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’.”