Friday, December 17, 2010

The Morals of the Mushroom Cloud

The topic of the atomic bombings of Japan, which closed the Second World War, cropped up with some friends a couple of times as the semester was ending. It is a subject that I have visited and revisited over the years, without knowing why: my personal links to Japan may have something to do with it. I find myself in a minority in adamantly rejecting the decision taken by our nation, but there are few things of which I am so absolutely convinced, as that this was a war crime.

It may seem academic even to discuss the matter. After all, the dead are dead and cannot be brought back to life by argument. However, I am persuaded that this act represented -- and represents for us, to the extent that we give it our approval -- a radical compromise with evil; and that cannot be permitted: not to Catholics, not to Christians, not to self-respecting human beings.

For we must always remember that it is not only the things we do which influence our souls; nor only the things we think. The actions of others influence us also, even if we neither directly assist nor suffer them; for the whole question of innocence is not simply question of what we have done, but what we would do -- how our souls have been shaped by thought, word, and deed, including our responses to the actions of others: keeping them out of our soul by opposition or welcoming them in by approval, rightly or wrongly. By giving something our approval, we involve ourselves in it -- not practically, but spiritually. And the spirit is too valuable a thing to be compromised. It is our very self.

The issue at hand is whether the U.S. was justified in using the atomic bomb on Japan as she did.

Now, the fact that this was a war-time act situates it in the territory of Just War Theory, a favorite topic of several Christian philosophers, beginning with St Augustine. One of the basic elements of Just War Theory (reiterated endlessly over the centuries, most recently in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) is that non-combatants are not to be touched. Hiroshima did include secondary military headquarters; however, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets not although, but because they were both large urban centers -- in other words, the bombings would result in severe damage to the civilian population. Damage to non-combatants in these strikes was not collateral. It was intended. This, if we accept Just War Theory at all, is an atrocity. The Catechism has the following to say (without directly citing the events of 1945): "The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. 'The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.' Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. ... 'Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation'" (secs. 2312-2314, emphasis original).

This actually yields a surprisingly clear syllogism for our use:
1. All acts of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities, etc., are war crimes (Major Premise)
2. These acts of war (the atomic bombings) were directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities (Minor Premise); therefore
3. These acts of war were war crimes (Conclusion)
With which we have the syllogism Barbara in the first mode, for all you logic nerds out there. (I hope you are both well.)

I have only once heard or read an attempt to evade the charge that it was not really intended as an attack on civilians. Paul Fussell, in his essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb," sets forth the argument that, days before Hiroshima, leaflets were dropped on the city warning people to get out. For this particular argument, I have approximately the same sympathy as with that of a murderer who defends himself by pointing out that he courteously sent death threats before carrying out the actual killing.

Defenders of the bombings may take several more reasonable tacks. One, favored by the more pragmatic, is that the bombings saved lives in the long run: because the war ended so shortly thereafter, unnumbered American soldiers survived it. Some, taking a more universal perspective, will point out that Japanese soldiers, and even Japanese civilians, were likewise saved from the attrition of a slow march into the heart of the Japanese Empire. I have heard more than once about the last-ditch machinations of the Japanese government to arm the elderly, the women, and the children in a final effort to defend the nation.

Which, in fairness, makes perfect sense in view of the Potsdam Declaration made by the Allies earlier that year. It was, in the view of the Japanese government, a rehash of the Cairo Declaration of 1943 (which it cited). It was the Cairo Declaration which required of Japan not simply surrender, but unconditional surrender. The alternative presented to the Empire was a full invasion, which, in the Allies' words, would mean "the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland." What country would not make plans to arm its people so that they could defend themselves against that kind of threat?

Here comes the joke, though. Note that the Cairo Declaration, and that of Potsdam which reaffirmed it, demanded an unconditional surrender. Anything less, any peace terms which might be offered by the Japanese Empire, were being rejected categorically. The joke is that one of the other essential elements of Just War Theory is that any war, to be just, must be fought only to reach peace. Being able to unconditionally impose one's own will upon the opposing side is not a prerequisite, and in fact is unjust if it obstructs a reasonable prospect of peace. It could theoretically be argued that only an unconditional surrender from Japan could possibly have resulted in peace; but that can scarcely be proven. It could also theoretically be argued that, by insisting upon an unconditional surrender -- which, aimed at Japan, was not prima facie a realistic demand -- the Allies themselves made it necessary (if indeed it was) to drop the atom bomb. I do admit that this joke is not particularly funny.

Going back to the argument that it saved lives, whether American or Japanese (for I cannot abide even to answer the stance that it saved American lives at the expense of Japanese, as if we were worth more than they), it can only be said that this is not true.

That is, American soldiers were prevented from dying in the Second World War, and went home -- to die anyway: from cancer, or after crossing organized crime, or when they were shipped out to the next wars in Korea and Vietnam, or fifty years later asleep in their beds. Everyone dies. We know that, if we let ourselves. Whether a person dies in war does not make a difference about whether they will die at some point: the rate still holds at one per person, 100% (with allowances for those assumed a la Elijah, or raised from the dead Lazarus-style). Whether a person dies in war does certainly make a difference to what sort of pain they and their families go through -- though, it must be said, not necessarily a negative difference. The man who died at Iwo Jima as a war hero is a source of family pride, when, had he come back, he would have been traumatized by his experiences, estranged himself from his family and friends, and drunk himself to death. An imagined storyline, of course. But so are all the speculations about what would have happened between the Allies and Japan if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.

In any event such an argument is hardly tenable among Christians. For what ultimately matters is not how or when a man dies, but that "it is appointed for a man to die once, and after that to face the judgment." And no man will be judged according to the manner in which he died; but we are solemnly warned, repeatedly, by our Lord Jesus Himself, that "the dead were judged according to what they had done." To die, innocent, is a happy death: a fate to be hoped for. To die, morally compromised, is to risk your soul -- perhaps, to be damned. Everyone is going to die; what we need to be concerned about is not avoiding it as long as possible, for that is to think the way the World does, but to die having traveled as close to Christ as we possibly can. And we can hardly expect to travel close to Christ if we not only practice injustice, but defend it as integrity.

I do not claim it easy to maintain moral clarity in the face of such questions as this. It is also, I admit, far easier to sit writing about Hiroshima on a netbook than to sling a gun on my back and sail off, very probably, to be killed on the coast of Honshu, or captured and horrifically tortured. But if we believe in the Four Last Things -- death; judgment; Heaven; Hell -- in any real sense, we have to maintain that moral clarity. I believe that any price is worth paying to preserve one's innocence -- not that I imagine that I would pay any price. I know for a fact that I would sell my innocence for a lentil stew, because I have, God only knows how many times. But is what I or anyone would actually do of any consequence? The question before us is not what we, in our stupidity, cowardice, or selfishness, would in fact do. It is what is right. It is a question of whether, objectively, our innocence is worth everything, not whether we would pay everything to keep it. And if we do believe in the Four Last Things, then we had damn well better believe that innocence is worth everything, because innocence (or rather, that innocence God bestows on us on repentance, forgiving our lack of it) means everlasting bliss, and guilt, obstinately defended, means everlasting torment.

Does this mean I would rather have seen Americans and Japanese fighting to the bitter end -- in Taiwan, China, Okinawa, in the very streets of Tokyo? A thousand times, yes. No one would want that for its own sake. But I would rather see good, honest, loyal American and Japanese men fall as soldiers, one of the noblest deaths afforded to our broken race, than see children's faces full of broken glass and pregnant women with their skin melted by radiation. For one soldier to kill another is, at least, within the possibilities of a just war, and the soldier stands a very good chance of going to his death, to the extent that this is possible for anybody, prepared. For soldiers to kill non-combatants -- well, we have a word for what Al-Qaeda soldiers do in killing American civilians, and it is not an attractive one.

As Christians, it is vitally necessary for us to have clear heads on this question. Remember, we are the salt of the earth -- i.e., something that is supposed to preserve, prevent things from going bad, by being extremely unlike the thing we are preserving, as unlike as salt is unlike meat. We must not absorb the assumptions and attitudes of the surrounding culture: for instance, that preserving physical life is worth every moral compromise, or that anything that brings a war to an end is ipso facto justifiable, or even (though of course we would not put it this way) that whatever we did must be right because we are America. When we do that, we cease to fulfill one of the chief functions for which God put us into society -- to be a beacon of light in the midst of darkness (and if the very light in us is darkness, how great is that darkness!), proclaiming the eternal and vivifying truths that right is more important than might, that the soul is journeying at all times to damnation or salvation, that the real root of peace lies in justice rather than military, political, or economic force. And if the salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it be seasoned? Or what is it good for, save to be thrown out, and trampled underfoot by men?


  1. not that i'm defending those bombings, but how would you address the fact that im sure some people bring up -- Japan's attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor when we were not at war with them? i think a lot of people believe that they opened themselves up to many injustices of war by that attack. civilians, however, had nothing to do with that decision.

  2. Moral ambiguity is a signal feature of all wars, and the War itself was a great crime. Which oddly, sadly, stopped other great crimes such as the Nazi implementation of the Shoah and the Imperial Japanese rape of the rest of Asia. It was the same dilemma faced by every cop on the beat who had to draw his gun to stop something awful from happening. The civilians are paradoxically at their greatest risk when one is attempting to save them. Does that mean cracking those cans of artificial sunshine over the land of the Rising Sun was a crime? I don't think so. It was terrible, terrible like the bombing of Dresden in February of that year. But unlike the wasteful and pointless firebombing of Dresden the atomic bombings of Dai Nippon were a direct and immediate cause of ending the bloodshed. Yes, civilians died in horrible ways. As they did on the other side of Eurasia choking on Zyklon B and by our accidental hand all over Europe and the Far East. I think that the nuke is a magical weapon, rather that we assign magic to it because of its novelty. Like we do nerve gas, which kills its victims more quickly and with less pain the the traditional methods of shot and shell and bayonet. More than noble soldiers fighting it out man-to-man would have died in the streets of Tokyo. The cost to the civilians of Japan would have been horrific whether they followed the Imperial orders to fight to the death or not or said no and accepted their fate. Oppenheimer's deadly toy in a way stopped the Total War, or at least the ghastliest part of it, in its tracks. Is it immoral that we used the Atomic Bomb on Japan? Is it immoral that we allied ourselves with an even more prolific murderer when we used Stalin's Red Army to grind away at the Nazis? The price in that was aside from the survival of Stalin's evil regime, but the imposition of that sort of regime on the Eastern half of Europe. We sold their lives to buy ours. As I said, war is full of moral ambiguities. To me, a burnt-out Centurion retired from Empire's wars, the Bomb was no different than the bayonet as a means of employing deadly coercive force. Its only real crime was its novelty. But it was that shocking novelty that allowed the peace faction in the Imperial Government to win out over the last-ditch Samurai of Tojo's junta. God is fond of paradox; you know that. He likes throwing us those curve balls to test our understanding of free will. Don't we as individuals learn lessons in our personal lives from the dumb and often inadvertent acts of evil that we commit every day? Why can't mankind in the aggregate learn from its sins? I think humanity learned a great lesson, as great as the war was costly from the twin horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Of how close to the brink we can bring ourselves. Such is the price of free will.

  3. Certainly the Pacific theater of the war opened with a war crime from the Japanese against us. I did not address this, not because it is not also evil, but because it is not relevant: I was interested only in the issue of what we did, and we can scarcely argue that one war crime justifies another.

    As far as moral ambiguity goes, I am not altogether certain of the significance of the comment; you presumably regard it as a morally ambiguous situation, but I have no confidence that I understand your reasons for doing so. That they produced the desired effect -- the Japanese surrender -- is, for my purposes here, likewise irrelevant, for the simple reason that even ends do not justify means, let alone consequences justifying means. My mention of the horrors suffered by civilians was not meant to be an argument in itself, so much as to make the point that, if civilians are going to suffer whatever we do, we may just as well take the trouble to act justly, even if we do not believe that there is a God who will call us to account for acting otherwise. Probably I did not express that element particularly well.

    To be sure, there were other crimes and prudential errors in the conduct of the war. As before, I ignored these, not because they are unworthy of attention, but because they were nothing to my purpose, which was to examine a single moral issue. I certainly hope that we may learn from it; nevertheless, one of the things which I believe to be true, and which I therefore want us to learn from it (though we could have learned it from principle if we had had the patience to do so), is that it was wrong. The price of free will? In one sense. But free will has another price, called in theological language the Last Judgment.