Sadness and remorse for the worst acts of human history

Wow, I worked myself up at this late hour thinking about issues related to the morality of warfare (or lack thereof, as it were), and in particular to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A particularly naive /. poster (is the adjective “naive” redundant here?) pointed out how we can often forget that “civilians can be enemy combatants,” and he mentions a Mitsubishi plant in Nagasaki, as if that were most casulaties occured in Nagasaki (nonsense of course, since over 100,000 deaths occured in that unfortunate city). He then compares America to a police station and Japan to a “man who runs at the station with a bat,” and concludes that it is therefore “all the man with the bat’s fault.” If that reasoning weren’t pathetic enough, he provides another justification for dropping the bombs: that Japan would have done the same, but to New York! Ah, the things I could teach the average /. writer about argumentation. I really hope these aren’t the same folks I meet in the workplace of my future.

Anyway, here is his post in full:

The issue of “civilian” vs. “fighter” is often not a black and white kind of thing. If someone is supporting the Nazis and chose to help build the concentration camps, even though they could have had other equally paid job, are they an enemy combatant? What about those that produced Zyklon B (hydrocyanic acid) used in gas chambers, are they enemy combatants? I think they are.

Why doesn’t the same apply to the people who worked for the Mitsubishi arms plant in Nagasaki? Most of the town employees where working at the plant building weapons and ammunition to kill Americans. They could have chosen to be farmers, or say teachers, instead they most likely did support the goverment policy and the war against us.

You are right, the children weren’t fighting yet, but the ones in Berlin were, and if we invaded Japan a lot more children would have been dead, because they would have been forced to defend “the Empire”

One thing that is always usefull to keep in mind is that it was the Japanese that attacked the U.S. What in the hell were they thinking? It is like me attacking the local police department with a baseball bat, I know I will get in trouble and end up in jail for a long time. If I get my family and friends on it, they will end up in jail for a long time too. Someone might ask me “what in the hell were you thinking?” Same thing with Japan. It was their goverment that sealed the fate of its children and elderly when they attacked U.S. It wasn’t a defensive war, it wasn’t even a preemtive attack, I don’t think US would have ever attacked Japan unprovoked. So when they sent the battleships and the airplanes to Pearl Harbor, they technically “killed” a lot of Japanese civilians and as well as fighters.

On the other side, let’s imagine that Japan would have won the war (impossible but let’s try) do you think they would hesitate bombing New York, or LA or other major city because there are civilians in it? Probably not, judging by what they did in China.

And my response:

What a load of horse shit. Try actually studying history, not being taught the pseudo-history of our high schools and middle schools.

So the reason the US was justified in dropping the bombs was because we’re big and powerful and you just don’t mess with big and powerful countries? You say their government sealed the fate of their children, but that is a total logical fallacy (as, sadly, is often employed by writers on Slashdot). US wouldn’t have dropped bombs if Japan hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor. Therefore, Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor caused the US to drop the bombs.

The problem with the argument is that Japan didn’t know we’d decide to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent lives in response to Pearl Harbor. Although the US wouldn’t have dropped the bombs without Pearl Harbor, the US could have done a lot of other things as a military response.

I too was taught that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in order to save the 1 million American lives that would have been lost in an invasion (since learning that, the figures have been dropped by historians to well under 300,000 American lives, making the argument much less compelling even if one buys into the amoral numbers game). Unfortunately, there’s a difference between a soldier’s life and a civilian’s life, and there’s a difficulty in measuring either’s value. A soldier is an instrument of his or her country, and his or her purpose is to die in battle with enemy forces. One might say that all soldiers ascend the plane of morality, since they are given the right to kill others without remorse, and likewise to be killed by unregretful forces.

But innocent lives are innocent lives. Yes, there were SOME soldiers (or even people helping the Japanese government’s attacks on the US) in Nagasaki, in arms plants and elsewhere. But there were also enormous numbers of completely innocent people, who were wiped out in an instant. This mass killing is more than just that: it’s murder, on the largest instantaneous scale we’ve ever seen. And, to put it lightly, it is highly immoral and intolerable.

  • President Truman claimed that Hiroshima was attacked because it was a “military center.” But over 120,000 people died outright in the bombing, and 95% of them were civilians.
  • The second bomb was prefaced by leaflets which were dropped upon Nagasaki, informing the people that Hiroshima had been destroyed, and that they were next if they didn’t tell their leaders to surrender. Since their leaders didn’t surrender promptly, they had no choice but to face death. Another 100,000 lives, of which 95% (perhaps more) were innocent civilians.
  • We are taught in high schools that this was the “hardest decision a president ever had to make.” I disagree. I think it was the easiest decision any immoral person could make, if he were placed in that same situation. It’s easy to wipe out a thousands upon thousands of innocent families in order to break the enemy into surrender. It’s much more difficult to conduct a war in a manner that still makes it possible for us to be “the good guy” and keep intact our general moral framework with its respect for human life. In exchange for committing a greatly immoral act, Truman was not placed in jail or made into a great villain by the Western World; instead, Truman was attributed with having “ended the war,” and received such accolades for this feat that he was even at one point awarded an honorary degree at Oxford University for his peacemaking.

If Japan would have won the war, would they hesitate bombing New York? I don’t know, but clearly from the way you pose the question, you find it a highly disgusting and immoral act for a government to bomb a great city like New York (which is full of innocent life, great history, and hardly any military bases) to respond in a military battle with the US. So why should we, the US, have done the same? As beautifully put by Elizabeth Anscombe (“Mr. Truman’s Degree”), whose brilliant simplicity casts much light on the reality of this decision:

“For me to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions. So the prohibition on deliberately killing prisoners of war or the civilian population is not like the Queensberry Rules: its force does not depend on its promulgation as part of positive law, written down, agreed upon, and adhered to by the parties concerned.

When I say that to choose to kill the innocent as a means to one’s ends is murder, I am saying what would generally be accepted as correct. But I shall be asked for my definition of “the innocent”. I will give it, but later. Here, it is not necessary; for with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case. In the bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end.”

We killed three hundred thousand innocent lives as a means to an end. There were other options available to us, and Truman chose to take the path of the least moral, and worst human action possible. How can we possibly remember these events with anything but disgust and remorse? How can my fellow Americans, with whom I often have these arguments, many of them young and even idealistic in many respects, even begin to tell me that the dropping of those two horrible bombs was “justified”? Thousands of women and children died, often horrible deaths involving extreme exposure to radiation, because we decided to take the “convenient route” out of the war with their Japanese government.

How were we Americans so brainwashed into seeing it as anything else?

5 thoughts on “Sadness and remorse for the worst acts of human history”

  1. If you want a rather good read on this very specific topic of actually considering the use of the bomb, check out: Prompt and Utter Destruction: President Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bombs Against Japan; by J. Samuel Walker. I may have a copy somewhere if you want to borrow it.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll try to track down the article. Likewise, if you want a rather good read on the morality of war, I may have the article I mentioned above (“Mr. Truman’s Degree” by the late philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe) laying around. The question is, when will I see you? I missed you at Josh’s house that night; didn’t know you’d be there!

  3. I also just want to point out that I received a few responses on Slashdot that essentially said, “You’re definition of ‘innocence’ does matter, because the people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t innocent. They were working in arms plants and factories, etc.”

    In fact, this line of reasoning doesn’t work too well. In reality, the number of civilians there in military or working for major industry still was miniscule when compared to the overwhelming number of general civilians. (In other words, many teachers, doctors, and housewives died in those blasts, many more than just Mitsubishi’s factory employed).

    Secondly, if you look at the historical facts, you’ll see that the number-one target as decided by the Target Committee in Los Alamos for the atom bomb dropping was actually Kyoto (which is an entirely civilian city, and what’s more, contains great historical treasures of Japan’s ancient past). It was only because certain members of the US Cabinet, in particular the secretary of war, had been there and thought it was such a beautiful place that they could not destroy it.

    Furthermore, other historical evidence suggests that major cities were also chosen on the basis of how little they had been bombed prior. In this way, we could assess the actual damage caused by the atomic bomb.

    But sure, says I, keep convincing yourselves that we were totally justified because there were also munitions plants there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *