More on the unsolvable morality of the atomic bomb

With the recent anniversaries of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been the inevitable stirring and rehashing of old debates. August 6 and August 9 (incidentally, the birthdays of my brothers Neil and Carl, respectively) marked military action of unprecedented extremity, and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of American lives were saved, as those men were ready to storm the beaches of Japan and continue fighting a war with an unrelenting enemy. We had already bombed sixty-something Japanese cities, many of them into more than fifty percent destruction, a fact which caters to either side of the debate when you get right down to it: one side would say surrender could have come without the atomic weapons, as we had already decimated so much of the country; the other side would use this as evidence of the Japanese leaders' inability to admit defeat, and therefore of the necessity of a show of strength that would put them in their place.

As the title of this entry implies, there has been ongoing debate--sometimes heated--over whether or not we should have dropped the atom bomb on two Japanese cities, whether it would have truly ended the war, or whether, once it did, if it was the only way. (I recommend watching The Fog Of War, the interview-style documentary of Robert McNamara's reflections on his time as Secretary of Defense during several important conflicts of American involvement, and especially his reflections on the Americans in Japan in WWII.)

I am not here to discuss the answer, nor do I think there is one. We cannot weigh the value of human life in any other way than by determining who is closest to us (therefore determining who we would wish to save), meaning that we chose those people before strangers; likewise, the strangers would leave us to die before they saw family and friends perish. And so, there will always be the Japanese side, and the American side. The ones who lost everything on those two August days, and the ones who were saved for their families at home. It is a terrible, moral, human dilemma. It does not go away with time, but rather, remains in the consciences of those children and survivors who either thank God for the bomb, or condemn it as the day their life was doomed with a dark, looming cloud.

I do not mean to write of despair, or entrench you in a sad story with no resolution (although that is what it is); but we must be mindful of the fact, the tragic fact, that on the day thousands of American troops were spared, upwards of one hundred thousand people in Hiroshima alone were killed. It was a time of war, certainly, but some children lost their entire families, and some families were extinguished entirely. I heard one story recently, from a woman who was seven when her parents and all her sisters were killed by the bomb over Hiroshima, and she tells how the cries of her dying sisters still haunt her, and that she has rarely felt happy in her entire life. Her life. She's in her eighties now, and that's a lifetime of tragedy that follows her. When this subject comes up, I am always struck by that idea that while my countrymen survived, people on the other side of the world lost their entire lives.

I can't imagine what it must be like for American soldiers, or any of the people, who have lived through the atrocities of war, who have seen it firsthand and experienced it from any side-- be it that of victim, perpetrator, defender, or anything else. I could never condemn it, for it protects my life. But sometimes, I am so heartbroken by its effects on all parties involved, I can hardly bear it. There is no "right" side, and there is no solution, and that is the most depressing part. But we march forward, hoping that at least we can keep the stories of both sides alive so that we can preserve those histories--those of both sides, of the humanity of each person--to the best of our ability.

(Listen to some of the stories of atomic bomb survivors here, recorded in 2005 for NPR.)

P.S. Some historians are rethinking the role of the Soviet Union in the Japanese surrender, giving it more credit than in the past for ending the war in the Pacific theater. For that article, see here.)