Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Friday, August 05, 2005

One article about the bomb triggers a gazillion thoughts

The always excellent Victor Davis Hanson has written a stunningly good column about Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb. While complete on its face, it also triggered in my mind a few tangential points:

[O]pponents of the decision [to drop the bomb] shied away from providing a rough estimate of how many more would have died in the aggregate — Americans, British, Australians, Asians, Japanese, and Russians — through conventional bombing, continuous fighting in the Pacific, amphibious invasion of the mainland, or the ongoing onslaught of the Red Army had the conflict not come to an abrupt halt nine days later and only after a second nuclear drop on Nagasaki. Truman’s supporters countered that, in fact, a blockade and negotiations had not forced the Japanese generals to surrender unconditionally. In their view, a million American casualties and countless Japanese dead were adverted by not storming the Japanese mainland over the next year in the planned two-pronged assault on the mainland, dubbed Operation Coronet and Olympic. For the immediate future there were only two bombs available. Planners thought that using one for demonstration purposes (assuming that it would have worked) might have left the Americans without enough of the new arsenal to shock and awe the Japanese government should it have ridden out the first attack and then become emboldened by a hiatus, and our inability to follow up the attacks. As it was, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General Tojo’s followers capitulated only through the intervention of the emperor. And it was not altogether clear even then that Japanese fanatics would not attack the Americans as they steamed into Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremonies.
Key word there: "fanatics." As the suicide bombers demonstrate, fanatics embrace both their own deaths and deaths of others if it means achieving their vision. In addition, if it looks as if their objective is imperiled they're willing to die simply to avoid seeing the other side prevail (especially if it means taking some of the other side down with them). Last night, we watched Downfall, a mesmerizing German movie about the last days in Hitler's bunker. The movie goes back and forth between the seige of Berlin, with the city being utterly devastated, and the relative safety of Hitler's bunker, where his high command becomes aware that Hitler was insane, yet nevertheless clings to him as the ultimate leader and decision-maker. As I said to my husband of the people surrounding Hitler, "Even though they're irredeemably evil, and deserve to die, you can feel for their frustration in dealing with an insane person." Some critics (for example) attacked the movie for making one feel for these evil commanders -- for humanizing them -- but I actually think that was one of the important things the movie did. In America, we tend to expect that evil will display itself -- like some over-the-top Freddy Krueger -- but that's not what evil does. Evil is the utterly banal Jeffrey Dahmer or Dennis Rader. And this movie marvelously portrays how horribly ordinary these monsters were. What the movie also portrays (you knew I'd get to my point eventually) was the fanaticism that characterized these people. The same critics that didn't like the fact that the Nazis were shown as humans, also felt that the Nazis' willingness to kill themselves for Hitler somehow ennobled them. I didn't feel that at all. These murderers' embrace of suicide demonstrated the ultimate insanity of fanaticism in a fear based society. There was nothing noble about their suicides, which either reeked of cowardice (the high command, understanding totalitarianism, was afraid of facing the Russians) or megalomaniac insanity. Even though this was a movie, it was still dreadful to watch fanatics who would rather sacrifice a million of their own compatriot's lives than back down from their delusional belief in a person or political system. The same held true with Tojo and the same holds true for the true believers in and around Al Qaeda. Give a sociopath or a psychopath an evil vision, and nothing will stop him. But back to Hanson:
[I]n August 1945 most Americans had a much different take on Hiroshima, a decision that cannot be fathomed without appreciation of the recently concluded Okinawa campaign (April 1-July 2) that had cost 50,000 American casualties and 200,000 Japanese and Okinawa dead. Okinawa saw the worst losses in the history of the U.S. Navy. Over 300 ships were damaged, more than 30 sunk, as about 5,000 sailors perished under a barrage of some 2,000 Kamikaze attacks. And it was believed at least 10,000 more suicide planes were waiting on Kyushu and Honshu. Those who were asked to continue such fighting on the Japanese mainland — as we learn from the memoirs of Paul Fussell, William Manchester, and E. B. Sledge — were relieved at the idea of encountering a shell-shocked defeated enemy rather than a defiant Japanese nation in arms.
These are numbers to keep in mind when examining the American military's extraordinarily effective performance in Afghanistan and Iraq, a performance carried out with minimal American casualties. As I've pointed out ad nauseum, one can't just argue the lives lost; one must also examine the lives saved. Hanson also points out that, while the atom bomb was spectacular in that its effects took seconds, not hours or days, it was certainly not the most deadly civilian attack during the war:
Hiroshima, then, was not the worst single-day loss of life in military history. The Tokyo fire raid on the night of March 9/10, five months earlier, was far worse, incinerating somewhere around 150,000 civilians, and burning out over 15 acres of the downtown. Indeed, “Little Boy,” the initial nuclear device that was dropped 60 years ago, was understood as the continuance of that policy of unrestricted bombing — its morality already decided by the ongoing attacks on the German and Japanese cities begun at least three years earlier.
And yes, I know that the Tokyo bombings followed on the heels of the Dresden bombings, so there was a lot of civilian blood on America's hands, but this has to be understood in the context of total war, which ultimately saw the deaths of about 50 million people worldwide. Just to take a few examples, the Nazis bombed Britain (approx. 50,000 civilian casualities), and engaged in the wholesale slaughter of Jews (6 million, including 85% of Poland's Jewish population), Gypsies (about 500,000), Homosexuals and other mentally disabled (250,000), Soviet prisoners (3 million), Jehovah's witnesses, and anyone else they viewed as unacceptable. They also contributed to the over 400,000 American military casualities, and were entirely responsible for the 20 million Russian dead, both military and civilian. And lest you think, "Well, that was the Nazis, which doesn't justify the devastation we brought to the Japanese," Hanson gives some perspective on that too:
Americans of the time hardly thought the Japanese populace to be entirely innocent. The Imperial Japanese army routinely butchered civilians abroad — some 10-15 million Chinese were eventually to perish — throughout the Pacific from the Philippines to Korea and Manchuria. Even by August 1945, the Japanese army was killing thousands of Asians each month. When earlier high-level bombing attacks with traditional explosives failed to cut off the fuel for this murderous military — industries were increasingly dispersed in smaller shops throughout civilian centers — Curtis LeMay unleashed napalm on the Japanese cities and eventually may have incinerated 500,000.
People like to say that the first casuality of war is truth. In reality, the first casuality of war is moral clarity. You can argue forever about who was more guilty or which numbers matter most, but the fact is that, during a war, a nation has to do what it reasonably believes is most likely to protect itself. Protecting innocents on the other side, while morally important, will inevitably become a secondary consideration once a population realizes that it truly is in a fight to the death. Related posts: Emerging truths about the decision to drop the bomb "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" The Hellhole Restaurant