Saturday, August 06, 2005
Today, August 6, is the sixtieth anniversary of the first use of atomic weapons in warfare at Hiroshima, Japan.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the unconditional surrender of Japan and the end of World War II. The bombings also started the Atomic Era and kicked off the greatest arms race the world has ever known (and will probably ever know). With the development of thermonuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs) what was once inconceivable—the capability to destroy all life on the planet—now became possible.
Human technology has changed more since Hiroshima than in all of recorded history. For much of the last half of the Twentieth Century Americans, Europeans, and Russians went to bed every night knowing that, just possibly, they might not wake up tomorrow. Computer-controlled machine tools and open access to higher education education has empowered those who would do harm to us and our way of life; what was once the work of geniuses in government labs is now the province of technocrats using equipment available on eBay. The knowledge and skill needed to create atomic weapons is widespread, and the reason terrorists haven't detonated a nuclear bomb in an unsuspecting metropolis is more a matter of lacking the raw materials than the know-how. Many experts believe that within the next two decades we are almost certain to see terrorists use a nuclear weapon to destroy a large city in Europe or America.
This chain of events—the Atomic Era, the Cold War, nuclear proliferation—started sixty years ago today. Was it necessary? Did the US need to develop and deploy nuclear weapons? Did we need to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I believe an examination of history shows that we did.
How many of us know what was going on back in the 1940s just prior to and during World War II? Genocide was rampant in both theatres of war (Pacific and European); the Nazis were busy pitchforking millions of the undermenschen into crematoria and slit trenches, while in Asia the Japanese engaged in pleasurable activities like baby-bayonetting contests and rape-fests. Early in the War, Japanese maltreatment and brutality towards captured soldiers and innocent civilians became widely known thru events such as the Bataan Death March and the surrender of Wake Island.
The war in the Pacific was unbelievable in the viciousness and cruelty encountered by both sides. Early on, the average fighting American realized that their Japanese opponents would neither give nor accept quarter (mercy). Examples such as the Goettke patrol, where 19 men led by LtCol Goettke went to accept a purported surrender of starving and disease-ridden Japanese troops arranged by a Japanese prisoner only to be ambushed and annihlated—only three men escaped and the remains of the rest of the patrol were never located—hardened the Marines' and GIs' hearts. Once the Japanese tactic of faking surrender, death, or serious injury in order to kill responding Americans became widely known, our Marines and soldiers became understandably reluctant to risk their lives by taking prisoners. Eventually, the American forces developed a deep hatred of their opponents because of this lack of adherence to Western norms of civilized behavior.
As the war progressed and Japan suffered more defeats, its ability to defend itself shrunk accordingly. However, the deeply-ingrained warrior code that was widespread among the professional core of the Japanese military refused to consider surrender and instead resorted to more and more extreme methods and tactics. Despite Japan's military weakness in the face of growing US strength, each island campaign became more and more bloody as the Japanese improved their defensive tactics; no longer would they uselessly sacrifice themselves in repeated banzai charges in an attempt to drive the invading Americans off the beach. Instead, they would carefully prepare extensive defensive fortifications, carefully camouflaged and connected by underground tunnels, and seek to kill as many Americans as they could before they were destroyed by superior American numbers and firepower. The kamikaze was the result of the effective destruction of Japanese Naval air power and the deaths of experienced and trained Japanese aviators, yet despite the tremendous casualties inflicted on the American fleet surrounding Okinawa there was no chance that kamikaze attacks could influence the outcome of the war.
So, here we are, the Allied commanders in the Pacific in the summer of 1945. In the past year our troops have just experienced the carnage of Pelelieu, the Phillipines, Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. We've witnessed the tragedy of Japanese troops forcing civilians to jump off cliffs rather than surrender to Americans. We've seen spectacular counterattacks that were as bloody and tragic as they were useless. We've seen young Japanese men who could barely control their rickety aircraft gladly dive into troop transports and aircraft carriers, killing thousands of our men and sinking dozens of ships. Our intelligence shows us the depths and the desperation of the Japanese preparations to counter an invasion of the Japanese home islands.
We also had evidence of a more sinister type. Japanese biological and germ warfare research was well-known; what was not so well-known was the Japanese atomic bomb project. Yes, they were trying to build a Bomb, too. And there is a report that the Japanese were on the way to attack America with a dirty bomb when the war ended; a German U-boat with U-235 aboard surrendered to US forces in the Pacific at the time the Japanese government capitulated; two Japanese on board the submarine committed suicide in order to avoid capture and interrogation.
By late July 1945 the Japanese government had rebuffed several surrender demands by the Allies. American military planners estimated that, based on previous experiences against Japanese forces, the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands would result in hundreds of thousands of American deaths and millions of Japanese military and civilian deaths—and that was something that a war-weary America that had suffered 300,000 deaths and millions of injuries on the battlefields of World War II didn't want to have to endure. So, facing an enemy who had fought fanatically, who neither accepted or offered surrender, whose words and deeds demonstrated the willingness to fight on and die rather than capitulate, who was not discouraged by the firebombing of Tokyo, the total embargo of the Home Islands, or the virtual destruction of the Japanese Air Force and Navy, who had no hope of victory yet no fear of death... what would you do?
Truman made the hard call when he gave the orders to proceed with the first attack against Hiroshima. Yet, even after the incredible devastation that literally left the Japanese government reeling in disbelief and astonishment, the Japanese government refused to surrender. America waited 5 more days, and then dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki that was even more devastating. There is evidence that this second bombing precipitated a military coup by officers who were adamant about not surrendering (the coup was fortunately aborted due to an American bombing raid that killed the coup's leaders). Upon delivering a second surrender ultimatum, the Allies also announced that cities would continue to be destroyed until the Japanese surrendered (a stone cold bluff on our part as there were no more atomic bombs available). The Soviets, seeing that the end was near and wanting to expand their Far Eastern territories, invaded Japanese-controlled Japan and China. Finally, the Japanese realized that the war was over; the only thing they could control was how many more Japanese died. Upon this realization the government admitted defeat and accepted the offered terms of surrender. The war was over.
Could we have won without dropping the Bomb? Almost certainly... but at what cost? For those who claim the Bombings were immoral, I would point out that a government owes one duty to its citizens; to protect their lives and to value them above those of an enemy nation-state. When there is no other alternative, it is far better for enemy civilians to die than for our troops to die. And, how many Japanese civilians would have died if we had invaded the Home Islands? The civilian casualties that occurred on Saipan and Okinawa—casualties that were largely the responsibility of the Japanese—equal those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A powerful and compelling argument can be made that dropping the Bombs actually saved lives.
The complications of the Atomic Era mentioned earlier... the Cold War, living under the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction, the rise of nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear terrorism... are historical events that would have happened in one manner or another regardless of our use of the Bomb. Time only flows in one direction; the nuclear genie was out of the bottle and it will never go back in.
Responding to a question about Woodrow Wilson's claim that World War I was the "war to end all wars" philosopher George Santayana replied "Only the dead have seen the end of war." What can we learn from Hiroshima and Nagasaki? War is hell. Innocent people die horribly in war. Therefore it behooves all nations to avoid war whenever possible, to only wage just war, and to wage war relentlessly so that the conflict is decided sooner rather than later.
The lessons have all been learned, and forgotten, before. Again, quoting Santayana, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." We dropped the Bomb because our enemy refused to face reality, to learn from history. Unfortunately, I think we will need to one day drop it again.