Friday, August 6, 2010


Every year on August 6th we’re reminded of a single, horrific event.  Every year we get a parade of internet articles about it.  Those internet articles then result in a discussion.  Generally the articles, at least the ones I see, explain how horrific that event was, explain that we should feel terrible about it, tell us that we should be ashamed of anything other than an abject admission that we should agree that everyone who was involved with that horrific event was a criminal, a terrorist, a horrible person.  Anyone who defends the actions taken on that day is, by definition, terrible.

A string of people who are against that event then come forward to say, “Yes, yes that event was terrible.  And yes, we agree that anyone who disagrees deserves to be tarred, feathered, and tossed out of polite society.”  Other people inevitably show up to say, “Wait, it’s not that simple.  There were extenuating circumstances.”  They then toss out statistics based on projections of events that never came to pass.  They add in other, sympathetic-sounding numbers that weren’t actually taken in to consideration by the people involved in the decision-making process.

This second group is dismissed, derided, sometimes in the crass lingo of the internet dismissed as “concern trolls,” since on the internet you have two options: agree with me or be dismissed as a sub-human individual.

No one learns anything.  No one comes to a point of agreement.  And next August 6th we’ll do it all over again, exactly the same way we did it today and we’ll do it next year.

It pisses me off to no end.

So let’s talk about August 6th, 1945.  Because it seems to be an imperative, anyway.

First of all, to the people who just blithely say, “We should never have done it and now history will judge us as terrorists,” I have exactly one thing to say:

Shut.  The.  Fuck.  Up.

And, yes, I realize that this means I’m telling PZ Myers to STFU.  I realize this means I’m telling the Slacktivist to STFU.  I realize that this means I’m telling a lot of people I probably otherwise agree with to STFU.

But, still, they need to shut the fuck up.

The entire anti-Hiroshima argument, at least as it gets discussed on the internet, is an argument without history, without understanding.  It’s based entirely on emotional response and Monday morning quarterbacking.  It is a judgment based on sixty-five years of second-guessing and terrible advancements in our capabilities of making war and understanding war.

To those people who come in and say, “But it saved millions of lives in the long-run.  Besides, they started it,” I have exactly one thing to say:

Shut.  The.  Fuck.  Up.

It’s an argument that is true enough, but it attempts to paint the people who made the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima as humanitarians who cared about how many Japanese would die if there was an invasion of the Home Islands.  They didn’t.  And comparing Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima is a completely false equivalent.  Pearl Harbor was a purely military strike on a purely military harbor.  Hiroshima was a military strike on a primarily civilian target.

So now that everyone has shut the fuck up, let’s talk about atomic bombs.  Let’s talk about history.  Let’s talk about war.

We have this idea that wholesale war, or “total war,” as it’s called, was invented in 1864 by a man named William Tecumseh Sherman.  He was the man who unleashed his army to march from Atlanta to Savannah, taking what they needed and burning what they couldn’t carry in order to, as he said, “Make the South howl.”  It was, the people who make such decisions had decided, the only way to make sure the South knew there was no option other than surrender.

It was the terrible mathematics of war: if you can’t get your enemy soldiers and leadership to give up, convince the people to stop supporting their soldiers and leaders.  In America we pretend that this was some grand new thing because in America we have to pretend that we’re a special country with special ideas and special leaders.    We can pretend that civilians have gotten a free pass in war because American civilians have largely gotten free passes in war.  Other than the American Revolution and the War of 1812 it’s been Americans on other people’s soil killing their civilians alongside their soldiers.

Then there was the Civil War, where Americans killed other Americans.  We still use this as an excuse to be split.  The Confederate sympathizers among us get to pretend that William Tecumseh Sherman was a bloodthirsty, marauding barbarian from a foreign land so they don’t have to admit one thing: the people who suffered at the hands of Sherman’s March to the Sea brought it upon themselves.  Or, if they didn’t, they were victims of a selfish aristocracy that callously brought the violence of war to the peaceful lands of southern Georgia (also the Shenandoah Valley, but for some reason no one really talks about the fact that Phil Sheridan did basically the same thing there that Sherman did in Georgia).

For those who aren’t insulated by America’s great oceanic moat, however, there’s a different story to be told.  It was tradition in the medieval period when a besieging army broke down the doors of a city to have three days of rape, pillage, and destruction.  Any city that found itself surrounded by an army knew that it had two choices: surrender or face months (years, even) of deprivation, disease, and a final orgy of violence if it could not send its enemies away.

Civilians suffered on both ends.  Precious food was given to the defenders of the city first, as they needed to keep up their strength to man the walls.  And when the soldiers all fell and the gates were breached the civilians had their homes looted and their valuables taken.  The women were raped, then the ones who could fetch a good price at market were sold in to slavery.  It was not pretty.  But it was depressingly common.  And it was a practice engaged by all parties, be they Christian, Muslim, considered noble or base and depraved pirates.

Those who wish us to sit in abject acknowledgment of our horribleness as human beings because of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki never seem to be aware of this fact.  Or if they are, they ignore it, pretend like it’s not an issue.  I believe that they want to pretend that brutality and barbarism in war is some sort of aberration, that those who went to war for the thousands of years between World War II and the time when the first chieftain assembled his men and gave them clubs only fought against those who deserved it, only killed and injured those who intended to be in the line of fire.

Civilians have never been insulated from war, however.  Everyone who goes to war makes war against the innocent as well as the guilty.  The only real difference between a medieval army and the crew of the Enola Gay is that the atomic bomb was capable of destroying more people in a moment than a medieval army could destroy in a month.

But in the empty, shattered streets of Hiroshima we see a microcosm of every single moment of brutality and barbarism that man has ever visited upon man from time immemorial.  But we don’t just have to look at Hiroshima.  The entirety of World War II was an orgasm of violence on a scale unimagined previously, even by those who had witnessed the corpse-filled trenches before Petersburg in Virginia or on the Western Front in France.

It started by accident, really.  A flight of bombers got lost over southern England and accidentally bombed a civilian airfield near London.  A few days later another group of bombers got lost and did the same thing.  The Fuhrer had ordered that no such attacks could take place except with his explicit permission.  The British retaliated with bombings in Berlin itself.  At the beginning of September, 1940 Hitler rescinded his order and the Luftwaffe began bombing London itself.

And do you know what RAF command did?  Do you?

They breathed a deep sigh of relief.  The RAF was barely hanging on.  A couple more weeks of bombings directed against RAF airfields and military installations may well have destroyed the RAF.  When the Germans began bombing London it was seen as a godsend by the powers that be in London.

Yeah.  Chew on that thought for a while.  The Royal goddamn Air Force was happy to see London get bombed because it meant they could continue fighting.  Besides, it gave all kinds of cover for what the British and Americans did to Germany for the rest of the war.

In February of 1945 a combined British and American bomber force basically wiped the city of Dresden off the map.  It’s quite literally one of the most senseless actions in the long, twisted history of senselessness in war.  The reason that Dresden was targeted was because there was quite literally nothing else for the Allies to target in Germany.  They didn’t even bother to target the military infrastructure on the outskirts of the city, either.  But, other than Kurt Vonnegut, no one seems to remember that one.

Of course one of the great victories in the Pacific Theater was the capture of Iwo Jima.  That was a great strategic boon for General Curtis LeMay, since it meant that the B-29 Superfortresses staging out of Saipan couldn’t be intercepted much outside of the Japanese Home Islands so they could drop their incendiary bombs directly on the Japanese cities without fear of reprisal.

Here’s the lesson of World War II: no one gave a shit about civilians.

It’s harsh, but there’s no other way around it.

See, strategic bombing was a blind alley in World War II.  The British didn’t surrender when bombs started falling on London during the Blitz.  The Germans didn’t surrender when literally hundreds of strategic bombers began pulverizing German cities with near-impunity on a daily basis.[1]

This is the harsh reality of World War II: we try to remember the Final Solution and the Holocaust as the great horror of World War II.  We try to remember the Allies as the great heroes, going in to save the world.  But America and Britain killed a fuckload of innocent people during World War II, too.  And they didn’t care.  It was war.

In this context the atomic bomb becomes something different.  It wasn’t deployed in a vacuum, where one day America was a noble, chivalrous nation with a lily-white soul and no blood on its hands and the next day it was the worst collection of murdering scum the world has ever seen.  The atomic bomb was simply the biggest damn weapon deployed in a war that was already completely insane and unrestrained.

Simply saying, “Americans are a bunch of terrorists,” or, “We should be disappointed to be a part of a country that did such a horrible thing,” completely misses the lessons of history and ignores what war is.[2]

I will never argue that the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was absolutely necessary.  I will never even argue that it was right.  But it was justified.  This is the horrible logic of war.

The Japanese did some absolutely horrible things to the Chinese while carving out their Empire.  They were ruthless and implacable while they expanded through the Philippines and in to the South Pacific.  And it cannot be ignored that they were willing to get in to planes and fly in to warships just to defend their honor in a war that was long-since lost.  Hell, they invented a weapon called the Ohka that was a manned rocket designed to be dropped from a medium bomber, then flown in to a warship.  Pilots got one training run, then were deployed against attacking fleets.  Anyone who can train people to go out and kill themselves must be taken seriously as a foe.

It doesn’t help that the Japanese fed their people anti-American propaganda for years.  This isn’t anything special, as propaganda is a huge part of any war.  But by the time the Marines hit the beaches on Okinawa the Japanese civilians had been utterly convinced by their own government that the Americans would indiscriminately rape, torture, pillage, and kill anyone and everyone.  The Japanese people were prepared to fight to the death.

Until the atomic bombs fell from the sky.

The thing about it is that the power of the atomic bomb scared the shit out of everyone.  It’s speculation, but I fear for history if we hadn’t seen the atomic bomb first hand at, say, the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We can’t say that it’s good that a lot of Japanese died on August 6th, 1945 because we might have blown up the world in October of 1962.  But the fact of the matter is that the reality of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably spared a lot of pain down the road.

One of the arguments I’ve seen basically goes like this: “Why didn’t America just drop a bomb on some island near Japan and say, ‘Look what we can do?’”

That’s simple: we’d already bombed the shit out of Germany and Japan.  A demonstration of the atomic bomb wouldn’t have had nearly the impact if it wasn’t in Japan itself.  And in the horrible, dreadful logic of war, that matters an awful lot.

There is a museum dedicated to the Pacific War in Admiral Chester Nimitz’s hometown of Fredricksburg, TX.  I went when I was down in Austin in June.

One room of the museum is dedicated to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It’s a small, round room made claustrophobic by the presence of a replica of one of the bombs that takes up most of the floor space.

The walls are giant, photographic murals of the ruins of Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the atomic bombs were dropped and obliterated the cities.  After what we did to those cities.  The only sound in that room is wind.  Not a gentle breeze, though, that horrible, unmistakable wind that we’ve been conditioned as a society to recognize as the only sound in the silent world that comes after the apocalypse.

It is a rare thing in history to find a war monument to the horrible things done by the winning side.  It’s unheard of to see such a thing in the hometown of one of the great war heroes from that winning side.  Yet that’s exactly what that room is.

Walking in to that room I believe anyone with even a tiny amount of understanding would find it impossible to do anything other than stand in silence.

It’s a terrible thing, that power America unleashed against the unsuspecting Japanese on August 6th, 1945.  Calling it good is to permit all the horrid atrocities of war we’d be better off leaving behind.  But simply labeling it as terrorism cheapens what happened that day, diminishes it.

We have not thought about war the same since the bomb fell on Hiroshima.  America lost its innocence that day.  It took Vietnam and those iconic pictures of screaming children and civilians with guns pointed at their heads to make the moment personal.  But without Hiroshima we might have been able to pretend through Vietnam that we were only killing the people who deserved to be killed.

American civilians don’t know what it’s like to have the gun in their faces.  It took something as horrible as Hiroshima to force us to realize that war is a thing that shouldn’t be engaged in lightly.  But even so, we have not learned those lessons.  We don’t understand the terminology.  We don’t understand the importance.

Labeling Hiroshima an act of terrorism proves that point.  The “Collateral Murder” video and the completely idiotic reactions to it on both sides proved that point.  One side argued that American soldiers were intentionally and knowingly killing innocent and defenseless civilians without mercy or reflection while the other argued that we shouldn’t be allowed to see the realities of war.  It’s sheer, unadulterated idiocy on both sides.

So perhaps America as a whole should shut the fuck up.  Then maybe we should stop taking war in to everyone else’s backyard just because we think it’s a glorious and wonderful thing to do.


[1]The flight paths the Americans and British took in to Germany in the last months of the war were called “the bomber stream.”  And that’s a descriptive phrase.  Around the time of the raid on Dresden the entire German air force could muster something less than 200 fighters to take on strategic bomber formations that contained four times the number of aircraft.  Plus escorts.  The Germans developed a sort of kamikaze tactic where they trained their aviators to get close enough to bombers to use their propellers as saws and chop the planes apart.

[2]And, of course, on the other side saying, “Damn Japs got what was coming to them,” doesn’t really help anything, either.  No one deserves to be nuked.


The Everlasting Dave said...

Yeah. Hell yeah. This post stomped my mind-grapes and turned 'em into some fine-ass wine. Good stuff.

PZ's post is abject bullshit that's beneath him. But I can't shake the feeling that Fred Clark's is such a gross hyperbole, there's no way he expects his readers to take it at face value. I hope his intention was to make a similar point to the one you made, but if it isn't, I'm very disappointed and a little horrified. Whatever; if he meant to just take the liberal guilt position, his commenters ripped him several new ones. And at least I got smarter.

Chris said...

Thank you for this. I just came here from Slacktivist, where a couple of people were beginning to annoy me. That's the thing about war, that it gives rise to situations in which There. Is. No. Good. Option. People put other people into positions where it is impossible for them to do the right thing, because there's no right thing left for them to do.

Older Europeans actually learned this the hard way, to the extent that they started doing imaginative things like building the EU to avoid it. It's been one of the most depressing things in my life to see the generation of Tony Blair and friends come through and forget it all.

(Incidentally, why doesn't your capcha display in IE6?)

Geds said...


Yeah, Fred's was a rare complete miss. Omelas as an analogy absolutely fails in war, as it hinges on the fact that the child is innocent and is being tortured specifically to perpetuate a comfortable lifestyle. The atomic bombs were dropped to stop a war that the Japanese started and kept fighting long after they were unable to win.


I'm beginning to think that the biggest lesson of 20th Century is that humans have this innate need to kill each other from time to time.

The real issue at hand, though, and the one that always gets ignored, is the nature of how we learn from history. And we learn from history the same way if we're talking about nations as we do if we're talking about ourselves. We look at the mistakes we made and the things we did right and try to avoid the former and repeat the latter.

Hiroshima was, to put it prosaically, a mistake. That's what we've been reacting to for the last 65 years. But to reduce it to hyperbole and thoughtless analogy is to kinda ruin that whole "learn from history" aspect of the thing.

Also, I'm guessing that Blogger no longer programs for IE 6. I dunno.

Big A said...

Given that Microsoft itself has entirely discontinued support for IE6, I'm not surprised Blogger and other script-heavy sites have aswell.

At this point you're pretty much required to upgrade to IE7 or 8 (unless you can't because you're trapped on Windows 2000 or older) or switch over to Firefox like the rest of the net savvy world who's sick of Microsoft's shit has. A third alternative is Opera, but that'll probably generate at least as many problems as it solves.

Rhino of Steel said...

I probably went into statistics mode when I posted on the Slacktivist thread but the number of people saying there could be a viable and less lethal option other than dropping the bombs was annoying me. If you're going to be an armchair general then at least have the decency to know what you're talking about. Fortunately there seem to be a couple of people who know what they're talking about and adding actual facts to the discussion.

Chris said...

Big A: not me running IE6, but my delightful employer. I have Firefox, or how would I have posed the question here? I'm still a bit puzzled, because the capcha's just an image. I'd always imagined the technology was so rudimentary it would run on Netscape 1.0.

Rhino of Steel: regrettably, yes.

Big A said...

"I'm still a bit puzzled, because the capcha's just an image. I'd always imagined the technology was so rudimentary it would run on Netscape 1.0."

It's not actually an image, it's a dynamic script producing a random collection of characters that are then presented as an image.

And tell your employer to stop running to the most unsecure web browser in history. My heart goes out to you...

Michael Mock said...

Thanks for this. It brings some much-needed perspective to what is usually a really, really stupid argument.

And I'm still puzzled by why Mr. Clark was trying to connect a wartime scenario to Omelas. Even granting that parables tend to be pretty flexible, it just isn't a workable analogy.