Are There Good Arguments for Nuking Japan?

Previously by Bretigne Shaffer: Remembering Mr. Miyamoto

I knew it was only a matter of time before someone wrote in response to my recent article "Remembering Mr. Miyamoto," to educate me as to why it is sometimes right and just to slaughter innocent civilians. I was fortunate in that the first person to do so was both articulate and raised what I think is the strongest defense possible for such acts. His letter, and my response, follow:

I read your recent piece on the Hiroshima bombing and must say, that while your peaceful sentiments are laudable, you have the luxury of looking at it from the perspective of someone whose existence is not threatened by war. A more rounded view might be gained by more research on the actual fighting and nature of the war, and of the Japanese culture at the time. Every day that fighting continued, 10-12,000 people per day were being slaughtered by the Japanese in China, Korea, Indochina, and the Philippines. The credo of the Japanese Army at the time was "Loot all, burn all, kill all." Japan today is not the same country, nor has it the same cultural values that it did at the before the war ended.

A few books that might give a more rounded view of the war are Goodbye Darkness, A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester, The Flyboys, A True Story of Courage by James Bradley, My Helmet for a Pillow by Robert Lecke. I'm sure you have read Hiroshima by John Hersey.

The point of this is, it is easy to judge history retrospectively, with the certainty of the outcome, but it is an entirely different proposition to be facing your imminent demise or ask others to do so when you have the means to bring a horrific bloodbath to a quick conclusion. To judge the use of atomic weapons while ignoring the historical circumstances and prevailing cultural attitudes in Japan AND the US at the time is historically myopic. It would be more helpful to understand what drove the decision to unleash these weapons if one were to account for the unbridled barbarism unprovoked, unleashed by the Japanese throughout the Pacific, on all of its neighbors. I'm sure that if you were a woman living in Nanking during the Japanese occupation your view of the Japanese would be different from yours today. If you were lucky to survive, which would be less than certain.

Despite assertions to the contrary, Japan was not close to military collapse at the end of summer of '45. Our experience during the Pacific campaign was that the Japanese became more determined to sacrifice for their emperor as the war came closer to their homeland.

My perspective is from someone who was stationed in Okinawa, love the Japanese people, and am profoundly grateful that I was not born 40 years earlier.

My response:

Thank you for writing. I am well aware of the brutality of the Japanese military at that time. I am also aware of the culture that — much like that in the US today — largely supported the military's aggression against the people of other nations. However I fail to see how any of this justifies the murder of innocent civilians.

Moreover, you presume that the mass slaughter of innocent people was the only way to have ended this conflict. Yet there is ample evidence that this was not the case. We can argue about the state of the Japanese military at the time, but it is a matter of historical record that the Japanese government was ready to surrender. All the US side had to do was drop its insistence on unconditional surrender and allow the emperor to keep his position (a point it later gave in on anyway) and the barbarism you rightly condemn very likely would have ended.

There was at least one other possible solution as well: The US government could have opted to test a nuclear device in an unpopulated area to demonstrate its power, and then threaten to use it against Japan. Have you ever asked yourself why this was never done?

Of course all of the above begs the question as to why, after already having laid waste to much of Japan, the US government was prepared to mount a full-scale invasion of an entire nation over nothing more than its insistence on unconditional surrender — an insistence that helped to prolong the war, and that was later revoked anyway.

Here is the point that I think you are missing: When those who act on behalf of the state choose to commit a crime like this, they do so with the knowledge that as long as they are successful — that is, as long as their side is victorious and they don't end up on the wrong end of a war-crimes tribunal — they will face no consequences for their actions.

Former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara has admitted as much, saying that the firebombing of Japanese cities and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been considered war crimes had the US lost the war. He has asked "(w)hat makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

There is never only one way to resolve a conflict. Ask yourself, if Truman had declared that the only way to end the war was to nuke Toledo, would you have accepted his reasoning so readily? Those who make these decisions don't look for other options, because they don't have to. They do not face the same consequences the rest of us do for our actions. As long as the state has a monopoly on justice, and on determining who gets to use violence and under what circumstances, it cannot be held accountable in any real sense. And it therefore cannot be effectively prevented from inflicting horrors like the rape of Nanjing and the bombing of Hiroshima on the rest of us.

You write: "I'm sure that if you were a woman living in Nanking during the Japanese occupation your view of the Japanese would be different from yours today."

My objection to the mass murder of Japanese civilians is not for racial reasons as you imply. Like you, I have lived in Japan, and I have nothing but admiration and fondness for the Japanese people. But I do not abhor the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the victims were Japanese. I abhor them because the victims were innocent human beings. As I said, I am well aware of the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in China and elsewhere. I do not defend their acts, nor would I oppose a violent response to them. But you are not advocating violence in response to violence. What you are advocating is the use of brutal violence against people who had nothing to do with the violence you deplore. Quite simply: I think you are confused.

I understand. Lots of people are confused about this. It's a big part of why we keep having wars. The idea that people can be equated with their governments is one of the most pernicious beliefs afflicting humanity. It tells us that those who live under an evil or aggressive state are somehow responsible for the acts of that state and that it is therefore acceptable to kill them.

The point I was trying to make in my article was that the real conflict in our world is not between different nations or different peoples or cultures, but between the institution of the state itself and the rest of humanity.

To justify the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the grounds that it stopped a belligerent state from committing more atrocities is to justify every act of terrorism that has ever been committed against the citizens of a violent state. You cannot simultaneously argue that killing Japanese civilians was justified because it got the Japanese government to end its belligerence, and also argue that terrorist acts against American citizens — committed by those who wish to end US aggression against their countries — is wrong. If the devastation wreaked upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as well as a multitude of other Japanese cities) are not war crimes, then there is no such thing as a war crime.