On Hiroshima

Today is, of course, the 70th anniversary of the annihilation of Hiroshima, the first use of an atomic weapon in war. That single bomb killed tens of thousands of people immediately, and many more from radiation-related effects over the following weeks. Its effects haunt survivors to this day, in the form of elevated cancer risks.

The debate over the bombings is still unsettled a full seven decades later. Those who say America was right to use atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki argue that Japan wouldn’t have surrendered otherwise, and that their refusal to surrender would have ultimately demanded an even deadlier ground invasion of Japan. Opponents counter that Japan would have eventually surrendered anyway even without an invasion (a position held by several top ranking US military officers at the time, including the two commanders of the Pacific War, Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz), that Hiroshima and Nagasaki couldn’t possibly have been considered legitimate military targets, and that at the very least the second bombing of Nagasaki was totally unnecessary. Others, who aren’t necessarily supporters of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, argue that American firebombings of cities like Dresden and Tokyo were just as lethal and destructive to civilians and civilian infrastructure as the atomic bombs, and that it makes no sense to condemn the latter while chalking the former up to the normal routine of war.

These days I find myself agreeing with the view that both the atomic bombings and the firebombings were unjustifiable. Yes, some of that is based on hindsight, on research done after the fact that shows how close Japan already was to surrendering, which probably couldn’t have been known to American policymakers. But too many of the contemporary arguments for using the atomic weapons on Japan revolve around trivial and frankly racist misconceptions about Japanese culture, and specifically Bushidō), as well as on considerations about Great Power gamesmanship with the Soviets that are pretty much totally contemptible (we had to kill tens of thousands of Japanese people to show Moscow how strong our new weapons were, for example, or we had to do it to speed up Japan’s surrender and fend off a Soviet ground invasion of the country). The fact that the atomic bombings and the firebombings targeted largely civilian populations makes them even harder to justify as legitimate acts of war.

While we’re on the subject, the idea that Bushidō was reflective of some kind of warlike quality inherent to Japanese culture, and that because of it the Japanese people were inclined to fight to the death rather than surrender, was a common argument from those who supported the bombings (it’s certainly what Harry Truman believed), but it’s easily refuted by the simple fact that Japan actually did, you know, surrender. There’s no way to square the idea that Japanese culture was fundamentally warlike and that all Japanese would rather die than surrender with the fact that Japan surrendered well before all its people were dead. The argument that the atomic bombs were so shockingly devastating that they uprooted this supposedly core “fight to the death” tenet of Japanese culture is, frankly, absurd. The idea that an entire (non-white, of course) nation of millions of people can be designated as “warlike” to justify American military action against it is the pure distillation of Orientalist racism, no matter how much sense it makes to random war-mongering Wall Street Journal columnists.

But look, I do get the argument that says that Washington had no way of knowing how much longer Japan was prepared to hold out, that they had clear reasons to think that a ground invasion of Japan would be necessary and that it would result in even greater loss of life, and that while Washington debated the least-bloody way to win the war, Japanese forces were killing tens of thousands of civilians in Asia every month. I’m sensitive to the idea that the way things look in hindsight can be much different from the way they look in the moment. So let’s just say this: whatever you may feel about the decision to use atomic weapons on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, it is right that we continue to mark these anniversaries if for no other reason than to remind ourselves that those kinds of weapons must never be used again.

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