The Case for Hiroshima

War sucks. But in a fallen world, war is often necessary for the preserving of both peace and justice. While some might argue that talk about the ethics of war is oxymoronic, over the millennia moral philosophers have sought to think about how warfare might be morally conducted.

Some, the pacifists, object to all war. Indeed, many object to the use of force altogether in any circumstance. Most however have adhered to some form of just war theory, which argues that wars on occasion can be justified. The theory, which has both Christian and non-Christian roots and proponents, argues that we can determine whether a war can be justly entered into, and how it might justly be fought.

Again, in a fallen world, there will be no fully just war, as there may not be a fully just peace. We have to live with less than perfection in all human endeavours. So we need to keep thinking ethically and carefully about such issues as war and peace.

One hotly debated war issue involves the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. Since August 1945, the debate has continued, with pro and con positions vigorously argued for. On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was bombed, with some 120,000 deaths. On August 9, Nagasaki was bombed, with another 80,000 deaths.

Thus around 200,000 Japanese lost their lives. The question is, given Japan’s refusal to surrender, and its willingness to sacrifice every last man, woman and child, was there any better moral option? Would not far more lives – of both Allies and Japanese – have been lost with a conventional fight in Japan to achieve a full surrender?

Peter Ryan recently took up this issue in an article for the Weekend Australian. He highlights the nature of Japanese aggression and barbarism: “The plain history of Japan from the 1930s to 1945 is that of a rapacious international aggressor. A shocked world and a helpless League of Nations watched Japanese expansion on to the nearby Asian mainland: the continued occupation of Korea; the rape and occupation of Manchuria; the years-long Nanking Incident in China. As incidents go, this one was impressive, with about 15 million Chinese civilians murdered. Keen young Japanese army officers would request a posting to China expressly for the sport of killing Chinese.”

He continues, “The 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing of the US Pacific Fleet, made without any declaration of war and while Japanese diplomats were holding sham peace talks in Washington, showed contempt for civilised international behaviour. The ensuing southward flood of Japan’s victorious forces was a rampage of rape and murder. This was not perpetrated by troops who had got out of control. It was imperial policy, ordained from the top.”

There was tremendous suffering at the hands of the Japanese: “Japanese units that landed in 1942 near Buna, on the north coast of Papua, rounded up the civilian missionaries, men and women alike, and murdered them all by bayonet or beheading. One of their victims was a little boy of six. Before killing him they made him watch the beheading of his father. The fate of 140,000 Allied prisoners of war (including many Australians) is a horror story apart. One-quarter of them died from starvation, disease, torture, medical experimentation without anaesthetic and deliberate working to death. This frightful chapter in human history is recorded with scholarly precision and hideous detail by Australian historian Gavan Daws. (His Prisoners of the Japanese has just been reissued here in paperback by Scribe Publications.)”

“As in advance, so in retreat: atrocity remained integral to Japan’s military method. When US general Douglas MacArthur’s forces landed in The Philippines on the long march northward, first to the outer islands, then to Japan, the Japanese tried to exterminate the civilian population of Manila. That was in 1945; even after all these years I am unable to read the account of what the Japanese did to the people of Manila – men, women, children and babies – without feeling sick.”

As the war came to a close, Japan still fiercely resisted: “‘Operation Olympic’ – code for the planned invasion of Japan’s main islands – was expected to cost up to one million American lives. In Europe, Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on May 8. Now horrified nations learned about the Nazis’ concentration camps and the gas ovens. Worldwide revulsion made Germany a pariah, outside the pale of civilisation. Japan’s reaction might have been predicted: imperial headquarters ordered that all PoWs be killed, to cover up evidence of their maltreatment, the moment the first Allied soldiers set foot in Japan proper.”

With the lives of so many Allied PoWs at stake, plus perhaps a million more casualties in a ground offensive in Japan (historian Paul Johnson argues that 10 million more lives would have been lost), resolute and speedy action was needed. And given the Sino shame of surrender and the glory of dying in battle, the Japanese really would have fought to the bitter end.

“On August 6, the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. One of the aircrew said the thing just looked like an enlarged ordinary garbage can with fins, but it killed about 100,000 people. No response having been given by the Japanese, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered unconditionally a week later. Thus were saved the lives of perhaps one million Allied servicemen and certainly twice that number of Japanese soldiers and civilians; thus were rescued, just ahead of their intended murder, those of our PoWs who had survived Japan’s vile camps; thus medical aid and food could be rushed to suffering indigenous populations in those areas still occupied by Japan.”

Ryan then looks at some of the common objections to the use of the bomb. Consider just one: some “argued that it was immoral to have dropped the bomb without warning the Japanese. But the declaration by the Allied big three (the US, Britain and Soviet Union) at the Potsdam summit on July 17 said in express words that Japan faced ‘prompt and utter destruction’ unless it surrendered. No warning?”

He concludes with these words: “Two of the finest American writers on the reality of war, William Manchester and Paul Fussell, had, as soldiers, felt the breath of hot lead passing. They reached, separately, the same fervent conclusion: ‘Thank God for the atom bomb’.”,25197,24185930-28737,00.html

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13 Replies to “The Case for Hiroshima”

  1. Furthermore, recently discovered evidence shows that Japan’s PM wanted to fight even AFTER the atomic bombs:

    HIDEKI Tojo, Japan’s prime minister for much of World War II, wanted to keep fighting after the atomic bombings because he believed surrender was a disgrace, according to journal entries published today.

    Tojo, an army general, ordered the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the US into World War II but was forced out as premier in 1944 as the tide of the conflict turned.

    He was hanged as a war criminal in 1948 by orders of an allied court.

    In the run-up to Friday’s anniversary of Japan’s surrender, the Nikkei newspaper said it had discovered Tojo’s diaries from the last days of the war.

    “Without fully employing its abilities even at the final moment, the imperial nation is surrendering before the enemies’ propaganda,” Tojo wrote, as quoted by the newspaper.

    “I never imagined the torpor of the nation’s leaders and people,” he wrote.

    Tojo said Japan was surrendering because it was afraid of more atomic bombings and of the Soviet Union entering the Pacific front.

    But Tojo warned Japan “will come off as a complete loser by accepting unconditional surrender, even if it makes a few demands”.

    Also, ending the war quickly saved many civilians, just like the article said, according to Dwight Murphey’s review of Truman and the Hiroshima Cult by Robert Newman:

    he considers atomic bombs “just a step up in power from explosives that had come into common use by all belligerents.” Accordingly, he doesn’t believe the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were immoral in themselves, and in moral theory this frees him to engage in a weighing process to compare the consequences that would have flowed from the alternative courses of action. Reviewing the carnage that had occurred at the hands of the Japanese during the war, he concludes that “it is plausible to hold that upwards of 250,000 people, mostly Asian but some Westerners, would have died each month the Japanese empire struggled in its death throes beyond July 1945.” The alternatives to the bombs were to invade or to starve the Japanese by blockade, and each of these would have been terrible in their human cost.

    Hiroshima contained 40,000 troops, was HQ for the Fifth Division and the 2nd General Army, was a military communication centre and had military factories and Marine Headquarters. But the usual reason advanced for the nuclear attacks (which were not actually as severe as the Tokyo firebombing) were, as the article says,saving millions of lives through the speedy end of the war:

    Casualty estimates for an invasion of Japan are mostly guesswork. Truman’s critics sneer at the idea that the invasion might have cost half a million American lives and say that US dead would not have exceeded “tens of thousands.” The debate of the casualty question is open-ended. However, the record of casualties up to the summer of 1945, when Truman made his decision, is instructive.
    • In April 1945, an Operation Downfall planning document prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff took US casualty rates from seven previous amphibious campaigns in the Pacific War and applied them to the force numbers to be employed in Olympic and Coronet. It pointed to 1,202,005 US casualties, including 314,619 Americans killed.
    • The most destructive bombing attack on Japan was not the atomic weapons at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but incendiary bombs dropped on Tokyo the night of March 9–10, 1945, killing 83,793. Continuation of the conventional bombing would not necessarily have meant fewer casualties.
    • On Okinawa US casualties were almost 50,000 (12,520 killed or missing, 36,613 wounded). Japanese casualties were far worse: some 90,000 soldiers and 60,000 civilians dead. An invasion of Japan, with many times the numbers of forces that were engaged on Okinawa, would have led to vastly higher casualties on both sides.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  2. Jonathan is correct in quoting Dwight Murphey’s revview of Robert Newman. The raids on Coventry, London increasing in intensity with Bomber Harris’s 1000 bomber and incendiary raids of Cologne, Hamburg and then Dresden, Yokohama and Toko set the scene for horendous civilian casulaties, that somehow get overlooked when the A-Bomb is discussed.
    William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 response to the pleas of Atlanta civic leaders not to expel its civilian population – who wanted peace and their rebellion – should be repeated today:
    ‘Gentlemen: You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it…. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war’.
    Stephen White

  3. Perhaps the most moving witness, and suffering interpreter of the atomic bomb, is the Japanese man, of the X-ray department in Nagasaki – Takashi Nagai. His wife, Midori, was killed in the bombing, and his small community of Roman Catholic friends were incinerated at its centre.

    He wrote ‘The Bells of Nagasaki’, and his story is faithfully recorded in ‘A Song for Nagasaki’ by Paul Glynn.

    To him, the holocaust of Calvary gave meaning and beauty to the holocaust of Nagasaki. He himself said in a public speech:

    ‘It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole-burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?”

    Rightly heard (by pedantic Protestants)—in the light of the Cross of Christ, Nagai hold to a thoughful, suffering-honed theodicy that deserves to be read.

    There are two contrasting approaches, in the 2 cities, who bore the brunt of that tragic, horror. Their approach is now proverbial: “Sakebi no Hiroshima, Inori no Nagasaki”.

    It means: “Shouting Hiroshima, Praying Nagasaki”.

    Trevor Faggotter

  4. I have covered many of the points mentioned by Peter Ryan on the Pacific War website :

    But the elephant in the drawing room that is never mentioned in relation to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is Japan’s truly awesome arsenal of biological and chemical weapons that were used extensively against China (including non-military targets) between 1937 and 1945.

    The Japanese were so far ahead of the United States in biological warfare that General MacArthur indemnified the Japanese army’s biological and chemical warfare scientists against prosecution for appalling war crimes in return for handing over their secrets to the US military.

    At their “factories of death”, such as the notorious Unit 731, Japanese Army scientists carried out ghastly biological experiments on live prisoners of war. Vivisections on human beings at Unit 731 are described in horrrifying detail in the Japanese documentary “Riben Guizi” (translated as “Japanese Devils”). To dehumanise their male and female victims, Japanese Army scientists called them “maruta”, or “logs”, and casualy described exposure of these victims to diseases such as anthrax, cholera, typhoid, and glanders, and the suffering of the victims.

    In April 1945, the Japanese Suzuki government had prepared a war policy called Ketsugo which was a refinement of the Shosango victory plan for the defence of the home islands to the last man. These plans would prepare the Japanese people psychologically to die as a nation in defence of their homeland. Even children, including girls, would be trained to use makeshift lethal weapons, and exhorted to sacrifice themselves by killing an American invader. The American government was aware from intelligence intercepts of the chilling implications of these Japanese defensive plans.

    The US Army would almost certainly have been made aware by their Chinese allies that the Japanese had been routinely using biological and chemical warfare against Chinese military and civilian targets with horrifying results, and it very likely that President Truman’s decison to use the atomic bomb would have taken into account not only the views of his defence chiefs that an amphibious assault on Japan’s home islands would be likely to produce at least one million Allied casualties, but also the very real possibility that a country committed to national suicide would be likely to deploy against invaders the deadliest weapons available to it, namely, Japan’s arsenal of biological and chemical weapons.

    James Bowen

  5. Bill,

    I understand all the arguments. But I can’t imagine anything more obscene than the wholesale slaughter of Christians by their very own brothers in Christ (not that I’m suggesting slaughtering non-Christians is fine either). No matter how ugly the actions of the Japanese… what do we expect from unregenerate people in one of the more cursed and ungodly nations on the planet?

    On the other hand, what do we expect from citizens of heaven? Nothing better than that?

    I have no answers, only the sense that this discussion is terribly terribly inadequate and I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine the Lord himself sanctioning the wholesale slaughter of his own people. (Although, if there could ever be a modern day Jericho, Ai or Sodom, it does sound like 1945 Japan fit the bill.)

    The implication of the line of thinking taken above is that I might find myself witness in my generation to the same thing all over again, if the justification arises again. Indeed, to a much lesser degree, we’ve seen it with Iraq, where Christians there have fared terribly during and after the military activity.

    What does it mean for us as Christians to live in this Eschatological No-mans-land between the “now” and the “not yet”… that’s the question we need to keep wrestling with. As for me, I really struggle to see anything redemptive and reconciling in the Atomic bomb, much as that is the point I hear you, Ryan and others making.

    Alister Cameron

  6. Thanks Alister

    Yes, the subject is a morally and theologically complex one. Just as one should never proclaim the biblical doctrine of hell without a tear in the eye, one should always think about and discuss topics such as war and killing with a heavy heart. It is a grievous subject.

    Yet part of the answer – as you suggest – is to recognise that we are living between the ages, and in a fallen world we must resort to things that are far from ideal. War and killing are far from ideal, and were not part of God’s original plan for us, and will not be part of the new heavens and new earth. But they are part of life in the present fallen world

    Indeed, God is the author of the state, and he has given the state authority to use force to restrain evil. As to your not being able to “imagine the Lord himself sanctioning the wholesale slaughter of his own people,” well, he has, often. A holy and righteous God is not only the author of life and death, but he has on occasion decreed the destruction of his own people when they became so wicked and idolatrous. Consider the exile for example. This was a mighty judgment of God on a wayward covenant people. Or consider some of the OT episodes which Paul mentions without remorse or apparent theological concern in 1 Cor. 10:1-10.

    And as you mentioned, situations like Jericho, Ai, and Sodom also come to mind. Indeed, consider the flood, the conquest of Canaan, and the Book of Revelation as just a few more examples of God’s judgment. And these judgments are always done in love, not anger.

    Yet you might reply that we are not God, and we cannot decree such judgment. Yes, but as I said, God did decree the use of the sword to restrain evil and to maintain justice. Thus the state is instituted by God for that very purpose. Christians can be policemen within a nation, and/or soldiers in international conflicts.

    Schaeffer used to speak about American Christians praying for German Christians, as they went about their duty in WWII. If you believe that the death penalty is still ordained by God, even in NT times – as I do – then surely there would have been cases where a Christian executioner administered the lethal injection to a Christian criminal.

    These things happen in a fallen world. Yet as I say, a sizeable minority of Christians who are likewise very concerned about war and killing have opted to embrace pacifism, and think they have biblical warrant to do so. Fine. I think there is room to move here on these issues. Both pacifists and just war theorists can appeal to various biblical texts, so both can make their case from a Christian framework (I think I feel another article coming on here!).

    So thanks for sharing your thoughts. Better to have moral misgivings than to have too cavalier an attitude about such weighty and difficult issues.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Hi Bill.

    I am more and more understanding what you’re saying about a “fallen world”. There was discussion on Christian radio last night about a woman who had been abandoned by her husband for another woman. After 6 years of holding on, and the man single but unrepentant and uninterested… should she continue to hold on? Or was she free in the Lord to move on?

    If “covenantal faithfulness” (the very heart of God’s nature) is all we offer her, then she is imprisoned under the burden of waiting for a man who will likely never return. If we offer her “love” (also the very heart of God) then does that invite her into a freedom to move on??

    For sure this is not black and white either, and the reason I rang that radio show was because I felt angry and nauseated by the preachy pharisees who offered her nothing but the “wait for him in God’s perfect time” message… which to her much have sounded like a death sentence.

    Sure, if God has given her the grace for that… well and good. But what if she does not think she is the recipient of such grace?

    Anyway, I share that to say that the older I get the more I see the greys between the black and white, and the more I realise that the compassion of Christ is lost if we are not very careful here.

    So I am agree with you, very much so, about entertaining moral misgivings (indeed, apparent contradictions) rather than come over cavalier and heartless.

    Such issues as this and Hiroshima and the death sentence and Iraq… well, I despair in the here and now, and I all the more long for his coming. Maranatha.

    Alister Cameron

  8. Hi Bill,

    A few comments:

    First, there seems to be a hint of utilitarianism in the argument that the deaths of few saved the deaths of many. Heck, it’s more than a hint. Evil means do not justify good ends.

    Secondly, the killing of innocents is particularly troubling. Hiroshima was bad enough. To repeat the act seems impossible to justify. (Imagine if the police killed a terrorist’s daughter to stop him from continuing in his criminal activity. Suppose he did nothing – should the police keep killing his children until he stops?)

    Finally, there does not seem to be any trace of Christ’s call to “turn the other cheek” in dropping the bomb. Neither does there seem to be a great deal of faith in God. Dropping the bomb seems more akin to Moses striking the rock twice.

    What do you (and others) make of these objections?

    Tim Cannon

  9. Thanks Tim

    Utilitarian? Maybe. In a fallen world, there will be no perfect solutions to anything, so various calculations of the good and proper course of action will enter most ethical discussions. And the intent of trying to save as many people as possible is not to be ruled out of the overall equation. And I am not sure I would call the means used entirely evil as you do. Surely the millions of people who did survive because of bringing the conflict to a swift end would be grateful to be alive.

    As to innocents, there were certainly many civilian deaths in the two bombings. But to the extent that a whole nation may have adopted a more or less militaristic stance, with much of the civilian population involved in the war effort (whether by working in munitions plants or what have you) makes discussions about targeting innocent civilians a bit less clear.

    And with a nation in many ways willing to fight to the death, including every last man, woman and child, then notions of innocent civilians shift somewhat. The notions of non-combatant immunity, and collateral damage, get a bit fuzzy in such scenarios.

    As to your appeal to Matt. 5: 39, the response is pretty simple. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is offering a personal ethic of being willing to accept personal insult and injury, and be willing to forgo retaliation in a strong honour/shame culture. The passage does not speak about protecting innocent third parties for example.

    Thus it is an altogether different matter from the social ethic as say espoused by Paul in Romans 13. The state is ordained by God, and has a divine authority to wield the sword to punish evil and maintain justice. I have written about this elsewhere, eg.:

    And with all due respect, your thinking gets a bit confused when you suggest that this action was somehow a case of lacking faith. One might as well argue that trying to stop a burglar from entering one’s home indicates a lack of faith. Or argue that seeking to stop polluters destroying the earth shows a lack of faith. Or working to overturn abortion laws shows a lack of faith. That seems to be a real non sequitur.

    I trust you are not suggesting that seeking to stop Hitler or seeking to liberate inmates from the concentration camps was a lack of faith? God usually accomplishes his purposes on earth by means of his people. That is why he calls us to be very this-worldly, and why he ordains institutions like the family and the state to help achieve justice and righteousness in a fallen world.

    Were the Allies just to sit back, do nothing, and have “faith” that everything would just turn out OK? Pacifists may argue for that. But it was not pacifism and/or non-violent resistance that liberated the concentration camps, but Allied tanks.

    Finally, as to Moses, there is again no connection here whatsoever. Moses disobeyed God in striking the rock twice. The point is, he had a clear command from God, but went against it. What does that have to do with Japan in 1945? Did the Allies have a clear command from God to do something, and they did it in a different way?

    So while we must wrestle with the ethics of this whole event, the objections you raise do not seem to clearly establish the no case. But the issues are well worth thinking about and discussing – even disagreeing on if need be. So thanks for your thoughts. Feel free to keep them coming.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Found this Thomas Sowell column from 1998, relevant to both this issue and that of young people pontificating on global warm-mongering:

    But there is a special kind of letter that bothers me more than the most idiotic obscenities. That is the letter from some teenager (or younger) who is writing because his school has led him to believe that he ought to have opinions on some issue or other — and ought to express those opinions to strangers he has read about and expect those strangers to take up their time discussing his opinions.

    A single word in a recent letter from a 15-year-old boy epitomized what is so wrong with such premature presumption. He said that American military leaders “over-estimated” the casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of Japan in World War II, so that we were unjustified in dropping the atomic bomb instead.

    This particular issue is not the point. The point is that people expect to have their opinions taken seriously just because these are their opinions.

    Here is someone with no military training or experience, much less achievements, blithely second-guessing General Douglas MacArthur, who served in the military more than twice as long as this kid has been in the world. Here is someone in the safety and comfort of a classroom issuing pronouncements about assessments made by someone who fought on the battlefields of two world wars and left a record of stunning victories with low casualties that have caused him to be ranked among the great military minds in history.

    Classroom letter-writing assignments are not just silliness. They are a dangerous betrayal of the young and an abdication of adult responsibility by self-indulgent teachers.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

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