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August 07, 2010


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

As I wrote in a comment at Mirror of Justice, we should recall

the bombings in Japan that preceded Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well, for in the "final six months of the war, the United States threw the full weight of its airpower into campaigns to burn whole Japanese cities to the ground and terrorize, incapacitate, and kill their largely defenseless residents in an effort to force surrender."* Discussion of this in no way precludes ignoring the fact that Japan was earlier (1932-1945) involved in horrific bombings of Shanghai, Nanjing, Chongqing, and other cities, "testing chemical weapons in Ningbo and throughout Zhejiang and Hunan provinces."

The goal of U.S. bombing assault on Japanese cities, Mark Selden explains, is found in the words of the officers responsible for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (SBS): "either to bring overwhelming pressure on her to surrender, or to reduce her capability of resisting invasion...[by destroying] the basic economic and social fabric of the country." The description of the use of firebombing and napalm on Tokyo (in an area estimated to be 84.7 percent residential) on March 9-10 is chilling: "Whipped by fierce winds, flames generated by the bombs leaped across a fifteen-square-mile area of Tokyo, generating immense firestorms that killed scores of thousands of residents. [....] With an average of 103,000 inhabitants per square mile and peak levels as high as 135,000 per square mile, the highest density of any industrial city in the world, and with firefighting measures ludicrously inadequate to the task, 15.8 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed. An estimated 1.5 million people lived in the burned-out areas. Given a near total inability to fight fires of the magnitude produced by the bombs, it is possible to imagine that the casualties may have been several times higher than the figures presented [100,000-125,000 killed and a roughly equal or higher number wounded] on both sides of the conflict." [....] Subsequent raids brought the devastated area of Tokyo to more than 56 square miles, provoking the flight of millions of refugees. [....] Overall, bombing strikes destroyed 40 percent of the 66 Japanese cities targeted, with total tonnage dropped on Japan increasing from 13,800 tons in March to 42,700 tons in July. If the bombing of Dresden produced a ripple of public debate in Europe, no discernible wave or repulsion, let alone protest, took place in the United States or Europe in the wake of the far greater destruction of Japanese cities and the slaughter of civilian poplulations on a scale that had no parallel in the history of bombing."

*Please see Mark Selden's chapter, "A Forgotten Holocaust: U.S. Bombing Strategy, the Destruction of Japanese Cities, and the American Way of War from the Pacific War to Iraq," in Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History (New York: The New Press, 2009): 77-96. Also worth reading for the anniverasay is Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's chapter, "Were the Atomic Bombings of Hirsohima and Nagasaki Justified?": 97-134.

Presumably, many readers are familiar with Gar Alperovitz's The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995). As he wrote on a previous anniversary of the bombing, "Many Japanese historians have long judged the Soviet declaration of war to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, mainly because the Japanese military feared the Red Army more than the loss of another city by aerial bombardment. (They had already shown themselves willing to sacrifice many, many cities to conventional bombing!) An intimately related question is whether the bomb was in any event still necessary to force a surrender before an invasion. Again, most Americans believe the answer obvious as, of course, do many historians. However, a very substantial number also disagree with this view. One of the most respected, Stanford University Professor Barton Bernstein, judges that all things considered it seems 'quite probable' indeed, far more likely than not 'that Japan would have surrendered before November' (when the first landing in Japan was scheduled). Many years ago Harvard historian Ernest R. May also concluded that the surrender decision probably resulted from the Russian attack, and that 'it could not in any event been long in coming.'"

Those of us fancying ourselves in possession of a modicum of moral sense in conjunction with at least a semblance of civic responsibility should read the Tanaka and Young volume in its entirety.

On this and related topics, a nice place to begin is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation:


In one sense, of course, you are completely right. Enola Gay is not just another airplane, and nobody goes to see the Enola Gay as an airplane. But if you are going to add something to the description, what would you have it say? And what do you think it will end up saying after all the interest groups are done fighting over it? Museums, after all, tend to teach the same lines as elementary schools (and the Declaration of Independence display makes no mention of its status as a document written by treasonous slave-owning tax evaders, as Britain may well consider it).

Message: leave well enough as it is. A fight will be vicious and destructive, probably taking out the relatively non-political status of the Smithsonian as collateral damage, and the liberal side will probably lose to boot.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

The reduction of historicaly contextualizing narratives, perspectives and truth to "interest group" politics is but a facile pablum that serves to further the ends of ideological distortion and the crassest forms of states of denial about atrocities and suffering perpetrated by the "victors," the denizens of the City on a Hill, the bearers of Manifest Destiny, the military and political leaders of a putatively Christian responsible for transfiguring the ethically tenuous apologia of "dirty hands" into a virtue of governance and a strategic necessity of military conflict. This makes mincemeant of the moral significance of the just war tradition (as jus ad bellum and jus in bello).

Yes, by all means, let us turn a blind eye, bury our heads in the sand, engage in a conspiracy of silence, practice wilfull ignorance, for denial can stand in the stead of propaganda. Let's be clear, denial is a ubiquitous state of mind (at various levels of awareness) for cognitively and affectively coping with guilt, anxiety and other disturbing emotions aroused by reality. In this case, historical denial perpetuates personal, cultural, and official or political denial. Yes, by all means, "leave well enough as it his." It's better the masses not learn "of the erosion of stigma associated with the systematic slaughter of civilians from the air, and the elimination of the constraints that for some years had restrained certain air power from area bombing." Let's ignore the scale of killing made possible by the new technologies and the routinization of mass killing (or state terrorism) that came in its wake. Let's set aside the uncomfortable truth that the area bombing that was controversial during World War II soon became "emblematic above all of the American way of war:" ask the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Laotians, the Cambodians, the Iraqis....

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Erratum (first para.): "...of a putatively Christian nation...."


I am content with the decision to save a lot of American lives at the expense of many Japanese lives. In the end, it probably saved a lot of Japanese survivors from Soviet tyranny as well. But be that as it may be, war is an ugly brutal business and the end of the nasty effort is to prevail at a minimum cost. That we did. I feel no personal or vicarious guilt. I would prefer to have no wars at all, but that is an unlikely reality.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

"I am content with the decision to save a lot of American lives at the expense of many Japanese lives." A remark like that evidences a failure to examine the various reasons and motivations that went into dropping bombs on civilians in Japan, a decision that was not based soley on a calculation of the sort you cite here. In any case, while it is certainly true that there will be civilian or non-combatant casualties during war, it is both immoral and a war crime to indiscriminately target civilians (your would do well to familiarize yourself with Just War theory and tradition as well as the Geneva Conventions).

No one is contesting the obvious fact that "war is an ugly [and] brutal business," but to claim that "we" prevailed "at a minimum cost" is precisely what is at issue here. It's not surprising that you claim to "feel no personal or vicarious guilt," as that would fit perfectly well with the descriptions of the less-than-fully conscious mechanisms of denial. Or perhaps the confidence with which you claim a clean conscience reflects the absence of a well-developed sense of same, or perhaps it's indicative of moral obtuseness, a failure of compassion, or the result of a smug and self-satisfied moral view that by definition is impervious to change, constitutionally or dispostionally resistant to the kind of self-reflection that widens one's moral compass.

Assuming the absence of moral pathology, our preference is of course that there be no wars at all, and nothing I said above was premised on the likelihood that war is coming to an end or might come to an end (either in the short-term or in the long run). This, again, is where and why the Just War tradition is urgently relevant, because it represents a not unimportant or ineffective historical endeavor by nations and their citizens to lessen the brutality and savagery of war, to put legal and ethical constraints on the justification of war, and legal and humanitarian constraints on the conduct of war.

Additional recommended reading:

Coady, C.A.J. Morality and Political Violence (2008).

Cohen, Stanley. States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (2001).

May, Larry. War Crimes and Just War (2007).

Perrigo, Sarah and Jim Whitman. The Geneva Conventions Under Assault (2010).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Erratum: "dispositionally"


"I am content with the decision to save a lot of American lives at the expense of many Japanese lives."

Clearly you have had an easy life. I live in Hiroshima and am a Japanese-Canadian. I don't think you realize what you're talking about.

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