A subject that has provoked regular discussion, at various venues, among WWwtW contributors is the ethical character of the atomic strikes against Japanese cities at the end of the Second World War. Were they justifiable, or were they indelible stains on our national honor?
The month of August witnesses this old debate renewed virtually every year. Often it is a tiresome recitation of old arguments and older outrage: but it must be done. The day the Republic ceases to debate whether her war leaders, in the midst of the greatest crisis of the modern age, should have employed the most destructive weapons ever produced by man, is the day she abandons her solemn duty of self-government.
Our own Bill Luse, now (alas) Contributor emeritus, once wrote one of the finer assays of this terrible subject that I have ever had the honor to read. I recommend a careful and even-tempered perusal. Next, go and read the debate at The New Criterion from several weeks ago (it begins here, and continues here and here). Finally, read Larry Auster’s recent discovery of a new piece of information — one which many of us never knew, and one which, while perhaps not definitive, is not trivial either
My own view of the matter has shifted rather dramatically over the past decade or so. I can remember well a long-running debate with a friend in college, often carried out as we walked to a Social Psychology class, where I played the role of the defender of the atomic strikes, largely on the grounds that they saved lives — particularly American lives — by relieving us of the necessity for a brutal and terrible invasion of the Japanese mainland. My friend was dubious.
Under pressure from writers ranging from Luse to Anscombe to Weaver, I changed my mind. However, recalling the bombast with which I often carried on this debate in the past, I am careful now not to sin against charity. I do not dismiss, with a sanctimonious wave of the hand, the projected destruction that an invasion would entail; I do not dare to judge the men upon whose shoulders these grim decisions rested. But I do insist on moral absolutes; and the deliberate slaughter of innocents is one prohibition we must maintain, if we would maintain any at all.
This debate also has a way of expanding to embrace other, related subjects. This, of course, because its implications are so enormous. Liberals and neoconservatives who are quick to defend the atomic strikes, are also quick to join the chorus of ritual denunciation of, for instance, the Crusades. But if the invasion of France, purposed toward her liberation from a foreign oppressor, was just, how can we not also embrace, as least in theory, the invasion of Asia Minor and Palestine, purposed toward the same, by the Crusaders? The slaughter at Jerusalem by those Frankish adventurers is legendary for its horror (I recall that former President Clinton brought it up right after September 11); but in fairness how does its horror compare to Dresden or Hiroshima? Is the latter’s horror relieved because it was accomplished by fearsome mechanical device, by primordial fire unleashed by man’s ingenuity, as against cold steel and a more common fire?
It is customary, in my experience, for the debate to grind down at this point. The nearness of the Second World War to our memories is strong, the distance of the Crusades (or whatever other parallel one might draw) is great, and no one is happy to confront the more awful implications of some piece of consequentialism. Perhaps someone will quote General Sherman’s letter to the conquered mayor of Atlanta — “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it” — hoping that will bring things to an end. Then again, Sherman delivered his epigram before burning a city, not its human inhabitants.