Hiroshima, moral purity and moral blindness
A thoughtful, poignant post by Shaun Mullen at The Moderate Voice (and in a longer version on his own blog) commemorates yesterday's anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Mullen opens with a heartbreaking image of human suffering—the death of a three-year-old boy who was outside riding his tricycle when the bomb hit. Then, he examines the arguments for and against the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and concludes that Harry Truman made the right call.
Oliver Kamm, British commentator and liberal hawk, makes the same argument in The Guardian, challenging the "alternative history" which claims that Japan was on the brink of surrender and the nuclear bombs were dropped in order to intimidate Stalin's Soviet Union. Says Kamm:
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often used as a shorthand term for war crimes. That is not how they were judged at the time. Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire—and for Japan itself. One of Japan's highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties. The destruction of two cities, and the suffering it caused for decades afterwards, cannot but temper our view of the Pacific war. Yet we can conclude with a high degree of probability that abjuring the bomb would have caused greater suffering still.
Here, I will say that my knowledge of World War II is limited. I don't know who is factually correct about the situation in the Pacific theater at the end of the war. (The revisionist case is made here by the Hoover Institution's David Henderson.) The argument that the primary goal of dropping the bombs was to intimidate the Soviets doesn't make much sense, given that we allowed the Soviet Union to keep all of Eastern Europe, half of Germany, and the Baltics as part of its empire.
On a purely instinctive level, I am of course appalled by justifications for the killing of about 150,000 civilians, many of them children. One cannot, if one is a normal person, justify such an act without doing violence to one's moral sense. But are there times when the unspeakable is the lesser of two evils? Obviously, arguments that noble ends can justify terrible means can lead to some dark places, and such arguments have also served countless tyrants as excuses for barbarism. The danger of becoming "as bad as the enemy" is real.
But at the opposite extreme, the view that all use of terrible means is equal represents a kind of moral laziness, an abdication of critical distinctions and context. When some have the will and the power to do evil things—to enslave and murder—there is generally no way to stop them except by force; and when we choose to use force, terrible choices must sometimes be made. Yes, even necessary violence, particularly when it kills innocents, damages the soul. I will agree that we should all find it a little harder to live with ourselves knowing that the victory over evil in World War II was bought with the lives of so many innocents, not only at Hiroshima but in Dresden or in Tokyo, where the men, women and children killed by "conventional" firebombing were as dead as the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nonetheless, it was as clearcut a victory over evil as there has ever been in history.
And that's why what truly shocked me was the responses to Oliver Kamm on the Guardian website, where many of the anti-Kamm posts were truly striking in their venom and their strident moral equivalency:
What a disgusting article. For me, the dropping of an atomic bomb on any town anywhere is entirely despicable. In my opinion it proves beyond a shadow of doubt that whilst Americans may be lovely people when they are getting their way, they will stoop to any depths to ensure their personal gain in the face of opposition. They will also, always hide behind "holier than thou" reasons for their contemptible behaviour.
Wow. Americans are just shocking in their denial. By this sick logic the jihadis are completely justified when they attack American civilians in massive acts of terror—which I might add are mere blips in comparison to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We live in a sick culture, where 60 years have passed, and there isnt even a shred of shame with regards to this heinous crime. For the sake of our species—Boycott America.
"Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome."
The other side also did similar terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome which became war crimes.
It is the winner who decides what is or is not a war crime.
America has ever been a psychopathic bully ever since it's (sic) first days and the genocide against the indiginous Americans. Why all these attempts to justify what was clearly a war crime greater than all others?
The US has never learned the lesson of treating one's enemies with grace and magnanimity once those enemies have lost–it is always vindictive, always demands unconditional surrender, complete acquiescence to US subjugation.
What is absent from these comments (and many others like them) is any awareness of things like the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March, or the Holocaust for that matter; or of the fact that America's supposed determination to crush her enemies manifested itself in rebuilding postwar Germany and leaving Japan with a political system that allowed it to become a strong economic rival to America herself. A few commenters suggest that America should have allowed the Soviets to end the war by invading Japan, blithely unaware of the hell on earth that would have awaited the Japanese under Soviet occupation. This isn't mere ignorance; it's a profound conviction that only evil done by the West, and above all by "psychopathic bully" America, truly matters. Meanwhile, posters who point out Japanese atrocities in World War II are rebuffed with accusations of "the implicitly racist overtone [of] recounting the endless 'savagery' of the Japanese."
When anti-Americanism becomes so extreme that it turns the U.S. into the bad guy of World War II, that's truly frightening and depressing. As for whether the bombing was indeed the least evil of all available options: again, I don't know. I'm sure there is room for legitimate debate on this issue. But that debate is almost entirely drowned out by hate and self-righteousness. The insistence on moral purity has turned to moral blindness.
See more at The Y-Files.