August 6th, 2005

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Sixty Years Ago Today

Today is the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Of course, I've been thinking about it, and I'm glad we bombed Hiroshima. Now, I know that statement will offend some people but please bear with me -- I'm glad we bombed Hiroshima because I like Japan, and am fond of the Japanese people I've met, because if we hadn't, I believe there's a good chance they wouldn't be alive today, and there's also a decent chance I wouldn't be around to meet them, either.

I'm not glad for the bombing per se. I'm not glad that so many innocent people died in the explosion, nor am I glad that so many people died from the after-effects. Nor am I particularly concerned here about whether the decision to use the bomb was justifiable (although, for the record, I believe it was). But I believe the alternative was far worse. Consider this:

I think there's something that people too easily forget when thinking about Hiroshima. They lose the context of the time. For one thing, the firebombing of Tokyo was just as bad1, but no one really remembers that. For another, we were in a state of total war with Japan -- we weren't going to stop until their complete surrender, and they didn't seem likely to surrender until destroyed. If that took a full scale invasion of Japan, we were willing to do just that -- plans for Operation Olympic were in place and were already being put in motion. What Truman was considering when he made the decision to drop the bomb were the estimated quarter million or so U.S. servicemen that might have died in an invasion, verses a hundred thousand or two who might die in the bombing. I suspect he wasn't overly concerned about the Japanese dead, however -- it had been a brutal, dehumanizing war up to that point, in which the Japanese had treated Americans as sub-humans, and the Americans were returning the favor. Avoiding those American dead was enough justification for Truman, and honestly, I think it was the right decision for that and other reasons.

Consider also this: if the United States had undertaken a full scale invasion of Japan, the Japanese death toll would have been far, far higher than the American death toll. The Japanese government was in the hands of a fanatical military that was willing to die (and take everyone around them with them) rather than surrender, even given the overwhelming odds they faced. They'd proven that on the other islands in the Pacific (consider Okinawa, where 12,000 Americans had recently died, and 110,000 Japanese, both military and civilians, had perished). They'd proven with their suicide attacks, and history shows that they were planning to do the same on the home islands. I know there are those who believe otherwise, but I don't think that belief is justified by the historical evidence -- even after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it took the intervention of the emperor to bring a surrender (and even that precipitated an unsuccessful military coup). Members of the peace party (those who opposed the military leadership and wanted to surrender to the Americans once it became clear the war was lost) even went on record immediately after the war saying that the bombings had finally given them the opportunity to surrender. But the point is, an American invasion could have well resulted in the virtual genocide of the Japanese people, and if you ask me, that's far worse than the use of two nuclear weapons. And that's ignoring the tens of thousands that were dying from conventional bombing each week, and would likely have begun dying from starvation now that Japan was completely cut off from the outside world, with its infrastructure in the process of being utterly obliterated.

On a more personal note, my grandfather was a US Army MP during the occupation of Japan. If the war had gone on much longer, there's a good chance that he would have been part of the invasion, and there's a reasonable chance that he would have died during the fighting. Obviously, if that had happened, I wouldn't be here, and for that alone I have a great deal of sympathy for Truman's decision. But I still think the Japanese benefitted more from Hiroshima than we did.

Perhaps it could have been done more cleanly. Perhaps one bomb would have been sufficient, perhaps a "demonstration" away from a populated area might have worked as well. I rather tend to doubt it, but I could be wrong. What I am sure of, however, is that even if more lives could have been saved, the bomb itself saved a lot of lives, and while the United States is certainly not blameless in its use, the brutal, inhuman -- stubborn -- Japanese government is at least partly culpable for a war as steeped in inhumanity as the Pacific war was. A few hundred thousand died at the hands of two nuclear devices in 1945. Millions of people died at the hands of that reprehensible Japanese government, and the world is a far better place for everyone -- the Japanese people included -- now that that government is dead and buried.

So, I think we should remember the dead (and not just those dead, all the dead who died in the war), and if you're the praying sort, pray for them. But we should also give thanks that many, many more who could have died did not die.

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1 Of course, this isn't a justification of the firebombing of Tokyo, which was the result of our reprehensible strategic air strategy of the time -- not only did we consider bombing civilian targets in Japan acceptable because they were generally considered to be uncivilized sub-humans by the average American at the time, but because of the mistaken belief that bombing civilian targets would erode the will of the enemy nation to fight. History has shown that if anything, the opposite is true.
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