remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki
For purposes of our essay, the above metal figure will serve as a cenotaph for the nameless dead.
As we mark the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August), what are we to think? What lessons, however painful, can we draw from these truly terrible actions? Between the 2 atomic bombings, more than one hundred thousand people died in the first hours, and many thousands more died in the days and weeks after. Many of the dead and dying and horribly maimed were women, children, and old people.
It is wrong, in fact it is criminal, to wage war on non-combatants and on civilian population centers. At least, that is what we read in the indictment for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials held after the end of the war in Europe. However, for that prohibition to mean anything it must be applied to all parties to an armed conflict. If it is not wrong for the victors to wage (or have waged) war on non-combatants, then we have sunk to the law of the jungle where might makes right.
Immoral means are not morally licit in the prosecution or conduct of a “just” war. (One of our earliest essays addressed this. See link below.)
Before continuing, let us add here that we vehemently condemn the barbaric and gruesome experiments conducted on human beings in occupied Manchuria by the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1930s and 1940s (the infamous unit 731).
We are familiar with the argument that the use of the atomic bombs saved many US lives. The assumption here is that Japan would not have surrendered otherwise and thus a US military invasion of Japan’s home islands would have been necessary. However, this is something that can be debated back and forth without reaching certainty. Around the same time in August, 1945, the Soviet Union’s military forces were moving into Manchuria and quickly defeated the Japanese forces there leaving Japan without many military assets left with which to continue the war. Did the US really know the Japanese thinking at the time? It is likely that the Japanese realized that a US invasion, although it would give the Japanese a final opportunity to inflict heavy losses on the Americans, would ultimately succeed and lead to many more Japanese losses as well. Japan was already blockaded, the country already depleted from several months of heavy Allied conventional bombing, and would not have been able to resist for very long.
Some history students may speculate that the atomic bombs were used in part to intimidate the Soviet Union after its recent victory and conquest of eastern and central Europe. The use of the bombs showed the world that the US not only possessed such terrible weapons but also had the will to use them.
Some readers may now say that the previous 2 paragraphs actually make the case that dropping the bombs was justified. However, this ends justifies the means conclusion is still very troubling to many people. This argument becomes less abstract when one views the old news reels filmed in the days immediately following the atomic bombings. One realizes more tangibly what the effect was on human beings on the ground. And, we are talking here about human beings, civilians of another country who had very little say in their government’s policies. These civilians were not responsible for earlier Japanese aggression.
But the issue of threats to civilians and civilian casualties in wartime is larger than the atomic bombings on Japan.
In November, 1969, President Nixon ordered the US to dismantle its offensive biological weapons program (begun during World War II by order of Franklin Roosevelt). The Soviet Union, however, ignored this gesture and continued its biological warfare program until 1990. The USSR is responsible for, among other biological agents, the remaining existence of small pox, and the development of a more virulent strain of bubonic plague (known to history as the Black Death in the mid 1300s in Europe). We also note the use of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant, in the Vietnam War by the US no doubt led to many birth defects and cancers among the civilian population of that country.
The individuals – scientists and technicians – who work to develop biological weapons, which if used could (likely would) spread far beyond the war zone or area of conflict, are doing evil work.
We must be vigilant and work to oppose those who insist that resources be used to develop additional deadly means of conducting war where the impact of such means cannot be limited to an enemy’s armed forces. We are now stuck with nuclear weapons, whose effects are widespread with nuclear fall-out. These cannot be uninvented and realistically can never be eliminated completely. Humanity would be better served if we do not invent nor develop more such weapons (such as new biological plagues) whose deadly effects cannot be limited to the battlefield. One wonders about the deterrent effect of additional and new “doomsday” weapons. For the nation states that possess a nuclear arsenal, if that existing nuclear capability is not sufficient deterrent, how are new biological or chemical weapons going to deter potential enemies?
Mankind will not be “civilized” until the killing and abuse – in all their forms – of innocent human beings stops.
Thanks for reading.