Hiroshima, Mon Amerique

Four Thoughts on the Hiroshima Anniversary

1. Don’t Look Back

I’ll admit, I was genuinely taken aback — gobsmacked, as they say — when after having been here for two years, the furor erupted over the Smithsonian Institute’s plans to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima with a museum exhibit that included an extensive section detailing the impact of the Atom bomb on the city, as well as thought provoking background information on the context in which the fateful decision was taken. That plan was successfully squelched by congressional Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, who proclaimed it “anti-American propaganda.” Having succeeded in stopping the show (or reducing it to little more than a display of the B-29 bomber that dropped the bomb), Gingrich crowed, ”the Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they are sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”

Wow. Where to begin?

It’s not as if there is any dispute over the facts of what happened on August 6, 1945. But the keepers of the national mythology appeared to have decided that America was not ready to confront the reality of what had transpired when its leaders decided to unleash a weapon of mass destruction on a civilian population. Or to even have a sober discussion over how such a monumental decision was made.

But then, while the brutal war crimes of Nazi Germany and and Tojo’s Japan are well documented and exhaustively discussed, there has really been very little discussion, not only in the U.S. but also more widely in the West, of the legitimacy of the massive aerial bombardment of those countries’ civilian populations by U.S. and British bomber fleets. The morality and legality of consciously setting out to destroy a whole civilian population center in Hiroshima was not even seriously debated at the time, it was simply enacted as the inevitable next step once the bomb was ready. And the climate that made that possible had been created in Dresden, and Hamburg, and Tokyo — and before that in the aerial bombing by British war planes of rebellious villages in Iraq in the 1920s and the Italians of the restive natives of their Libyan possession as early as 1911.

We correctly decry terrorism precisely because it targets civilians rather than combatants, making it an illegitimate and immoral form of warfare. But there appears to be a blindspot in Western discourse when it comes to discussing the context of targeting civilians in the course of formal warfare.

That, in turn, has created the moral climate in which the U.S. and its allies deem it unecessary to keep count of, let alone to be held to account for, the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians that have been killed in the course of allied military actions there.

Western discourse recuses itself from even discussing these questions by falling back on its moral certitude: Eggs are broken in the course of making omelettes, after all, and all of these Western interventions are for the greater good; therefore the collateral damage is simply a tragic by-product of the march of progress and liberty — but not one that should detain or distract us from repeating the exericse when next the cause of liberty and progress demands it. This ends-justifying-means logic unfortunately has an ironic echo in the rationalizations used by terrorists for their own violence against civilians.

2. Defining terrorism

The UN General Assembly will — very sensibly in a world in which one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter — next month be asked by Secretary General Kofi Annan to adopt a resolution (with U.S. support) that, among other things, for the first time offers a single, universal definition of terrorism in order to achieve moral and political clarity and eliminate political preference as the basis of determining what is and isn’t terrorism. The definition reads as follows:

“We affirm that the targeting and deliberate killing of civilians and non-combatants cannot be justified or legitimised by any cause or grievance, and we declare that any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organisation to carry out or to abstain from any act cannot be justified on any grounds and constitutes an act of terrorism. ”

No arguments there. Now read the decision to attack the civilian population centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with weapons of mass destruction designed to to wipe out tens of thousands of people in a single moment — in order to compel the Japanese government to surrender to U.S. forces — against that definition. The official rationalization for Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that to proceed with a land invasion would cost the lives of up to 250,000 U.S. troops, and bring horrific suffering on millions of Japanese civilians. There’s considerable debate about the troop figure, but for me that misses the point: The terrorism definition outlined above specifically precludes the targeting of civilians to force a government to change course, and my own very limited understanding of the laws of war tells me that there is no provision for putting civilians in harm’s way in order to protect the lives of combatants — that’s why people make such a fuss when troops use “human shields.”

Wherever you come down on these issues, we have here an issue worthy of a lot more discussion than it has prompted so far. Osama bin Laden, for one, has seized on that silence for his own propaganda purposes: In this first video statement after 9/11, Bin Laden referred explicitly to Hiroshima and said that the fact that it was not considered a war crime disqualified the U.S. from denouncing terrorism. And as Pervez Hoodbhoy has pointed out in a thoughtful commentary on the debate in Pakistan over nuclear weapons, the Hiroshima decision remains central to the thinking of those among America’s rivals and enemies who advocate building nuclear weapons.

So, unpacking and reexamining the Hiroshima decision may be long overdue. But if what I saw in 1995 was any indication, don’t hold your breath. For Gingrich and his ilk, even opening these questions to debate is verboten.

3. Weapons Create Their Own Logic

We’ve already noted that the primary factor that prompted the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was simply the weapon’s completion. America was at war, and once this super-weapon was a reality, there was not a moment’s questioning whether it could be used.

Of more concern, however, is the fact that 15 years after the Cold War, nuclear weapons are spreading faster and further than ever. Forget about horror scenarios of terror groups acquiring these weapons on the black market — plausible, but not really likely at this point, I think. The reality is that the major powers have allowed a reality to emerge where the number of nation states rushing headlong to acquire strategic nuclear capability is growing all the time. Indeed, the U.S. appears to have accepted that reality, increasingly abandoning the Cold War era arms control regime in favor of missile-defense technology and a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons designed to destroy the weapons of the other side (whoever that may be) in their bunkers.

Of course they fight rearguard actions in the name of the Non-Proliferatin Treaty, Iran being the current focus. But the premise of the NPT was that other states would refrain from going nuclear while the established nuclear powers would disarm. It was never designed to protect the strategic monopoly of the Nuclear Five (now Eight, or Nine if you count North Korea). And it is simply absurd to expect states whose enemies are nuclear armed to simply refrain from attaining that exalted status, particularly when globalization has put that capability within reach. Why would Iran refrain from pursuing nuclear weapons when the U.S. and Israel, and also a regional rival Pakistan, have them? And the example of Israel, Pakistan and India shows that if you do manage to build a bomb, nobody can reverse your nuclear status, you simply get membership of the club. And if Iran did, then Saudi Arabia almost certainly would (via its longtime client state Pakistan, probably). Similarly, North Korea looks likely to learn from the fate of Iraq, and play out the current negotiation process until it tests a weapon and changes the terms of the talks. And that will prompt Japan to do the same, which will prompt China to expand its own arsenal, and so on.

This is bad, of course, very bad. But there’s no stopping it, really, under current geopolitical conditions.

4. It will happen again

No, not because some terrorist will buy some suitcase device from the Russian mob. Those scenarios are plausible, of course, but they strike me as pretty unlikely. The real nuclear danger comes from nuclear armed states, who maintain their arsenals in good working order, and continually hone the delivery systems to get them to their intended targets within an hour of taking a decision to use them. The number of those states has expanded over the past decade, and it looks to expand again over the next one. And once the capacity is there — particularly if states believe they can avoid a ruinous counterstrike, either through technological advantages or through applying a first-strike so devastating that it eliminates an enemy’s capacity to respond — the rest will take care of itself. That, after all, is what happened in 1945.

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8 Responses to Hiroshima, Mon Amerique

  1. Brilliant post!

    Myths die hard: to this day, the “pain” of Vietnam is that we lost, not that we slaughtered 2 million civilians.

    Fyi, here’s a short piece I wrote about denial in Iraq:
    “Why the Children in Iraq Make No Sound When They Fall”


  2. vanpt says:

    Mr. Karon’s concern for civilians is touching but misplaced (save perhaps for children under 13). It made sense when warfare was conducted by kings, dukes, or just ordinary thuggish leaders and their mercenary followers out for booty or pillage to be taken from innocent non-combatants.

    Today’s wars are undertaken with the active or passive consent and enthusiasm of the civilian population aged 14 through 84, though few 19 year olds can be honestly blamed for “starting” a war. They are started by people like the draft dodging newcasters at Fox News, the Judith Millers, and the epicene civilian security intellectuals in the President’s Office, DOD and “think” tanks. The lives of a hundred of these creeps and their bloodthirsty civilian followers is not worth the death of one decent 19 year old trooper.

    The kamikaze pilots were all inspired and charged up by the prayers and encouragement of hundreds of “innocent” parents, well wishers, and their innocent “marine biologist” emperor. The latters’ lives and comfort were worth no more than some 20 year old would-be student cremated by flame throwers in a tunnel on Iwo Jima or Okinawa. They got what they deserved (generally – perhaps not particularly).

    I wish, without much hope, that any nation, or group, that commences an action which is not existentially defensive in nature would suffer casualties at the rate of about a hundred “innocent’ civilians for each “guilty” trooper. At the very least, on purely esthetic grounds, I would like people like Bill O’Reilly and Mort Zuckerman to stop whining that it is the military’s duty to protect them and their miserable families.

    Anthony J. Van Patten

  3. frangavin says:

    There was a documentary on Hiroshima on BBC 1 last night which rather detachedly explored the event – with interviews from Japanese survivors and American bombers views. The Japanese were still in shock and the bombers looked vacant (how do you do you come to terms with yourself after killing that many people?).

    And it suddenly hit me – America is the only country that has ever actually used a nuclear weapon. Both the cold war and terrorism issues seem like giant cases of psychological projection by the US on the rest of the world. (ie what we dont like in ourselves we project onto others)

    NB John Hersey’s extended article/book ‘Hiroshima’ may not have deeply opened up the debate politically but it certainly highlights the aftermath of the bomb and makes fascinating emotive reading.

  4. Sydney Vilen says:

    Thanks for this Tony. I’m so glad I came upon this. I couldn’t finish, so I’ll be back tomorrow. But so far (1/2 to 3/4 through), I agreee totally.
    And the evolution of killing civilians increases with drones, NDAA, and going back to pre-1066 and all that—no habeus corpus if the Prez sez it ain’t (sic) necessary???

  5. Many thanks for the great writeup. It in fact would have been a entertainment bill the idea. Glance complicated to additional extra acceptable of your stuff! In addition, just how could most of us talk?

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  7. How ironic that it is the US nuke deterant that has kept japan from needing a large military force and has allowed them to spend their money on the economy.

  8. Saint Peter says:

    It really is definitely a very useful section of information. I am happy which you provided this handy info with us.

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