Defense Tech had an article up today about the symbolic sabotage of a nuclear silo by a group of clowns, probably a ploughshares action. Now, granted, Defense Tech isn’t actually a liberal bastion of military news, so I shouldn’t have expected accolades in the comments section. Perhaps it was predictable that the first comment brought up the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claiming that they “saved lives.”
214,000 people died within four months of the bombings. Thousands of Hibakusha (“explosion affected people”) died in the years to follow–every August, Japan publishes new figures. Last year, the toll came to 379,776 people who have died directly as a result of the bombs. Most of these people were civilians, living in a city left more or less alone throughout the war. (Some historians have suggested that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were deliberately left intact to measure the full power of the bombs, something which assumes that the use of nuclear weapons was a fait accompli.)
Another commenter claimed that firebombing in Japan took more lives–it is estimated that approximately 100,000 people had died from the firebombings, a far cry from the toll the bombs wrought.
405,399 American soldiers died in the Second World War. More probably would have died had we not bombed Japan: this is true, and it is a fact that I am not going to attempt to dispute. This would also have been a great tragedy, as all war deaths are. But I’m still not sure it justified the use of the bomb on the Japanese population as a tool to awe and impress. (Shock and awe?)
Some have argued that dropping the bombs was an act of state terrorism. One can see the grounds for this–the bombs were deliberately used on largely civilian targets for the express purpose of instilling fear and bringing about a desired political end. Leo Szilard, who played a role in the Manhattan Project, wrote that “if the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremburg and hanged them.”
There is also some historical evidence to suggest that Japan was on the verge of surrendering and that the bomb was not necessary. Douglas Macarthur, who was the highest ranking officer in the Pacific theatre, said that there was no military justification for the bombing, and considering that he was the man who would have led a ground invasion, that’s a powerful statement. A large number of other military officials agreed and spoke out against the use of the bomb, before and after 6 August 1945.
Numerous organizations and historians have weighed in on the issue, including the District Court of Tokyo, which ruled that the use of the bombs was illegal by international law, “violat[ing] the most basic legal principles governing the conduct of war.” Christian and particularly Catholic groups have also spoken out on the use of the bomb, including the Federal Council of Churches in 1946, which said: “As American Christians, we are deeply penitent for the irresponsible use already made of the atomic bomb. We are agreed that, whatever be one’s judgment of the war in principle, the surprise bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are morally indefensible.”
I would hope that all of us can agree the dropping of the bombs on Japan was a great tragedy which resulted in shocking destruction and loss of life–and mostly for an experimental reason, because no one fully understood what the bomb and subsequent radiation would do. Over one hundred thousand people, more than the population of my entire county, died in the bombings. I find it difficult to comprehend people arguing in all seriousness that the use of the bomb was justified when I have seen images from the bombing, read writings by military authorities arguing against its use, and read first hand accounts in books like Hiroshima.
I think that the important point most of these commenters appeared to miss was that the symbolic sabotage against the nuclear silo was not intended to be a statement about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only historic uses of the bomb in war. It was a statement about nuclear weapons in general, about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the need to examine nuclear culture, especially since the bombs we have now are so much more powerful than those dropped on Japan. Fat Man and Little Boy were essentially prototypes–the damage we could deal now with a nuclear weapon would be formidable.
It’s sad to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki dragged into discussions about nuclear weapons, when we should be able to appraise the need for these kinds of weapons objectively, looking beyond the tragedy of 1945 and at the world today. Abolishing the bomb is not an option anymore–it has fallen into too many hands. But surely we don’t need over 5,000 nuclear warheads at this point?