Dropping An Atomic Bomb

A vast devastated area with only a few burned out buildings standingby Chris Crawford

First, I have a good friend who is a hibakusha (survivor of an atomic bombing). She was ten years old and reading a book a little more than a mile from ground zero when the bomb exploded at Hiroshima. She was only slightly injured, but she very nearly died of radiation exposure. I helped her rewrite her memoirs, and we spent many hours discussing the events.
My own assessment is complicated. The Japanese were willing to surrender months earlier if only the Allies promised to respect the Emperor. But Roosevelt had agreed to the “unconditional surrender” specification and Truman refused to renege on that promise. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were therefore unnecessary and immoral.

HOWEVER, all too often we fail to take account of what the actors in historical events did and did not know when they made their decisions. It’s the fog of war. Truman’s knowledge of Japanese intentions was based on its public pronouncements, primarily its propaganda, which was ferociously defiant. Truman did not know that a careful diplomatic strategy would probably have yielded peace without the need for either an invasion or the use of the Bomb. Therefore, I conclude that, while he made what was, in the final analysis, the wrong decision, I think that his decision is excusable because he lacked the information necessary to reach the best conclusion.

Another point: there is only one way to conclude a war successfully, and that is to convince the enemy that he is defeated. The facts on the ground aren’t as important as the enemy’s perception of those facts. The worst way to fight a war is to impose a steady flow of casualties on the enemy. That can go on forever. You need something dramatic, something that stuns and demoralizes the enemy.

Israel’s strategy with respect to the Palestinians is just about the worst possible. They are imposing a steady stream of casualties on the Palestinians without ever doing anything to change Palestinian minds. They have been for years killing roughly ten Palestinians for every Israeli killed. (Side note: most of the Palestinian casualties come not from bombs and bullets but from all the constraints on normal civilian life imposed by the Israeli occupation. Roadblocks delay emergency trips to the hospital with deadly consequences. Inadequate sewage systems and irregular electricity supplies encourage the spread of disease. Unemployed youth commit suicide by cop)

Thus, Israel has been stoking the hatred of the Palestinians for decades. The Israeli government believes that it can eventually intimidate the Palestinians into a sullen acceptance of their fate at Israeli hands. It doesn’t work that way. Hitler’s Blitz on Britain didn’t intimidate the British. The Allied bombings of Germany killed huge numbers of Germans but never broke their morale. The American bombings in Vietnam were equally ineffective. Every hunter knows that the worst thing you can do is wound an animal without incapacitating it, but few governments, especially the Israeli government understand that principle. In the case of hunting animals, you must kill a wounded animal — but genocide of millions of Palestinians is not an option.

The only moral solution to the conflict is a peace based on the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Israel refuses to recognize this truth, and so the killing will go on forever, with one possible exception. At some point, the Palestinians will obtain a weapon of mass destruction: a nuclear weapon or a biological weapon. They will use this weapon and cause so much destruction that they will shock the Israelis into making a choice between outright genocide and making peace.

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4 thoughts on “Dropping An Atomic Bomb

  1. I agree that resolving the war between Israel and Hamas requires a diplomatic solution; a military solution won’t do the job. But I wish Mr. Crawford took more care to distinguish the different characters involved here. He sometimes refers to “the Israelis” and other times to the Israeli government, as if they are interchangeable; they are not. The Netanyahu Government is far to the Right— much further than much of Israeli society, including much of its civil society. That Government does not represent all Israelis; to the contrary, under the electoral system in that country, Netanyahu was able to forge a coalition with less than 50% of the popular vote. Similarly, this brief essay fails to distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinians; in fact, Hamas isn’t even mentioned. Nor does it distinguish between the country with the boundaries established in 1948 and the treatment of Palestinian citizens there vs. the settlements and treatment of Palestinians in those areas.

    Distinctions and nuances like those will be essential if hoped-for diplomatic efforts are ever to produce peace.

  2. I agree & would like to add just one more point: in the final days before surrender, Japanese armies on the ground were carrying out massacres frenziedly, in many of the places they occupied across China and Southeast Asia. They (reluctantly) put down their weapons only upon hearing the Emperor admit defeat and unconditional surrender in the radio. Were not for the atomic bombs, the surrender would have come much later, meaning many more Chinese and Southeast Asian civilians would have been massacred. This of course does not “cancel out” the moral wrongs of the atomic bombs; but I would say the frequent neglect of the moral worth of those occupied civilians in the anglophone philosophical discourses on the atomic bombs is something worth reflecting on.

  3. Thank you YL for this information about the actions of the Japanese Army in occupied territories in the closing days of the war. I was unaware of these additional atrocities appended to the earlier years of atrocity.

    YL points out the “neglect of the moral worth” of peoples outside the anglophone philosophical worldviews.
    I agree that this can be a trap. The more distant a People is in time or geography or personal experience, the more likely empathy is intellectual rather than the personal pain of the ‘stab in the heart’.

    That said, one cannot directly consider suffering that one is ignorant of.
    Which raises the question of “why, in the West, is so little known of these tragedies?”
    Perhaps it is due to the cultural complexities of how ‘our’ news is distributed and how ‘our’ history is emphasized? Does this distribution occur in a manner in which it just ensues? (rather than with a deterministic motive)

    Which leads me to suspect at least one disturbing reason. That the current limits of culture make it such that some lives simply do not matter as much as some others.
    Hence, they don’t break that critical cultural editing threshold of widely shared knowledge.

  4. Mr. Halpern, I agree that the current Israeli government is the most extreme right-wing government in its history, but my discussion focuses primarily on the long-term behavior of the various Israeli governments. Israel has never made any serious move to permit the creation of a Palestinian state. They have made a few small steps on occasion, as with the Oslo Accords, but these were tentative efforts quickly snuffed out by later governments. In like fashion, I have lumped all Palestinian actions together. You’re quite right that the details matter, but were I to include all relevant details, I’d be typing for quite a few months more.

    I greatly fear that this conflict will culminate in the detonation of a nuclear weapon.

    Mr. YL, my point on the fog of war applies to your historical note. It’s probably unfair to conclude some sort of racist factor at work when simple ignorance provides us with a patently better explanation. We have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight; Mr. Truman was groping his way through a dense fog of uncertainty.

    We look back at World War II as a fixed sequence of events nailed down in the history books. The reality is that there were a thousand points at which it could taken a different turn. Let’s have some sympathy for the people who struggled through the chaos and did the best job they could.

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