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Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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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

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America won

No, it didn't, the Allies won WWII. And something a lot of people don't like to think about is that we wouldn't have won it without Soviet Russia.

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I utterly dismiss any and all arguments premised upon historical hypotheticals

I like many many people actually had family living and fighting through Asia in the WWII who experienced the horror of battling Japanese forces. They had REAL fears and most people knew someone who had died fighting.

The Japanese bombed the top of Australia and that was real fear. it wasn't hypothetical - Soldiers were told to prepare for the big push into kyuushuu from Okinawa. How would the author of this article feel being a soldier who knew that he and his friends were going to go into the biggest fight of their lives ????? They lived in that point of history and certainly didnt want to die.

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History is defined by winners.

I agree with much of what the author wrote here, but I disagree with the above often repeated worn-out cliche. It sounds rational, but it is ultimately untrue.

First, while the U.S. has certainly defined its version of history within its population, Japan has defined a much different narrative among its population. So in this case, no, the "winner" did not define global views of WWII.

Also, although a bit beside the point, I dislike referring to outcomes of wars in terms of "winners" and losers." War never has a true winner, only two or more losers who lost to differing degrees. The only way to win when it comes to the prospect of war is to avoid military conflict in the first place.

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Americans believe the bombings were necessary to end a horrific war they did not start. Japanese believe it was an unconscionable war crime

I don't think this is true, at least the second part. I haven't asked everyone in Japan but most people I know think it may not have been 100% necessary but accept that Japan had it coming and that it was their own fault. Most people I know are ashamed of Japans role in WWII

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While there may be debatable points in this article, and even one or two corrections of written expression, this is one of the most balanced pieces I have read for some time on this vexed subject, and I see a place for using this in education contexts to get debate and thinking going. Good job, Jonathan Bethune!

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Good article (for once). I especially like the thoughts contained in the final paragraph. More articles like this please JT.

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To my mind not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also Fukushima divides Japan and US. I am still Russian. My grand daughter was born in US. The attitude towards the War World the Second even 71 years after that dramatic and horrible tragedy divides people. No more Hiroshima, no more Nagasaki, no more Chernobyl, no more Three-mile , no more Fukushima!

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@The writer of the poorly written piece. Why dont you just admit it? You are delusional and talking about only the horrible things that America did but never talked about reasons for American being in the war in the first place. You linked the USA with religious fanatics, China, North Korea and Syria. As a reader I find you not only biased by insulting.

I am against the atomic bombings. But I am also intelligent enough to understand that I and the author of this poorly piece were not born in that era. We have a different view of war than our forefathers during that time did. It is a crime to judge the actions of past generations by TODAY's ruler. We have a completely different ruler than those in that generation. So, get off the high horse.

Unfortunately, and I don't like it either, but the American president had a responsibility to his own people. Not to the Japanese. That was their own leaders responsibility and you can snub your nose at it all you want, but you are wrong. You can utterly dismiss it, but that is only out of emotion and not intellect. Why should the USA sacrifice any American for a group of people who do not know when to quit, but promote suicide as the only alternative to losing? Um, no thanks. Sorry for them because they were the ones who were not intelligent enough to not go that far. Something the author fails to mention with his 21st centre logic is bombing civilian cities was how you won the war as well. Destroy its infrastructure and it can not fight. That was how everyone fought then. And the Japanese were not innocent of bombing and or using chemical weapons to hurt their neighbours.

Furthermore, you are incredibly inaccurate by saying that America did not fight a "Just War" because it was attacked and it fought against Germany and Japan of its occupation over their neighbours and the killing of millions of Jews and still debatable millions of Chinese by ANY MEANS NECESSARY with a logic that was acceptable at the time. Japan and Germany were the ones who fought total wars against their neighbors. The only thing that could be said about America performing a total war is because of the atomic bombs. And by the way, every country was working on the atomic bomb and more than willing to use it. It was a race to figure out how to develop and America now has that dubious honour. So, enough of that nonsense.

I envy people who feel strongly one way or the other about Hiroshima.

You say this all the while bashing America with 21st century logic, and ignore that President Obama did visit.

I just hope that people acknowledge the complexity involved in these issues

But you completely ignore the complexity and hypocritically ignore them with such nonsense as .... I utterly dismiss any and all arguments premised upon historical hypotheticals.

That is not open minded at all and really not good journalism or I should say is something that belongs on FOX NEWS. You know, We Manipulate, You decide?

When we default on our ideology – choose not to deeply examine our own convictions – we become pawns of someone else’s agenda.

I can not believe that you can say such a thing, because that is exactly what you did by your version of America as the evil entity. Someone sure has sold you into being a pawn of your hypothetical, insanely hypocritical and non-existent open-mindedness on this complex issue. You have over-simplified things for a purpose and I just hope people dont buy into this half baked article that needed to be much better thought out and written.

Pay attention here, cause I am going to give you knowledge. I dont support the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki anymore than I support the reason that the USA got into the war in the first place or Japan's treatment of its neighbours. But I also understand that it was a different mindset at the time. Something that the author here has very conveniently ignored and has over simplified to a ridiculous level while not examining his own bias by saying that he "utterly dismiss any and all arguments premised upon historical hypotheticals." That one comment tells me that you lack an open mind to write a piece.

Moderator: Sorry, but we do not allow readers to be ill-mannered toward our writers. And please don't post arrogant statements such as "Pay attention here, cause I am going to give you knowledge." Any high school debating student would wipe the floor with you if you used such remarks.

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And something a lot of people don't like to think about is that we wouldn't have won it without Soviet Russia.

Completely agree, and too many forget the huge role China played.

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America (North, Central & South and the Caribbean) did not drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... the United States of America (U.S/USA) did. War is a horrible experience.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Americans believe the bombings were necessary to end a horrific war they did not start. Japanese believe it was an unconscionable war crime.

Japan was motivated to total war by the belief that they must colonize or be colonized. The authors conflicted view of Total War versus Just War implies the willingness of one side to accept some kind of gentlemanly defeat. How is such a thing possible when the losing side refuses to give in?

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