite detentions — we may find ourselves in the middle of a much bigger moral morass than we expected.
This isn’t the world’s most strikingly original take on things, I’d be the first to admit. I recently had the opportunity to read a fairly lousy “defense of the bombing” editorial published by a major American magazine (same old arguments mixed with a sense of superiority abetted by a dearth of information), and the author also made the argument that firebombing was the same as atomic bombing. But what I would add to the above, if I were revising it now, was the fact that just because they’re equivalent doesn’t make either of them moral. Which is to say, I don’t think saying, “we were already burning civilians alive!” actually gets you off the hook — it just points at how depraved the strategy actually was. “But we were already committing war crimes for months!” is not a good defense against being charged as a war criminal.
What’s important for me is to recognize that burning civilians alive in great numbers should be considered a terrible idea if you care about fighting a “just war.”
And no, I don’t buy the, “but their soldiers also did awful things.” So what? That justifies burning their mothers, children, and wives? I don’t think so. It justifies killing the soldiers, sure. But everyone else, too? That’s the road to war crimes.
I’m with Robert McNamara on this one, perhaps surprisingly: I’m not sure that firebombing 67 cities and then dropping two atomic bombs was proportional with our goals in World War II, especially if the main goals — a disarmed and occupied Japan — likely could have been accomplished far earlier, if the original idea of “unconditional surrender” had just been modified to what it ended up being in practice (conditional upon being able to keep the Emperor as the titular head of state).
If it were up to me, we’d mark March 10th — the bombing of Tokyo — as an anniversary of significance as well as August 6 and August 9.
- Michael Gordin, Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007). [↩]
- Sean L. Malloy, “‘A Very Pleasant Way to Die’: Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb against Japan,” Diplomatic History 36, no. 3 (June 2012), 515-545. [↩]