Sixty-seven years ago today, yesterday local time, a lone Boeing B-29 Superfortress — named Enola Gay after the pilot’s mother — dropped the first atomic bomb used in combat onto the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, a similar B-29 named Bockscar dropped the second, and last, atomic bomb used in combat onto the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Those two explosions killed over 100,000 people immediately with thousands more dying later of radiation poisoning. Those two explosions also had two other consequences, one intended and one unintended.
They ended the Second World War and they gave ensuing generations the right to accuse the United States of America of crimes against humanity.
The fact some now consider the US government guilty of war crimes is old ground and I don’t intend to plow it anymore. I fully agree the dropping of the atom bombs was a war crime. So were the Holocaust, the activities of Unit 731, the Katyn Forest Massacre, the fireboming of Tokyo, the firebombing of Dresden . . . et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum. The Second World War was quite simply one war crime after another and the only outcome was who was going to get the tickertape parades and who was going to be hanged. Because the Allies won the war, the Axis military was tried and many of them hanged.
What I want someone to answer to is not the criminality of the atomic bombings but rather the mindset which developed and led to a situation where atomic bombings were the only LOGICAL choice to be made. This vein of thought is not original with me. It is explored in some detail by Dan Carlin in the Hardcore History podcast “Logical Insanity” and I want him to get full credit, but I’d like to capture a few of his main points for my handful of readers to chew over.
Wars have been fought for as long as one group of people had something another group wanted or were located somewhere another group desired to be. Our surviving accounts of ancient battles are sobering reading as historians tell of thousands dying and land turning to mud not with water but with blood. It is all the more somber when one realizes a majority of the casualties of those ancient battles were inflicted PERSONALLY. Up until really the 17th century, the preferred method of warfare involved hacking one’s opponents to quivering bits with some sort of edged weapon, smashing their brains out with some blunt weapon, or poking large holes in them with some sort of pointed weapon. This was all up close and extremely personal. Men were splattered with the blood and gore of every foe killed.
Guns did precious little to clean up warfare; anyone who has seen what a .75 caliber soft lead musket ball can do to a pig carcass will attest to that. The minie ball bullets of the War of Northern Aggression were capable of amputating a limb or a head with one shot. Guns may have increased the distance of killing, but they did nothing to exacerbate the horrors.
All these battles, however, had one thing in common — they took place on a BATTLEFIELD. Strangely enough, battles were almost gentlemanly affairs, especially in Western countries. Lines of poor people would shoot arrows or bullets at other poor people and once enough of their poor had been killed by our poor, the rich people would exchange swords or some other mementos and the defeated general would sometimes be invited to dinner. Period writings commonly referred to spectators of these battles standing off to the sides to see some live action even Michael Bay couldn’t top. Civilians merely watched battles; they were not expect to participate in them.
Two bastards named Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman changed that forever.
The Union was tired of the not-so-Civil War and Lincoln wanted to finish the matter. In Grant and Sherman, he found the tools. At Grant’s urging, Sherman marched from Atlanta to the Gulf of Mexico burning and plowing a path still visible from the air to this day. Sherman’s “March to the Sea” introduced a new phrase into military lexicons all over the world — total war. He didn’t target only military installations; he burned EVERYTHING, including civilian residences and property. His idea was to make the South howl. The idea caught on. Once war moved from the battlefield to main street, all the rules changed. The thinking went “civilians build the implements of modern warfare; therefore, civilians are viable military targets.”
The Great War saw the zeppelin bombings of London and the first instances of unrestricted submarine warfare. The Spanish Civil War saw air power wipe towns like Guernica off the pages of the atlas. The Second World War doctrine of deliberately targeting civilian population centers was merely the next logical progression. War crimes were no longer abhorrent; they were official — if unspoken and unwritten — policy in ALL militaries.
I want you to think about something Dan Carlin brings up. What if, in 1939, you were the leader of Great Britain, France, or China and you had TWO atomic bombs and the means to deliver them. Germany invades Poland on September 1, 1939 and you can stop the war by dropping one A-Bomb on Berlin and the other on Tokyo. The war is two or three days old but all the Axis leaders are dead so the war stops. Your decision kills 2 million people and destroys two beautiful cities. The entire human cost of WWII was 60-80 MILLION people killed depending on what source you read. Your bombs would have stopped all that.
You would have committed a heinous war crime, beyond a doubt. In the process though, no massacres, no Holocaust, no firebombings, no comfort women, no Soviet “reprisal raping” . . . the list goes on. If we are going to second guess the people who were THERE and had to make — and live with — the decisions, at least let’s put the onus at the front end and look at things differently. When we do I think the question “Did America commit a war crime by dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan?” will give way to “How do you stop the ongoing string of the worst war crimes ever committed?”
The answer? If it’s not the a-bombs, you tell me what it is then.
As Gen. Robert E. Lee sat astride Traveler surveying the carnage of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, the Battle of Fredricksburg, he is supposed to have said, “It is best that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.” Perhaps THAT is the lesson we should take away from the atomic bombings . . . and realize it is a lesson some in power have yet to learn.