The Abiding Significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Americans must still wrestle with what it means to take the lives of innocent civilians intentionally.

This August marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In those two blasts and their atomic afterglow over 200,000 Japanese died. The devastation in both cases was overwhelming. Faced with this threat of “prompt and utter destruction,” Japan unconditionally surrendered within a week.

While technologically the atomic bombs marked a departure from earlier bombing raids in Japan and in Europe, which had required many bombers and tons of ordinance, strategically, these two raids were of a piece with earlier allied actions. The American firebombing of Tokyo, for example, killed roughly 100,000 people. The Allied bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, meanwhile, deliberately targeted “built up” residential areas and killed tens of thousands of German citizens. These bombing raids were part of a strategy of demoralization in which military facilities and armament production were not the main targets. By deliberately attacking civilian populations the Allies hoped to teach their enemies a lesson and bring them to their knees.

Some few Catholic scholars, notably Elizabeth Anscombe and Fr. John Ford, S.J. argued at the time that the Allied approach was immoral. Their argument, which drew from a moral tradition dating back to St. Augustine, was based on the premise that intentionally killing the “innocent” was always a grave wrong. Both Anscombe and Ford noted that, despite occasional confusion, the meaning of “innocent” could not be “morally innocent,” but rather must mean “not posing a threat.” For it is a threat that justifies the use of defensive force in war, not the moral character of individual civilians who might be morally at fault in their support of, say, the Nazi government, yet be engaged only the in same tasks they would have been working on in peacetime: growing and distributing food, caring for their families, working in the medical profession, and so on. Given this approach to the distinction, Ford estimated that as much as two thirds of the city of Boston would, during World War Two, have been “innocents,” when women, children, and the aged were factored in.

The Allied bombings in Europe, then, and the firebombing and atomic bombing in Japan, seem to have been deliberate targeting of civilian populations: in other words, intentional attacks on innocent human life. And, if Anscombe’s and Ford’s premise about intentional killing of the innocent is correct, then the conclusion is inescapable: these Allied actions constituted murder on a vast scale, running to hundreds of thousands of lives.

Two possible justifications might be offered for these actions. One is that German forces had also, and earlier, attacked British citizens, thus initiating the targeting of non-combatants. Something like this seems to have been foreseen by the British, for, in 1939, President Roosevelt had asked for assurances from the warring parties that there would be no targeting of civilians. The British had agreed, but added a condition saying that they reserved the right to adopt “appropriate measures” in the event that Germany should attack civilians. Yet the right not to be murdered, and the obligation not to murder, are not conditional on what other persons might or might not be doing. Those attacking may, of course, be defended against; but their moral wrongs do not, as such, provide a license to any party to abandon moral norms themselves. Nor, as noted, were German civilians themselves the ones attacking. So the “reprisal” justification fails.

Similarly, the outright consequentialist justifications that were offered then, and continue, in some cases, to be offered today, fail, for two reasons. First, there are inevitable epistemic limitations to our knowledge about what would have been the case without these Allied attacks. Would the war really have lasted longer and cost many more lives? What were the long-term, as opposed to the short-term, consequences of dropping the bomb? There is much speculation on these questions but little, if any, real knowledge.

Second, and more importantly, why should we think that there really are “best possible consequences?” How are the lives of innocent Japanese and German women, children, sick, elderly, and non-military personnel to be weighed against the lives of Allied fighters in such a way as to make clear that saving a certain number of Allied lives was “better” all things considered than killing a much larger number of enemy civilians? The impossibility of such a calculation, and the dignity of each human being, as a free and rational creature, seem together to be at the root of the traditional injunction never intentionally to kill the innocent. Meanwhile, the abandonment of this injunction seems to be at the root of the philosophical and cultural move in the direction which Anscombe called consequentialism.

The Allied bombings were, therefore, by the standards of traditional, non-consequentialist morality, utterly wrong and intrinsically unjustifiable. And this great moral evil has itself had consequences, some of which it is salutary to note now, more than half a century later.

Some of those consequences have been to the good. Thankfully, the inference which Anscombe and Ford drew from the moral injunction against intentional killing to the moral conclusion against area (or terror) bombing has increasingly become part of our Western military ethic. The option is apparently no longer available to the generals in any Western army to order the obliteration of a city for the sake of inducing its rulers to surrender. And this surely must be considered moral progress in the making of war.

Yet other consequences indicate that the moral lessons of World War Two have not fully been absorbed, or, if they have, that they have been absorbed in the way that bad acts usually are: they are absorbed into the character of those who performed those acts, or approved them, and never repudiated them. For it cannot truly be said, for all the progress in military ethics, that the West has fully repudiated either the Allies’ actions, or the consequentialism underlying them. Anscombe would surely be a minority figure today, as she was in the 1950’s, for holding that a “couple of massacres” to the credit of Harry Truman made him unworthy as a candidate for an honorary degree at Oxford; and Winston Churchill is today considered a great hero of the War, despite considerable evidence that he was a major architect of the policy of terror bombing. And, finally, there are still many in the West willing to defend the atomic bombings as decisions difficult but necessary for the common good.

So the actions have not been repudiated; nor has the consequentialism, which is nakedly on display in the West’s willingness to countenance the killing of unborn children for the sake of avoiding negative consequences, to countenance the killing of in vitro human beings for the sake of the positive health consequences, and, for many decades, to countenance the conditional elimination of entire populations in the event that their leaders should strike us with atomic weapons. In each case, a decision has been made that innocent human lives are not to be held sacrosanct, or inviolable, if the consequences of doing so would be too significant. The consequentialist ethic of the Allied bombings is thus still with us, and plays a continuing, and horrific, role in our public and private moral deliberations.

There are, finally, some problem areas, puzzles regarding which we have not yet determined how the lessons of World War Two are to be brought to bear. As I noted, military ethics now take for granted that civilians are not to be targeted. Perhaps, however, that has simply made our leaders more scrupulous about calling civilian casualties “collateral damage,” even when they are willing to accept many more such casualties than they would harm to our own troops. But the original precept against killing the innocent no matter what the consequences is based on an even deeper truth: the fundamental and radical equality of all human beings as persons, as free and rational beings whose lives are each loci of intrinsic and incommensurable value. The West’s willingness to bomb at a distance, engage in drone attacks, and tolerate, in Iraq and Afghanistan, wildly disproportionate numbers of civilian casualties, suggests that our soldiers do indeed count more than their wives, children, and elderly. While this may be an understandable viewpoint in any society, it is not, for all that, a correct one.

So Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombings that preceded them, the decisions that led to them, and the rationalizations that justified them, remain with us today, underwriting both some of our most grievous moral errors, and our more ambiguous moral triumphs. As individuals, and especially as a nation, it still remains for us to grasp the deep significance of those fateful, and horrible, days.

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