Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Sixty-seven years ago this month, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing somewhere between 150,000 and a quarter million people, most of them civilians. Of these, about half were killed in the blast itself, and about half died by the end of 1945 from severe burns and radiation, both of which were made worse by the lack of adequate medical care in the aftermath of the attack.

Two views of the attack

The decision to use the bomb remains controversial.

Some argue that it was justified because it saved many lives—both American and Japanese—and hastened the end of the war. For example, the eminent cultural and literary historian Paul Fussell (author of The Great War and Modern Memory), makes this argument in “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb” (PDF).

Others regard it as a serious war crime. For example, the Second Vatican Council declared, “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (Gaudium et Spes, 80). The Catholic Catechism reiterates this judgment in the section on Just War (2314). This is also the argument made by Elizabeth Anscombe in “Mr. Truman’s Degree” (PDF).

I am firmly on the side of those who believe that the bombings were a war crime. But I recognize that this position seems unrealistic and out of touch to many. It seems to them that out of devotion to an abstract “moral” principle, I am willing to insist on killing millions of people in order to have a more “just” war.

Not surprisingly, this sort of “morality” strikes a lot of people as crazy.

Digging deeper

Of course, for a philosopher, it’s insufficient to say, “I believe that the bombings were a war crime.” An ethicist does not simply command or forbid: the goal of ethical inquiry is to help students to understand the reasons behind ethical judgments. Ethical argument seeks to interpret, to justify, and to explain its conclusions.

To mark the anniversary of the bombings, I spent some time this month reading a number of different resources on the bombing, hoping to deepen my understanding of the different sides in the conflict.

Although I am a philosopher, I think that fiction often provides an important window into philosophical questions. So I began with Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction 1895-1984 (web) by Paul Brians, and Masuji Ibuse’s novel Black Rain (Amazon). Black Rain is a particularly powerful exploration of the way the bomb affected the lives of ordinary people.

In a similar vein, John Hersey’s Hiroshima (Amazon), originally published in the New Yorker on the first anniversary of the bombings, provides a non-fictional narrative of the impact of the bombings on survivors Hersey interviewed in the months after the explosion.

For a more detached and technical treatment of the development of the bombs and their aftermath, I looked at Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb Under the Auspices of the United States Government (web) by Henry De Wolf Smyth and The Manhattan Engineer District’s report, The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Amazon Kindle).

These two provided in in-depth account of the development of the bomb and its effects; the Manhattan Engineer District’s report also provided the account of an eyewitness, Fr. John A. Siemes, a German Jesuit priest who was a professor of modern philosophy at Tokyo’s Catholic University, and was staying at a Jesuit house on the outskirts of Hiroshima at the time of the bombing.

Although Siemes is a Catholic priest, a professor of philosophy, and himself a survivor of the atomic bombings, who saw the horrible effects of the attack first-hand, he is ambivalent about the morality of the use of the bomb. He reports that he and his fellow priests “have disucssed among ourselves the ethics of the use of the bomb”:

Some consider it in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civil population. Others were of the view that in a total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical to me that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good that might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?

In the next several posts, I will share some observations stemming from this rather diverse reading, with the goal of both increasing awareness of the bombings themselves, and trying to shed more light on my own answer to Fr. Siemes’s question.

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About Ron Belgau

I am completing my PhD in philosophy, and have taught medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion.
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