Saturday, August 06, 2005

Sixty Years Ago Today

"Rest in Peace as we will not make the same mistake twice."

-- Memorial to the victims of the atomic bombing,
Peace Park, Hiroshima (quoted)
Sixty years ago today, the United States destroyed the city of Hiroshima with an atomic bomb.

If nothing else, one thing we need to do today is to remember the victims. Even for those who think that the bombing was morally justified -- and it's a complex issue and a live debate -- it has to have been, at best, the best of bad alternatives: many of the victims were unquestionably innocents, and thus to be mourned. There is an important moral sense in which even justified killing in war is staining; for the biblically inclined, there is 1 Chronicles 28:3, "But God said to me, 'You shall not build a house in My name, because you are a man of war, and you have shed blood.'" And this is what God said to David, his chosen. So whatever you think of the bombing, we should realize that it lessens us, as a nation, that we did it.

But the debate over its justification is, as I say, live. It's necessarily mixed up with the historical debate about the precise circumstances of the bombing. Moral evaluations are deeply dependent upon the conditions of the act: the richer the description, the more accurate the judgment.

In this regard, I noticed in a number of commentaries about the bombing surrounding its sixtieth anniversary implications that the historical consensus had changed in recent years. In particular, Kevin Drum linked to this Weekly Standard essay which talked about recent documents undermining the revisionist theory. I was interested by this, since everything I'd read about the topic (and it had been awhile) dated from a decade ago (or more), so I realized that my understanding of events might well be out of date.

(A depressing sidebar: I must admit that the Weekly Standard essay was not, itself, enough to convince me. Part of this, of course, was that in any active historical debate participants will see things differently, so it is important to get more than one point of view (or at the very least, a point of view which explicitly lays out various schools of thought.) But, honestly, a reasonable part of this was because it was in the Weekly Standard. What I find depressing about this is not simply that I have grown partisan or cynical enough to doubt something solely because it is in a major conservative publication; what I find depressing about it is that I actually think I have good reasons for skepticism. On a great many issues, contemporary conservatives work hard to create the appearance of scholarly debate or factual doubt on issues where there is, in fact, strong scholarly consensus or strong factual basis. Krugman's latest column (also here) was about this, putting the controversy over Intelligent Design creationism in the context of the issues of supply-side economics and global warming; Chris Mooney has a forthcoming book on the topic. But science is only the most extreme instance of this. Bush's political rhetoric is premised upon deception -- and I don't just mean Iraq, but the titling of environmental-gutting bills such things as the "Healthy Forests Initiative". And frankly misleading Republican spin is repeated verbatim across the internet and in right-wing magazines such as the Weekly Standard, too. So yes, at this point, on any controversial fact (save perhaps when it's an "admission against interest", as the lawyers say) I look for additional confirmation if I read it in a conservative publication. Of course the right wing would say, and does say, the precise opposite, that liberals aren't trustworthy: and one might simply say that partisanship is too viscous and intense in this country. But to equate the two is, in my view, deeply mistaken: I am not a relativist, and I don't think that the two sides are equivalent just because they each accuse the other of distortion.)

So I went looking for information about the current state of the historical understanding. As of ten years ago, my impression was that the revisionists had gotten the better of the argument. The revisionist position on the decision to drop the bomb was complex, and there were many takes on it, but the basic point is that the atomic bombings were not necessary to convince Japan to surrender, and that the U.S. knew it (or at least should have given the information they had). There were many parts to this -- that all the Japanese wanted was to keep the emperor as a figurehead, which of course we ultimately agreed to anyway; that the Russian entry into the war was enough to convince them to surrender; and so forth. As Frank notes in his Weekly Standard piece, there were different viewpoints about why the bomb was dropped anyway (to scare the Soviets? bureaucratic inertia? etc). But Frank claimed that this view was no longer tenable.

Well, I dug around, and the best piece I could find on the issue was a historiographic survey by J. Samuel Walker in the April, 2005 issue of Diplomatic History. The essay itself isn't on line, although a summary of it can be found here. Walker claims that in the past decade both the revisionist and the traditional viewpoints on the dropping of the bomb have become untenable, at least in their pure form, and describes a number of different historians' views, all of which stake out a middle ground, but hardly the same middle ground. (Richard Frank, by the way, is one of those historians, and based on my reading of Walker's essay, I think that my fears about his piece in the Weekly Standard were, thankfully, groundless, so I can recommend it -- although it is only one view, and some things he asserts are still in contention, but it is worthwhile reading.) Another view of the recent historiography is Robert Newman's, one version of which can be found here. But I think the following paragraph from near the end of Walker's essay more or less summarizes his findings:

Although those who occupied the middle ground generally agreed with the traditionalist position that Truman used the bomb primarily to shorten the war and save American lives, they rejected the argument that the president faced a stark choice between the bomb and an invasion. They suggested, with varying degrees of certitude, that the war was likely to have ended before an invasion became necessary. And several expressed doubts that had an invasion occurred, the costs in American casualties would have been nearly as large as Truman and other officials claimed after the war. Recent literature on the atomic bomb has inflicted even greater damage on key elements of the revisionist interpretation. It has gravely undermined if not totally refuted the fundamental revisionist tenets that Japan was ready to surrender on the sole condition that the emperor remain on the throne and that American leaders were well aware of Japan's desire to quit the war on reasonable terms.

So, so far as I can tell after a few hours of looking, that is the state of play on the facts surrounding the bombing. If you're interested, I highly recommend digging up a copy of Walker's full article; at the very least, take a look at the summary of it. I must admit that the complexities, multiple possibilities and uncertainties that this view presents seems to me to more accurately reflect human decisions as they are really made than either of the two more extreme views (revisionist or traditionalist).

But it's worth noting that while this historical analysis must influence our moral evaluation, it doesn't by itself determine it. Under the old revisionist theory, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was, fairly clearly, simply an atrocity: the unnecessary slaughter of civilians. The new view complicates this, obviously. Newman among others has pointed out that many civilians were dying each day the war continued (including civilians being killed by Japanese forces who were neither American nor Japanese, victims of Japan's Asian empire); so that arguments that the war might have ended in a few months anyway need to bear these in mind. On the other hand, it seems troublesome at best to argue that it is all right to slaughter civilians if you think that it will achieve good ends, whether those are the end of the militaristic Japanese state or the saving of other civilian lives elsewhere. The new, more complex view of the choices that went into the bombing seems to raise the issue of the basis of moral judgment -- utilitarian v. deontological views (i.e. making moral evaluations based on consequences or on the inherent worth of actions in and of themselves) -- in a fairly stark form: if the bombing was necessary to achieve various ends, does that by itself make it right? I myself tend to be extremely reluctant to say that the killing of civilians, simply as a method in itself without any military aim, is ever all right in wartime: it seems the very definition of terrorism. But the new historiography does make that position more complex than the purer form of the revisionist understanding did.

(Note that this isn't, or shouldn't be, itself a reflection of the contemporary conservative/liberal debate; as has been pointed out before, conservatives were among the first to critique the bombing, and some have called for them to do so again.)

Perhaps, for today, we should simply mourn the dead: innocents who were -- with or without ultimate justification -- killed before their time. By us.

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