A Reality Check for Those Who Deplore the Nuking of Japan

In the decades immediately following World War II, American public opinion generally supported President Truman's historic decision to unleash nuclear weapons on Japan.  Everyone accepted that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an unfortunate necessity brought on by the unwillingness of Japan to surrender.  Those two bombs, which killed over 140,000 civilians, were viewed as a way to avoid the obscene costs in men and materiel associated with invading the Japanese homeland.

Nowadays, many question whether those bombs were necessary.  Given that they killed almost exclusively civilians and that the second of the two was dropped only two days after the first, many people have concluded that the attack was immoral.  Today, the typical American is likely to react to the words "Hiroshima" and "Nagasaki" with a vague sense that our country did something wrong.

But the nuking of Japan was a moral act: war is hell for those who do the actual fighting, so those two bombs put an end to their suffering.  This was true for the soldiers on both sides (even a Japanese soldier must have felt relieved to know he was going to survive unscathed).  A purely theoretical model for explaining why dropping nukes was bad appeals only to those who have no skin in the game.

The Japanese war had already killed millions, most of whom were civilians.  The two nukes killed 140,000.  Do the math.  It is a distasteful application of arithmetic, but it is an application that soldiers have to do all the time in their struggle to win a war.

For those who favor elegant ideas over ugly realism, I strongly recommend as a corrective the work of an ordinary Marine who, in 1981, published a book narrating his experience as a hand-to-hand combat soldier in the Pacific theater of World War II.  He participated in two viciously contested campaigns: Peleliu and Okinawa.

Most Americans under-appreciate the human toll associated with those Pacific Island battles.  The American struggle to occupy Okinawa, for example, killed more people than the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  As for the little island of Peleliu, not one American in ten is even aware that it exists.  Yet the taking of Peleliu required the virtual extermination of all Japanese troops on the island even as the casualty rate for the American marines was over 40%.  It took months for the Americans to get complete control of the island, during which time Japanese soldiers, in a warren of caves that overlooked the surrounding lowlands, were for weeks on end picking off American soldiers pinned down in hastily dug foxholes scattered across a horribly exposed landscape.

In his book With the Old Breed, E.B. Sledge will enlighten you on the true cost of war and the paramount need to end it as quickly as possible.  If you have the stomach to learn what war really is like, read his book.  When you are done, judge for yourself whether E.B. Sledge was a good man – and then make a stab in the dark as to whether he might have approved of Truman's decision to nuke Japan.

If all this leaves you cold because it seems inadequately grounded in reason, then please explain why it is reasonable to keep civilians out of things when discussing a war for survival.  E.B. Sledge went off to war as a soldier.  To contend that he did so on his own accord is foolishness: he went out of a sense of duty to his country.  Why should civilians so often be designated as "innocent" while the (almost exclusively) young men who do the fighting be tainted by the implication that they are "not innocent"?

In modern warfare, civilians support combatants in many ways.  They are essential to the logistical supply for combat troops, and their morale greatly influences the will of the leadership to continue the conflict.  They are, in short, essential to the war effort and thus legitimate military targets.  Why should conscripted young men be treated as expendable but not civilians?  E.B. Sledge does not ask such awkward questions, but his wonderfully direct yet non-judgmental account regarding battlefield conditions unintentionally highlights the societal double standard regarding the roles to be played by soldiers versus civilians.  To exempt civilians from involvement in an existential war is to contend that the life of a child or a woman or frail elder is more vital to the survival of a nation than the life of a young soldier on the field of battle.  This is unreasonable.

Who today recognizes that the Japanese army was fighting to the last man – neither taking prisoners nor allowing themselves to become such?  On the little island of Peleliu, for example, 10,695 Japanese soldiers were killed, 202 were taken prisoner, and that's the whole story.  One way or another, all the injured Japanese died – and it generally wasn't because the Americans executed them or refused them medical aid.

If, like Mr. Sledge, you spent two months week after week under continuous enemy fire, hunkered down in muddy foxholes and shallow depressions until ordered to attack, in a landscape stripped by munitions of all living vegetation, side by side with decaying and dismembered bodies that fill the air with the smell of death, unable to sleep for more than moments at a time, listening helplessly to the agonies of injured and dying companions, constantly at the mercy of nighttime infiltrating Japanese kamikaze soldiers bent upon taking one or two enemies with them – all to seize a little island six miles long and two miles wide – well, your notion of how terrible war is would surely take on more substance than the abstract concepts of modern thinkers who dwell on the terrible suffering of Hiroshima victims.

To assert that the Enola Gay was somehow a representation of evil betrays our troops.  To claim that Japan would have surrendered without those two atomic blasts would be proof positive to an American survivor at Peleliu that his struggle on behalf of his country was a fool's errand.  Those who contend that Japan would have surrendered without the bombs must explain why they hadn't: the Okinawa campaign ended on July 22, 1945, and it was clear at that point that Japan was certain to lose the war.  The atomic bombs were not dropped until two weeks later.  Something was needed to make Japan face reality.  If your son or husband died in combat during those two weeks, you likely wondered why those two nukes could not have been dropped a little earlier.

The problem with condemnation of the American use of nukes against Japan is that it presumes that the lives of American soldiers are less valuable than the lives of enemy civilians.  You may feel good about yourself with an attitude of this sort, but can you honestly expect to win a war for your own survival?

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