There is no single issue that better divides Americans and Japanese than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Americans believe the bombings were necessary to end a horrific war they did not start. Japanese believe it was an unconscionable war crime. As the 71st anniversary of the bombings comes and goes, it occurs to me that both viewpoints can be correct to a degree.
My view is that the bombings were justifiable but not justified, and this belief has nothing to do with their supposed necessity. I utterly dismiss any and all arguments premised upon historical hypotheticals. One could easily posit hypothetical ways of winning without nuclear holocaust. To say that more people would have died if America had not dropped the bombs is unknowable and an incredibly dangerous manner of justifying atrocities. It is an example of ends-justify-the-means morality. Followed consistently, it means that Japan would have been justified in leveling American cities, “to end the war.” All of Japan and Germany's war crimes could have been justified after the war by merely imagining worse outcomes had they acted differently. The only reason they did not get to do this is that they lost. History is defined by winners.
America won, so it gets to tell its young public school students that incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians is, occasionally, something nations should do. Yet the plain fact remains that the bombings were war crimes. Unfortunately they were war crimes that worked, and here it becomes useful to think about that very term – war crime. The concept is premised upon the idea of Just War Theory. In a Just War, both the motivation and means of war must be moral. Nations must only use military force as a last resort. Nations must formally declare war against one another. Civilians must not be targeted. POWs must be treated humanely. Weapons of mass destruction must not be used. So on and so forth.
World War II was not a Just War neither in motivation nor in implementation. Both America and Japan were operating under a Total War methodology. Total War is very different from Just War. Under a Total War, nations do whatever it takes to win. There are no moral constraints. Napalming residential areas? Torturing POW's for information? If it helps you win, do it. Total War is heavily premised upon the concept of Nationalism. Many Americans employ this line of thinking when they say that the nuclear bombings were worth doing so long as they saved American lives.
How many Japanese civilian lives are worth a single American life? Are we getting a good deal if we can save 20,000 American soldiers by vaporizing 200,000 Japanese noncombatants? What if we're only saving 2,000 Americans? The hardcore nationalist would argue that it is worth it if we save even just one American life. To hell with those foreigners.
Citizens want their country to employ Total War against enemies but then become outraged when other countries employ Total War against them. But of course this inconsistent standard is untenable. In today's age of chemical and nuclear weapons, we should all greatly hope more nations adopt a Just War standard.
Perhaps Total War is better for the world because it makes war less likely. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction is a Total War idea and it successfully prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from destroying the planet. Maybe it is a good thing that war is horrifying. Perhaps fear is humanity's best motivation for keeping the peace.
Alas, the problem of the 21st century is that war is no longer purely a state issue. War today is often fought by stateless proxies, religious fanatics with no country or uniform, and sleeper cells and “lone wolves”. These types of threats have no interest in following a Just War philosophy. Often, neither do the states that respond to them. Look at the use of chemical weapons in Syria, North Korean and Chinese cyber attacks, or U.S. civilian-slaughtering drone strikes for just a few examples. In this brave new frontier of warfare, Total War clearly still has its place. We can only continue to hope that a true Total War of survival does not break out between two nations armed with WMDs.
With all of this in mind, I envy people who feel strongly one way or the other about Hiroshima. I don't presume to be able to change anyone's mind; rather I just hope that people acknowledge the complexity involved in these issues and think through their own views more deeply. When we default on our ideology – choose not to deeply examine our own convictions – we become pawns of someone else's agenda. In the age of 21st century Total War, that can be a deadly path.© Japan Today