Reflections on the atom bombs

01.09.05 Publication:

Every year, when it comes to celebrating my birthday, two things strike me, leaving aside the extra pleasure I get on that day from my family. One is that it is a sad day for the world, even if it isn´t for me: for my birthday falls on August 6th, the day that the world´s first atom bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima.

            I did not realise this coincidence until I came to live in Japan in 1983, for not surprisingly the day is marked by fewer commemorations outside Japan, at least when the anniversary is not a noteworthy one, such as the 50th or, this year, the 60th.

            The second thing I am struck by every year is also sad: it is that I feel sorry for the citizens of Nagasaki, for their tragedy is always overshadowed by Hiroshima´s simply for the reason that their bomb came second, three days after the first.

            Yet what I now always think, every year on August 6th and 9th, is that this is exactly the wrong way around. At least, I think it is wrong that each year the world´s attention seems to focus on the question of whether it was right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. To my mind, the real question ought to concern the other city. The real question that should be asked is whether it was right to drop the second bomb, on Nagasaki on August 9th.

            My reasoning works like this. Although the first atom bomb was shocking because of the vast power of the explosion and because of the future escalation in destructive power that it signified, it did not raise any new moral question. The bombing of Hiroshima was an act of terror, killing civilians deliberately in the hope of intimidating Japan into surrender. But so was the firebombing of Tokyo. So, in Japan´s invasion of China, was the massacre in Nanjing. And, in the European war, there were equivalent acts, with the bombing of London and of Dresden.

            The first atom bomb was bigger and more dramatic in terms of the number of people killed and the speed with which the deaths occurred, but it was not essentially different in moral terms. And, if you accept that it is right to fight wars at all, it has in my view a good moral defense: that the Americans wanted to accelerate the ending of the Pacific war in order to reduce the deaths of their own soldiers as well as of their Japanese military and civilian opponents. One devastating bomb stood the chance of averting a long and deadly invasion.

            But in that case why did they have to drop two bombs, within three days of one another? The bombing of Hiroshima was such a shocking event that it would surely have been right to wait some time for the effects of it to sink in to the minds of the Japanese government. A threat could have been made, that further such bombs would be used on other cities. Then the Americans could have waited for the Japanese surrender.

            Hence my view that Nagasaki ought really to be at the centre of the debate about the morality of the atom bombs. The world´s attention ought properly to be focused on August 9th, not August 6th. And that is not just because it would take some of the pressure away from my birthday.

            What is at issue in the case of Nagasaki is whether countries that fight wars can be capable of using their military power in a careful, proportionate way. Can they use just enough military force to achieve their goals, and not use more of it than was really necessary?

            One answer is contained in the common English phrase or saying: “the fog of war”. This is intended to represent the confusion, the chaos, the lack of reliable information that characterises armed conflict. Part of that fog is there on the battlefield. Part, though, is psychological: the emotions, ambitions, fears and hopes of the participants become so intensified as to cloud their judgment.

            Another answer, though, is less forgiving. It is that once war has been declared, people seem to suspend their previous concerns for morality or for social rules. They move into a different moral world, one that leads them to act as if what they do need not be questioned from a normal point of view. That is why previously civilised human beings end up committing atrocities: it is not just that they are afraid for their lives, it is that psychologically their whole attitude seems to change. They lose the ability to be careful or proportionate. Perhaps the reason is simply that they no longer have to act in that careful way.

            That conclusion is a somewhat depressing one. It implies that moral, careful behaviour is not natural for humans, but is used only when people consider that it is required of them by their social situation. It is not normal but abnormal.

            So, every year on August 9th, I think that people in Japan and elsewhere in the world should commemorate the second atom bomb, in Nagasaki, with at least as much attention and emotion as they do the first, in Hiroshima. When doing so, they should not focus on technology, as so many do with regard to Hiroshima. Whether these bombs were atomic or conventional is a secondary issue.

            What people commemorating Nagasaki should focus on is what that bombing tells them about war, and the behaviour of individuals and governments in the midst of a long conflict. They should think about the dehumanising effect of that conflict, and the way in which moral rules about care and proportionality are suspended or ignored. The Nagasaki is not the only example of that point, either before or, sadly, since. But it is arguably the single most powerful example that we have in recent history.