Thursday, August 6, 2015

Once you read accounts of what happened or see pictures of the victims, you can never again put them completely out of your memory. They grip the imagination and assault one's sensibilities in a way no other historical evidence can. The horrible suffering and destruction which occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago this month defy our powers of description. Over the last half century these events have become the most written about, analyzed, argued over, and discussed episodes of the entire Second World War. In recent weeks this subject has (naturally) been written about even more so. I do not pretend that I will add anything strikingly original to this discussion. But it's almost as if I am compelled to share my thoughts about the bombings. They powerfully symbolize the twentieth century, representing its violence, scientific and technological progress, political upheaval, and human tragedy. They have gripped me ever since, as a young teacher, I first showed gruesome photographic evidence of Hiroshima's bombing victims to my students. I wanted to explain to my kids what had happened to those people in the photos. I guess most of all I wanted to explain it to myself.

We sometimes forget that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred within a historical context of increasingly murderous brutality. Recent evidence has revealed that the Second World War cost the lives of more than 80 million people (not the 50-55 million commonly believed). The period immediately preceding the end of the war in the Pacific and East Asia was a particularly grim one. The battle for Iwo Jima had produced shocking losses on both sides; the battle for Okinawa had seen the slaughter of more than 200,000 people. In early 1945 the United States had embarked on a campaign to destroy Japan's cities by firebombing. On the night of March 9-10 1945 Tokyo was firebombed so severely that more than 100,000 people were burned alive or asphyxiated.Water in Tokyo's canals boiled; the crews of the low-flying B-29s which inflicted this bombing could actually smell their victims burning. Seen in this light, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were simply further examples of what author Paul Fussell has called the main "theme" of the war: intensification. All wars are more costly than people think they're going to be at the start; the winning of the Second World War required means which would have been unthinkable in 1939. We also sometimes forget that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not produce the highest number of casualties of any events in the war. That tragic distinction belongs to the Battle of Stalingrad. (Leningrad, Warsaw, and Dresden had also suffered near-total destruction.) So what made the atomic bombings so uniquely horrifying? I think it was the economy of effort (or so it seemed) that produced this sensation. In retrospect, after the elation over the war's end had subsided, what terrified thoughtful people about these events was the fact that it had only taken a single B-29 dropping a single bomb to produce the same kind of destruction produced by hundreds of B-29s dropping tens of thousands of conventional bombs. Mass killing had become easy, efficient, almost convenient. I think the fact that the bomb was based on physical principles which were little understood by the public also contributed to the unease which it produced in many people. It was as if some magical, demonic force had been harnessed, a force controlled at first only the U.S. but later by our mortal enemies the Russians. People could understand ordinary bombs and artillery shells (while fearing them, of course) but how many people could really grasp a weapon which functioned by ramming pieces of metal together to liberate their nucleic energy? And radiation sickness had no precedent in the history of human violence. Who could understand death by subatomic particles? I think it was these factors which produced amazement and sober reflection in the minds of those who studied the effects of the atomic bombings.
Naturally, an enormous part of the discussion surrounding Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been about whether the bombs should have been used at all and whether they brought about the end of the war. I think the willingness to use these devices on the Japanese is a good example of the dehumanization of the enemy which occurs in wartime. One of the more perverse effects war has on the human psyche is the severing of normal bonds between people. The Japanese hated us and we hated them. They were things, objects, monsters, people who deserved anything we could dish out to them. And they had started it. Given this psychological position, the use of the bombs does not seem unusual. (We must assume the Japanese would have used them on us as well; they had their own nuclear program, and they had hardly shown any disposition to treat their enemies with mercy; just ask the survivors of Bataan, the former inmates of the POW camps in Thailand, or those who saw the massacres in Nanking or Manila.) Further, there was what might be called technological inertia involved in the decision to use the bomb. Billions of dollars and gigantic efforts had gone into the building of the bombs. (Those interested in the details of this effort should read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes for an exhaustive discussion.) There was therefore a constituency for their use. There were those who wanted to see what the bombs would do in an actual situation. While some of the scientists who developed the bombs had serious misgivings about their use (particularly Leo Szilard), there was enormous pressure not to waste all the money, time, and effort which had gone into their development.

Of course, the key argument for the use of the bombs was to eliminate the need for an invasion of Japan. The sanguinary events on Iwo Jima and Okinawa had convinced many U.S. military planners that the actual invasion of Japan (to take place in two steps, one in November of 1945 and the second in March of 1946) would far surpass in bloodshed anything yet seen in the Pacific War. Accordingly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised President Truman that the use of the bomb was essential to forestall a nightmarish battle to the death with the suicidally-determined Japanese. But did the bombings actually bring the war to an end? I was recently fortunate enough to read an article by Murray Sayle in The New Yorker for 31 July which addresses this very point. According to Sayle, there is strong evidence, some of which has only recently come to light, that the collapse of Japanese peace overtures to the Soviet Union and the invasion of Manchuria by the USSR may have been the real straws that broke the camel's back. The prospect of a Soviet occupation of part of Japan and the overthrow by the Communists of Japan's monarchy was so dismaying to the Japanese leadership that Hirohito himself used these arguments specifically when explaining the decision to surrender to Japan's armed forces. Other sources document the fanatical resolve of many Japanese officers to continue the war even after the bombings (about which the Japanese general public had been told virtually nothing). The leaders of Japan's military had no regard whatever for the suffering of the ordinary Japanese; they could not have cared less. The idea that the bombs "shocked" them into surrender is therefore one which is difficult to support. It was perhaps a combination of circumstances—the collapse of Japan's economy, the hopelessness of the nation's position, the American possession of the atomic bombs, and the Soviet intervention—which finally tipped the balance to those in Japan's government who favored peace.
Should the bomb have been demonstrated rather than used on an actual target? Perhaps the fear that a failed demonstration would spur the Japanese to greater resistance precluded this option. Should the bomb have been used on a strictly military target (as General Marshall advocated)? Was the bomb used chiefly to frighten the Soviets? Would Japan have collapsed anyway without the use of the bombs? How many civilians would have died of conventional bombing and shelling or starvation in the process? No one can really answer these questions, many of which are still being argued vigorously. (The New York Times recently reviewed no less than four new volumes on the use of the bombs.) All that is beyond doubt is the suffering of those who were their victims . Even if the bombs were the sole factor in ending the war (which I do not believe) I still have a hard time approving of their use. (Yes, I know many veterans of the war believe the bombs spared their lives. After all, this is what they were told.) I guess my inability to support the bombings is based in part on the image I have of a small Japanese baby lying in a makeshift aid station in Hiroshima, horribly injured and in terrible agony. (This is from an actual photograph.) Try as I might to rationalize the necessity of this infant's suffering, I choke on the words. I cannot--! will not--pervert the English language by calling this child's pain good. Aside from my (useless) sorrow and pity, this picture elicits in me intense hatred (equally useless) toward the adults who exposed this baby (and everyone else in the two cities) to the horrors of the bomb. The people I hate are the ones who, in my view, are most morally culpable. They are the military leaders of World War II Japan who initiated the war and then, with insane stubbornness, refused to end it when it was clearly lost, thus exposing their people to an enemy both willing and able to inflict the most terrible destruction on them.

The wreckage was cleared away long ago. The survivors from both sides are old people now. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become symbols, even though they are both very much living and functioning cities. The events of 6 and 9 August 1945 will continue to be debated for decades. They have come to represent the terrible twentieth century, when human life has so often meant so little, and war has become so indiscriminately destructive. Yes, I know that war wiped out whole nations and peoples in other ages, but we were supposed to be better. We were modern, we had humane values, our way of life rested on rational philosophies, we had cast off the barbarism of the past. Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and all the killing fields of this century) show us that the chief distinction between the killing perpetrated by our ancestors and that perpetrated by us is that we're a lot better at it. And in the final analysis, when we look at the events of August 1945 and consider all the factors which brought humanity to that particularly hellish crossroad, one question remains above all others:
My God, how did we come to this? 

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