“The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.” ~ Carl Sagan
“They deserved it,” I said coldly, almost mumbling. We continued to walk the sacred grounds of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, seat of the Shoguns and the leadership of Japan for centuries, absorbing our conversation quietly in the gentle rain.
I almost immediately regretted saying it. And after a few moments, I told Jody, my wife, the same. I sensed she was rather shocked at my matter-of-fact cold-blooded conclusion at the destruction of two Japanese cities in 1945 by atomic bombs, resulting in some 200,000 fatalities….
I do regret saying it, along with my rather immature emotional reaction at the time Thinking only of the brutality of the Imperial Japanese movement of that time after having recently seen the movie “The Flowers of War,” I felt the unmistakable tinge of vengeance, which just as quickly subsided, replaced by a more reasoned and tolerant understanding. But as terrible as the atomic bombings were, I cannot be party to the more popular notions of revisionist history and say that I fault or morally judge those who made the decision to conduct such horrific attacks.
The role of the atomic bombings in Japan’s surrender and the US’s ethical justification for the first (and only) use of nuclear weapons has been the subject of scholarly and popular debate for decades. The fundamental issue is whether the use of “the bomb” was necessary to achieve victory in the war in the Pacific on terms satisfactory to the United States.
Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by Fat Man on Nagasaki on August 9. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the bombings killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred immediately or during the first day of each bombing. In the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, all compounded by illness, poor diet and unsafe sanitation. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima did have a sizeable military garrison.
Supporters of the bombings generally assert that they caused the Japanese surrender, preventing casualties on both sides during Operation Downfall, the impending invasion of the main islands of Japan. The Japanese propaganda of the time stated, “One hundred million [Japanese] will die for the Emperor and Nation.” Although this was clearly hyperbole, President Truman stated in his 1955 Memoirs that “the atomic bomb probably saved half a million US lives,” while Prime Minister Churchill talked of saving “one million American and half that number of British lives.” And these numbers don’t even begin to discuss the losses the Japanese would have suffered had the allies invaded Japan proper. In total, there were over 2.3 million Japanese Army troops alone prepared to defend the Japanese home islands, backed by an active civilian militia of 28 million men, women and children. Japanese casualty predictions varied widely, but all were extremely high; the Vice Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff, Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi, predicted up to 20 million Japanese deaths alone. From our own War Department estimates of 1945, the invading Allies would suffer between 1.7 and 4 million casualties, including between 400,000 and 800,000 dead; Japanese casualties would range from 5 to 10 million, most dying in a feeble attempt to defend their homeland.
Those who oppose the bombings cite a number of reasons, among them a belief that atomic bombing is fundamentally immoral, that the bombings counted as war crimes, that they were militarily unnecessary, that they constituted state terrorism, and that they involved racism against and the dehumanization of the Japanese people. Some of these reasons are quite ludicrous. Military leaders of the time argued that it was simply an extension of the already fierce conventional bombing campaign, an assertion to which I agree. The indiscriminate bombing of cities is another matter, but as a fact, such “crimes” were committed on all sides. For example, although the atomic bombings themselves are absolutely horrific, the Operation Meetinghouse fire-bombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9–10, 1945, was and remains the single deadliest air raid of World War II and the history of warfare, resulting in a far greater area of fire damage and loss of life than the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Similarly, the conventional bomb-induced firestorm destruction of Hamburg and Dresden in Germany were no less horrific.
“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. The way to win an atomic war is to make certain it never starts. And the way to make sure it never starts is to abolish the dangerous costly nuclear stockpiles which imprison mankind.” ~ General Omar Bradley, speech on Armistice Day, 1948
It’s easy to look back from the safety of island fortress America in 2014 and say that use of the bombs was wrong, immoral, and/or unnecessary. I refuse to partake is such missives. While some may argue that time and distance lends clarity and objectivity which allow for moral judgments of actions taken during war, it is the absence of that very same objectivity, not available to the leaders in 1945, which results in the “fog of war.” Without proper context but with expansive hindsight, it is much too easy to place blame and fault, much like a Monday-morning Quarterback does after watching the previous Sunday’s games….
However, I have changed, quite significantly so, in my own personal feelings of the use of nuclear weapons. I flew Navy medium-sized, carrier-based attack bombers – the mighty all-weather A-6E Intruder – in the 1990s, and perhaps the most serious tasking we had was the carriage and employment of nuclear weapons. Back then, as an invincible 24-year old, I was actually excited about being on the tip of the United States’ nuclear-tipped spear. In fact, I was so gung-ho about our mission and (nuclear) warfare that I was actually disappointed in the size (yield) of the nuclear weapons we would carry.
“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely.” ~ Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, 1984
“What? It’s not even a megaton yield?!?” I question rather rhetorically upon learning that the nukes we would carry and drop would be well below the magical one megaton rating of the larger ballistic missile warheads. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, in hindsight, it is. Almost as silly as proclaiming that there can no be fighting in the war room!
The weapon I’m talking about is what we referred to as “the silver bullet.” For obvious reasons. The B61 nuclear bomb was one of the primary thermonuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile during the cold war, and remains in significant numbers even today. It is an “intermediate yield” strategic (think whole-city devastation) and tactical (think airfield or naval base annihilation) nuclear weapon, the difference being what we callously referred to as “dial-a-yield.”. In other words, the explosive potential of the bomb could be rather easily set by an amazingly simple rotating dial, varying the boom between 0.3 to 340 kilotons. For comparison, Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 16 kilotons, while Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki had a yield of 21 kilotons.
In other words, the bombs I carried – the very ones I complained were not powerful enough – where about 20 times as powerful as the bombs utilized in WWII.
I admit I am ashamed of how I felt as a youngster. Looking back, with the clarity and objectivity I have now, including a healthy dose of combat and the experience of the black death and wanton destruction which war inevitably brings, there just isn’t enough reason – or more so, safeguards – to carry and employ such weapons of mass destruction so easily (read here).
“In a world which had become a nuclear powder keg…it [is] a mistake–perhaps one of suicidal proportions–to believe there [is] a difference between good shooters and bad shooters. There [are] too many shaky hands holding the lighters near too many fuses.” ~ Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three
Some claim that the conventional bombing of Japan together with the sea blockade, the collapse of Germany (with its implications regarding redeployment of additional allied forces to the Pacific), and the Soviet Union’s surprise attack against the Japanese Army in Manchuria (China) would have brought Japan to surrender. With or without invasion of their homeland? That’s the million-dollar…and multi-million death question.
Whatever you may believe, however, I must agree with Emperor Hirohito’s characterization of the new nuclear age expressed in his plea to the people of Japan to embrace surrender in 1945:
“Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of [surrender].”
“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” ~ American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s recollection upon viewing the first atomic bomb test in 1945
No one deserves to be nuked, not even the vehemently violent and extremist Japanese minority of World War II. In the final analysis, there is a conclusion that cannot be avoided, regardless of your political point of view or religiosity: when the rich wage war, it is the poor that die. In other words, it’s always the innocent that suffer the most and the longest in war. War is, after all, an extension of political will when diplomacy has failed. And seldom, if ever, do the ends justify the means.
Unfortunately the dawn of the nuclear age occurred in 1945, and cannot be undone. In the poetic words of The Offspring, “the genie’s out of the bottle and we can’t put it back.” While the weapons of August 1945 have evolved and endured, and continue to threaten our very existence, I no longer embrace the use of such savage weapons of war. Thankfully, I no longer have to face becoming death, the destroyer of worlds.
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