Opinions differ as to the severity of the war crime and whether or not it was necessary for America to drop nuclear weapons on two cities filled with civilians. I used to be in the “horrifying but necessary” camp before The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb moved me into the “horrifying and unnecessary” camp. Then I found out about about the firebombings that came before it, and all of the other brutalities that get swept under various rugs, and learned just how brutal humans, even my own exalted countrymen, could be. It doesn’t matter to me that other nations perpetrated horrors. Tit-for-tat is never an excuse. Preventing a worse horror is, but only just.
From what I’ve learned, my country could have avoided becoming the first (and, so far, thankfully, the only) country to drop atomic weapons on cities full of civilians. We didn’t have to set that precedent. There was this word, “unconditional,” we stuck in front of “surrender,” though, and somehow our leaders at the time didn’t think it worth enemy lives to negotiate something that would have ended the war just as effectively. Maybe it’s because I’m young and wasn’t there, but I can’t see how allowing Japan to retain some dignity could be such a sticking point that we decided it was better to drop nukes instead.
And maybe something good came of it, because the horror of those images has certainly given others pause. It has made quite a lot of people, powerful and common alike, pull back from the abyss, recoil in horror, swear these terrible weapons will not be used. Not today. Not for this. (Of course, MAD helped.)
War, of course, is brutal, and brutal decisions are made in the fog of it. That doesn’t mean we get to excuse what we have done. Explain it, perhaps, certainly swear, “Never again.” There will never be a perfect war, a perfectly just war, a perfect application of the minimum necessary force, but that reality doesn’t excuse and cannot be used to condone atrocity. It should never allow us to blithely apply the maximum force we’re capable of. It should not allow us to forgive and forget our own sins.
When I think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I feel sadness, horror and outrage. But I also remember an experience Joseph Campbell related in Transformations of Myth Through Time:
I was in Japan and was taken to Nagasaki, where the second atom bomb was dropped. I was with a group of Japanese, and I must say I felt mortified, being an American, and responsible – remotely – for this horrific act. The extent of the devastation was still evident. They have an enormous image just pointing up, exactly to the place from which the bomb came. My Japanese friends felt no malice, no sense of my being to blame. We had been enemies, pairs of opposites, two aspects of the same thing – beautiful.
So forgiveness is possible, on both sides. But never forget.
(This post is timed to appear at 11:01am, August 9th, Nagasaki time.)