Sunday, August 10, 2008

Remembering the Bomb

It's 63 years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 63 is not a round number, and it's maybe not any particularly special anniversary this year. But that doesn't make this specific moment a bad one to reflect.

I read this article this morning, and I was livid. The author writes that although we (or, at least, Japanese people) still remember the Bomb, we don't remember why we remember it. He writes the kind of apologistic take I don't understand why people are still trying to proliferate: we needed to drop the bomb to save innocent lives. Let the word be spread.

I'm not going to pick apart the claims he makes in his article and show how specious some of them are. In fact, in the end, the argument itself--did the bomb save lives?--is meaningless (that's not to say my personal opinions don't come down very hard on one side of that issue). That argument, after all, is history, and what we have done can't be fixed.

What we can do is learn from the past. THAT is why we remember the Bomb.

To that end, I'd like to post a couple of definitions here.

War: n.1. 1. A state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties.
2. The period of such conflict.
3. The techniques and procedures of war; military science.
4. A condition of active antagonism or contention: a war of words; a price war.
5. A concerted effort or campaign to combat or put an end to something considered injurious: the war against acid rain.

2. 1. A condition of active antagonism or contention: a war of words; a price war.
2. A concerted effort or campaign to combat or put an end to something considered injurious: the war against acid rain. (American Heritage Dictionary)

I'd like to draw your attention to definition 1.1. War is a state of conflict between two like entities, two states, two nations, etc. I would like to claim here that the definition does not cover a state of conflict between the government of one country and the people of another country. I would also like to remind readers that there were no military targets at the Ground Zeros of the bombs in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. They were dropped on civilians. It wasn't Japanese civilians who had declared war on the United States.

President Truman famously said the following about his decision to drop the bombs:

Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.

Aside from any racism you may read into this statement, I would like to point to Truman's comparison of the dropping of the bombs to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I would like to remind readers that Pearl Harbor was a military base which was attacked by the Japanese military, in which the bulk of the casualties were those of service people. I would also like to suggest that, as such, the comparison of these two kinds of attacks is unwarranted and unfair.

One more definition, so we can reflect for a moment on what our government tries hard to justify.

Terrorism: n. The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons. (American Heritage Dictionary)

There is right and there is wrong, and there will always be people who try to reposit the latter as the former. We have to stay sharp, and savvy, and we have to ask questions. Whether or not we can control or have part of what our tax dollars are doing, we have to at least know where we stand. This is why we remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's because this element of history becomes more, and not less, relevant with each year.


Precie said...

Thank you so much for posting this today.

It's especially poignant because, a few days ago, I saw the Enola Gay up close. Yes, that Enola Gay. Well, as close as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum/Udvar-Hazy Center lets you get. I planned to post a few pics today but don't have them downloaded to my pc yet.

It's impossible to get my head around this event.

ilyakogan said...

How many people we know who honestly say, "It's my fault that I'm broke." or, "My novel is not published because it sucks."

It's hard to say those things about yourself but it's even harder for some people to say those things about their countries and cultures. It's much easier to find a "justification" however irrational it is.

ilyakogan said...

This is probably the wrong venue to went about this but thinking about "the war" (World War II will be always "the war" for me) my mind shifted into the current conflict in the Caucuses that can escalate into WWIII. This seems to be the deepest wish of the psycho currently pretending to be the democratically elected president of Georgia - Rally against Georgia poll result as well as the wishes of the two headed psycho who pretends to be a democratically elected president and prime minister of Russia Viewpoints: Russian presidential election

It's very interesting to see how quickly people ignore facts and take sides in this mess just because of what they want to believe.

Anonymous said...

If you only care about Japan & America, yes maybe the decision was not so great.

If you look at the totality of the war and what was going on in Asia, you wouldn't be so quick to judge the decision to drop the a-bombs. I don't see a lot of Chinese & Korean and the people from other countries that had suffered greatly during WW2 shed tears over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Jolie said...

Great post, Moonrat. Thank you for reminding us.

If anyone here found this post really interesting, or if you think the US isn't capable of anything resembling terrorism, I recommend you read Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and/or do a little research on the firebombing of Dresden.

moonrat said...

Anon 12:01: I imagine you are wrong.

Racial warfare is a terrible thing, a kind of government indoctrination to convince soldiers that it is ok to kill inhumanely. Retaliating against the innocent civilians of one country doesn't punish the soldiers who acted inhumanely against the innocent civilians of other countries.

Of course there are going to be people who are still angry at the war crimes perpetrated by the Japanese army and government during WWII, angry to the point that they don't feel any sorrow about the bomb(s). But I believe you wouldn't actually have to look that far to find Koreans, Chinese, and citizens of other countries that suffered at the hands of the Japanese who will tell you that the Bombs were wrong.

Anonymous said...

But I believe you wouldn't actually have to look that far to find Koreans, Chinese, and citizens of other countries that suffered at the hands of the Japanese who will tell you that the Bombs were wrong.

This is a rather big assumption you're making since Japan has yet to acknowledge that they did anything wrong, and the victims don't feel very warm and fuzzy about it. For example, have you seen the interviews of the women who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army? Japan still denies that it used anyone as sex slaves, saying how the victims' testimonies aren't valid. Abe caused a huge uproar in Asia over his incredibly insensitive remarks two years ago, basically implying that those women asked for it. Do you still think the victims think "Oh poor Japan"? BTW -- nobody in Japan censured Abe for the remark.

There was nothing racist about the decision to a-bomb Japan, if you think it was a racist decision. It's much more racist that the suffering of Chinese, Korean, Filipinos, etc. during WW2 is ignored just because they haven't been a-bombed.

To this date, I find it ironic that the U.S. fighting Germany during WW2 is considered justifiable, despite the incredible civilian casualties and suffering in Europe (because it stopped holocaust among other things), but the U.S. bombing Japan and liberating the other Asian countries is considered racist or terrorism. And I find it even more ironic when such sentiments come from people who have never lived in Asia, don't speak the language(s) and/or studied the war extensively.

moonrat said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm afraid I disagree with you. Since some topics in your argument deviate from the point I was trying to make in this post (that is, let not history repeat itself), I am going to abstain from further addressing these issues here.

Also, I know that if you are a regular trafficker of this blog, you know I do not fall into that last category of people that you list.

Anonymous said...

I do read your blog, and I didn't think you did fall into the group I was talking about, which was why I was surprised by the tone of this post.

I don't think the U.S. should engage in needless wars, which I shall not name here, but us getting involved in WW2 was inevitable. I don't advocate having wars or anything, but at the same time, we need to defend ourselves if we're attacked first. Furthermore, the implication of our decision during WW2 was far-reaching, beyond just Japan v. America or a-bomb v. no a-bomb. Turning the entire thing into "a-bombs are terrible" or "war = bad" or "those poor Japanese" is way too simplistic for such a complex issue.

moonrat said...

WWII is a rich and horrifying topic, and I don't think all the books I've read in the world make me prepared to argue about it. (I'm almost certain I've read more books on WWII, particularly in the Pacific theater, than 4 out of 5 Americans.) Like I said above, there were horrors on all sides, and I can't even start to try to talk about them in a balanced way on this blog (I don't have the time or resources, nor do I have the desire).

I'm sorry if my "tone" came off as anything other, but my intention was not to assign blame or broach a debate about WWII (although it seems like I'm too emotionally tied to all this to resist one when it comes up). The point I wanted to make, and which I stand by, is that the civilian casualties of the A bomb were atrocious, and that our government should think carefully about their use of similar varieties of anti-civilian "warfare" in the future.

Anon, "A bombs are bad" may be too simplistic a point to make, but I'm afraid it is all I was trying to make in this post.

I am gruesomely attracted to richer discussion, though--this topic is a personal preoccupation of mine--and I would love to hear reading list suggestions if you have them.

Froog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Froog said...

There was a BBC mini-series (probably a co-production with an American network, I forget) back in the 80s about the Manhattan Project with Sam Waterston as Oppenheimer. I remember being very struck even as a kid by the fact that (although Oppenheimer tried to strike a more sombre note by quoting the Bhagavad Ghita) when news of the successful detonation over Hiroshima came through to Los Alamos everybody cheered; nobody asked how many people had just died.

It is said - possibly apocryphal, but a story I've always liked - that Einstein in later life always used to carry a pocket watch stopped at the hour and minute of the Hiroshima explosion, the moment the world changed forever.

Slightly off topic, but still related: I heard an English politician speak about nuclear power at the Oxford Union Society back in the 80s, and he actually suggested that fears of major nuclear accidents were greatly overestimated because of people's perceptions of the devastation caused at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "But the Japanese build their houses of of paper," he said. I kid you not.

And a final debating point (it's a difficult habit to kick): I've long felt that the idea of terrorism (though seldom, if ever, terrorism as it has actually been practised) is defensible, in that it is essentially a development of the mass media (and mass democracy) age, and it is a means of warfare that seeks to achieve maximum impact (through influence on public opinion) by minimum actual violence. Unless you advocate an extreme doctrine of non-violence, refuse to accept that any injustices are so extreme as to warrant forcible resistance, then that is quite a persuasive argument, I think, in favour of terrorism - at least in preference to all-out warfare, where the casualties could be 10, 20, 100, 1,000 times higher.

David L. McAfee said...

I'm not so sure one should take the Webster's definition as the Gospel and then use it as justification or condemnation for such a complex subject.

Just out of curisoity, how were Americans in Japan treated during WWII?

Wars have been fought since the dawn of civilization, and one solid truth about war is causualties are never, ever limited to military targets. Often, strategic non-military targets are hit and non-military casualties ensue. That's just the nature of warfare. It's not about saying "Hey, look what we can do, so back off!" but taking out the enemie's will, resistance, or ability to fight. Demoralizing? Atrocious? Yes. But certainly not limited to the US in WWII.

If I remember correctly, Germany (note - NOT Japan, I know, but their allies, nonetheless), bombed the bejeezus out of London for months. Military only targets?


I am almost certain I am not as well-read on this topic as you, moonrat, but I'm pretty sure the two cities were chosen for strategic value, and not the potential for a high body count.

Lastly, I know what you are saying about not using nuclear weapons in the future. I get that. I do. But I would like to point out that, after the damage done by those two bombs, the US has never used them again.

I'd like to think (and hope) that a time will not come when they are. Not just by us, but by anyone. Let's hope that day never comes.

Maines said...

A few years ago, I met a doctor who had done research involving the aftereffects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, specifically looking to see if there was any discernible genetic damage that was passed on to ensuing generations. He found that there were not; which he said was on the one hand good news--that the bomb's damage was not passed on--and on the other bad, in that it made use of such a weapon again more conceivable in some minds.

Mike Lindgren said...

Here's another definition:

Fas·cism: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. (MW Collegiate)

Sound familiar? ml

pacatrue said...

As a regular participant in a political blog, I am always intrigued by the fact that most people cannot respect the opinions of others and just provide arguments for why the opinion is in error if they so wish. Instead, there's a strong tendency to view the other's opinion as revealing some moral or intellectual failure. I see this in academic publishing as well in which lines like "what the authors fail to understand is...." There may or may not have been any actual failure to understand. Instead, there was a simple disagreement about facts which both parties understand just fine.

I'm also fascinated by people who seemingly travel the blogosphere daily with Google Alerts or something else to correct people they've never previously spoken to, often with an insult or two.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very good points. However, the Japanese did shoot up a lot of Honolulu and it's surroundings on the way to Schofield and Hickam AFB. So it's sort of incorrect to say that the targets were only military in that attack. Notwithstanding that your main point stands and I heart you for saying it. Too easy to forget that we bombed the crap out of civilians with the most horriffic weapon ever used, and never were really sorry for it as a nation.

Anonymous said...

First time reader here. You asked for reading suggestions. If you haven't already read them, the two best books on the subject are both by Richard Rhodes:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.

One of the points Rhodes makes is that the use of these weapons against civilian targets very strongly illustrated to the world that the nature of war had irrevocably changed. At the time they were dropped, only one country had the capability of producing them, but that changed in less than five years. Large stockpiles were already available to both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. by the mid-1950s. One might argue that if the populations and leaders of both countries had not had their noses rubbed in such a graphic illustration of what a third World War would entail, there might very well have been one.

Certainly the use of these weapons against civilian casualties was an evil thing, but I think the arguments that it was the lesser of the evil options available to Truman have merit. If nothing else, I believe that the obligation of the President to do all in his power to protect the fighting men of his country outweighted the moral obligations he had to civilians of a country that had attacked us.

It's not a clear-cut ethical decision and your arguments have merit, but on the whole I must respectfully disagree.

Interesting blog, BTW.

Anonymous said...

My father was in the group of soldiers who were scheduled to invade Japan. Yes, we were going to invade physically and from past experiences everyone knew it would be a bitter fight to the death. Civilians would be expected to fight the invasion force and they would. Islands that had already been conquered proved that.

Estimates of US military losses and Japanese losses, both military and civilian were astronomical.

My father had already escaped death twice when he was transferred to different troop carriers and his original ships were destroyed. He fully expected to die in the invasion as did most of the rest of his unit.

He once told me, "But for the grace of God and the atom bomb, I would be dead." Yes, that sounds harsh, but it came from someone who was there and who knew how the Japanese fought.

He was in one of the first units to go into Japan after the surrender. He said for the most part the people were numb and simply relieved it was finally over. Perhaps that's a misconception on his part, but since he was there and I wasn't, I'll go with it.

As for other comparisons, the Japanese cities were bombarded with leaflets warning the people to leave from what I understand. I didn't see any notice of any leaflets being dropped in NY prior to 9-11 so I'll keep my opinion on who are the true terrorists.

And yes, I am posting anon because frankly I pretty much hate it when politics and religion and the writing business get mixed together.

Anonymous said...

“Warfare is the way of deception…. Specialized warfare leads to victory, and may not be transmitted beforehand…. nor discussed thereafter.”
Sun Tzu

I recall reading about thousands of Japanese “civilians” (old men, women and children) jumping to their deaths, from the cliffs of Okinawa, so they won’t disgrace their divine Emperor, through their surrender.

I recall seeing thousands of Iranian “civilians” (young girls and boys, but mostly girls…. for they can’t become soldiers) used as human shields by the Ayatollah’s Army. But I guess it was OK, if the Koran said so.

I recall watching films of thousands of Kurdish “civilians” (all shapes and sizes) gazed to death in the Anfal operations. Funny how Ali Hassan al-Majid (a.k.a Chemical Ali) operated with impunity in the northern “no fly zone”.

I recall seeing thousands upon thousands of Cambodian “civilians” (no gender or age discrimination here) killed by the Khmer Rouge. But I guess, the “killing fields” were out of our reach.

I recall, I recall, I recall…. Getting tired of so much recollection…. So, just one more…. 9/11, when thousands of: Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Orthodox, Baptists, etc, etc, died needlessly. Black, white, red, yellow (and any mix of color you can think of), spilled their same-color blood, just because a fatwa had been issued.

For my money, that’s when I would have used any “little” or “fat” or anything in-between bomb I could find, and rid the world of some pests. In the aftermath, the world would have been a better place to live in…. To say nothing about cheaper gas.