The Japanese city of Hiroshima is invariably associated in people's minds with the atom bomb that was dropped there on August 6, 1945. It will probably be a very long time before it becomes just another place name, like Osaka or Indianapolis. But not if the Japanese have anything to say about it. While the average Japanese probably could not tell you the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor, despite its living "in infamy", he could without hesitation tell you the date on which Hiroshima was destroyed.
In Japan there are no war memorials - only peace memorials. (1) That is why they refused to join in the many commemorative celebrations that took place all across the Pacific in 1994-95 on the 50th anniversary of the many battles of liberation that gradually pushed the Empire of Japan back within its own borders. (2) But every year on August 6, the city of Hiroshima remembers, and reminds the world, that they were the victims of the first atomic bomb dropped on a populated city, on human beings. And every year American tourists visit Hiroshima and some of them are moved to apologize, tears in their eyes, for dropping the Bomb on such an evidently peace-loving people.
Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Germany, expressed his view that the Bomb was a blatant act of "genocide". He even likened it to the Nazi's Final Solution, calling the Bomb a portable gas chamber. Vonnegut was almost right, except that the Bomb was intended to prevent a genocide - which would've been a possibility if it had become necessary to invade the main Japanese islands.
You cannot make sense of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima (or even the second bomb on Nagasaki) if you isolate the event from its historical context. Japan was beaten in August 1945, but its leaders were preparing to repulse a direct assault on the Japanese heartland - the islands of Honshu and Kyushu - instead of looking for terms of surrender. We now know that the eventual Japanese surrender was not unconditional, that one of the terms was the immunity of the Emperor (Hirohito) from prosecution for war crimes.
The position that the Bomb should never have been dropped becomes indefensible when its alternative is considered. It wasn't simply the Japanese military - its armies, tanks, and warplanes - that had to be defeated, but the government that commanded it, which had already informed the Japanese population to prepare itself for invasion and was clearly prepared to fight to the last man, woman, and child. If you have read Masuji Ibuse's great novel about Hiroshima, Black Rain, or if you have consulted other sources, you would know about the training of Japanese civilian "self defense" forces with bamboo spears for the inevitable hand-to-hand fighting against the Allied invaders.
Paul Fussell, author of the compelling book The Great War and Modern Memory, was convinced that the Bomb probably saved his own life and possibly millions of others by convincing the Japanese that they were facing extinction if they did not capitulate. Fussell expressed this conviction, which has since been reinforced by declassified war documents, in an essay first published in 1981 called "Thank God for the Atom Bomb". He wrote that "The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the war." Fussell was in the 45th Infantry Division in 1945, which was being prepared for the invasion of Honshu when news of the atom bombs was announced: "When the bombs dropped and news began to circulate that 'Operation Olympic' would not, after all, take place, that we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all. When the Enola Gay dropped its package, 'There were cheers,' says John Toland, 'over the intercom; it meant the end of the war.'” (3)
The suggestion that there is simply no justification whatsoever for using the Bomb ignores every historical event from the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 right up to the morning the Bomb was released over Hiroshima. (4) As Fussell concluded: "The predictable stupidity, parochialism, and greed in the postwar international mismanagement of the whole nuclear problem should not tempt us to mis-imagine the circumstances of the bomb’s first “use.” Nor should our well-justified fears and suspicions occasioned by the capture of the nuclear business by the mendacious classes (cf. Three Mile Island) tempt us to infer retrospectively extraordinary corruption, cruelty, and swinishness in those who decided to drop the bomb. Times change. Harry Truman was not a fascist, but a democrat. He was as close to a real egalitarian as we’ve seen in high office for a very long time. He is the only president in my lifetime who ever had the experience of commanding a small unit of ground troops obliged to kill people. He knew better than his subsequent critics what he was doing. The past, which as always did not know the future, acted in ways that ask to be imagined before they are condemned. Or even before they are simplified."
The only conceivable argument against the Bomb, is the same argument against war itself, that only when war is eliminated as an option in international relations can people at last discover the true meaning of peace. That was the intention of the United Nations, which failed from the outset because, in 1945, neither superpower was prepared to give up any of its sovereignty. As long as war remains an instrument of national policy by other means, nuclear arms will be with us. George Orwell wrote in 1946: "It is obvious that any Government that is unwilling to use force must be at the mercy of any other Government, or even of any individual, that is less scrupulous - so that the refusal to use force simply tends to make civilized life impossible."(5)
So when Americans shed tears in Hiroshima this Thursday, which they certainly will, they should be crying for humanity and not for their nation's shame in dropping the Bomb. And however much the Japanese might wish to keep the Bomb all to themselves, and preserve their status as guiltless victims, it belongs to us all, to mankind, that brought itself to such a place in events that it decided that it couldn't end a war without resorting to the most terrible weapon yet devised. But what Hiroshima stands for is not the fact that the ultimate obscenity of war is that it makes the use of such a weapon possible, but that it sometimes makes them necessary.
(The photograph I placed at the beginning of this piece is of the body of Ernie Pyle, famed newspaper reporter, who had been with the U.S. Army throughout the war and had reported on the experiences of front-line soldiers. He was killed by a Japanese bullet on April 16, 1945, on Ie Shima, a small island near Okinawa. In an unpublished article written shortly before his death, he wrote: "There are so many of the living who have burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world. Dead men by mass production -- in one country after another-month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. Those are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a dear one who went away and just didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him. Saw him by the multiple thousands. That's the difference." (6))
(1) I visited one such memorial in Okinawa, near the site of what became known as Suicide Cliff. The Japanese army had so terrified the Okinawans with stories of the Americans butchering children and raping women that hundreds of them fled from the advancing enemy and threw first their children and then themselves off the cliff in southern Okinawa. There is even a film showing American soldiers pleading with them through interpreters not to jump, only to see them step off the edge.
(2) I was in Okinawa on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. I suggested to my unit commander in the U.S. Navy that one fitting way to commemorate the anniversary would be to raise the legendary Japanese battleship, the Yamato, which was sunk in the battle, to the surface and then sink it again.
(3) Paul Fussell, "Thank God For the Atom Bomb. Hiroshima: A Soldier's View", The New Republic, August 26 & 29, 1981.
(4) The first time that civilians became targets of aerial bombing was in 1931, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that they bombed an American Naval base ten years later, and not San Francisco.
(5) George Orwell, "Pacifism and Progress", 1946.
(6) from James Tobin, Ernie Pyle's War, 2001.