Hiroshima, or how we learned to build a love-hate relationship with the Bomb

The L.A. Times had this week two op-eds on Hiroshima. That’s way above average; the NY Times, for example, had none. Instead, the NY Times editors managed to harness the August 6 holocaust to score a political cheap shot in support of the White House policy of defending its nuclear supremacy.

Back to the LA Times. In The Myth of Hiroshima Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, authors of a biography of Robert Oppenheimar, review briefly the reasons why the common justifications for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are wrong: the bombs were not the cause of the Japanese surrender, they didn’t save lives, etc.

While it’s good to see the LA Times correct the historical record on such an important national myth, I am somewhat disappointed by the lackluster op-ed. So many words have been written about the subject by so many gifted writers. One feels the LA editors didn’t put their heart into the matter. That’s sad, especially because they did manage to find a very good writer to justify the bombing of Hiroshima.

In a tighter and better written op-ed the neo-con uber-hawk Max Boot explains why he is quite ok with Hiroshima. His main point–there was nothing unusual about the A-bombs.

These criticisms [of the bombing] rest, it seems to me, on a profoundly ahistorical assumption: that there was something unusual about what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s true that the atomic bombs were, by many orders of magnitude, the most powerful explosives ever employed. But the havoc they caused, with a combined death toll of over 100,000, was far from unprecedented. By the time the Enola Gay took off, at least 600,000 Germans and 200,000 Japanese had already been killed in Allied air raids. Conventional explosives had reduced all of the major cities of both countries to rubble. In the end, no more than one-third of the total Japanese deaths from air raids — and just 3.5% of the total land area destroyed — could be attributed to Fat Man and Little Boy.

He is right about that. Morally speaking, there was nothing unusual about the atom bomb. Massacre of civilians has been the way war has always been fought; World War II was a culmination of two centuries of ever increasing “strategic” firepower, i.e. the power to destroy the enemy’s civilian base. The A-Bomb was more of the same.

Boot ignores the inconvenient evidence that Truman and his team knew the nuclear attack, unlike the previous bombing of Japanese and German civilians, was unnecessary. But why bother with details? The A-Bomb contributed to the changing perceptions of war. Its power to destroy got our attention in ways other bombs didn’t, undermining public enthousiasm for war. Boot, together with his neo-con cons, would like to undo the damage done to the war making capacity of the state. He draws another lesson for the A-Bomb’s banality: war is war, A-bomb or not; civilians die, tough but necessary. War is the enemy’s fault anyway and wining it quickly justifies indiscriminate mass murder.

So rejoice America, and be ready to kill as many civilians it may require to achieve your policy objectives. It’s ok because you are always right and the enemy is evil. The squemish may call it “terrorism”, but you know–Boot told you–that it’s just normal behavior.

There are, however, many war atrocities that have never been defended so eloquently on the pages of the LA Times. Please write to the LA Times to complain that this is unfair and unbalanced. There must be at least one neo-Nazi with good writing skills somewhere in L.A. whom the Times could tap for an op-ed.

g.a.evildoer a-t gmail.com

  1. You are undermining your own argument
    …by claiming that “The A-Bomb was more of the same.” Sure, humanity had the capacity for mass-murder before Hiroshima, and demonstrated it often enough. But not for auto-annihiliation as a species. We have been living in a fundamentally different world since Aug. 6, 1945. Ivan Illich said that The Bomb represented an “epistemic break” in which “the once unthinkable becomes thinkable.” In his post-Hiroshima essay “Commandments in the Nuclear Age,” Gunther Anders (author of Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, an early study of the Manhattan Project) noted that for the first time “Humanity as a whole is exterminable.” A point later expanded upon by EP Thompson in “Notes on Exterminism: The Last Stage of Civilization,” written at the height of the Reagan Cold War (and apparently online nowhere, alas), which argued that while nuclear weapons were designed with imperial strategic interests in mind, technological and bureaucratic inertia were (are?) playing a substantial role in propelling us towards planetary holocaust. Those who have thought through the implications of the A-bomb recognize that it was far from just “more of the same.”

    1. of course nuclear weapons changed the world
      The only issue on which the bomb was “more of the same” was the ethics of the strategy of mass killing of civilians, not the way the massive nuclear arsenal a decade later changed the world. Boot argues that the decision to drop the A-bomb was no worse than the decision to firebomb Tokyo. As I explained, he is wrong with respect to the intention but right with respect to the consequences. Do remember that Boot doesn’t try to argue in favor for nuclear war. He’s much to smart for that. He wants to absolve Truman in order to justify in general “shock and awe” type stratregies, such as those used in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, etc.

      1. Agreed, but…
        The firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo were horrific war crimes, and the Tokyo firestorm incinerated more people than either of the atomic bombings, as AP noted in an anniversary retrospective earlier this year. But there was no radiation sickness, no waves of cancer and birth defects. And the technology of mass killing took a quantum leap with the Manhattan Project. So without wishing to minimize in any way the Tokyo firebombing, the decision to drop the A-bomb was worse—qualitatively worse.

        And I don’t quite get the “wrong with respect to the intention but right with respect to the consequences.” Do you mean he is wrong in failing to grasp that Hiroshima was more about intimidating the Russians than forcing a Japanese surrender? And what consequences is he right about? Just wholesale death?

        1. yes and yes
          Regarding the quantum leap, I think that when your mindset is fixed on using the best killing technology you have for maximum effect, you commit bigger and bigger crimes as your technology improves, without having to make a qualitative change in your decision making. It is only in retrospect, as the full power of the technology become evident, as the Russians acquire the technology, and you realize that the universalization of your mindset at current technological levels means “mutually assured destruction,” that the technological leap becomes a moral leap.