There is no justification for Hiroshima – or the possession of nuclear weapons

I am so tired of arguing about whether the atomic attacks on Japan were necessary for ending the war, or whether they might have saved the lives of thousands of American soldiers who would have otherwise had to invade the Japanese mainland, or indeed, whether the attacks were unnecessary and primarily aimed at the Soviet Union. It doesn’t matter. They were morally wrong and a horrendous crime either way, no matter what policy-makers believed at the time; no matter what cause they were in support of. This is because, as our politicians so frequently remind us about terrorism, there is no cause, no belief, that justifies deliberately targetting civilians. This is the crux of it: nothing justifies incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nothing. It might have been different if they had bombed the Japanese fleet or a military camp. But they didn’t. They targetted a city of civilians, which hadn’t been bombed already, and which was flat so they could determine the subsequent damage. And when the weather wasn’t quite right, they chose another city to obliterate. A case of randomly choosing who will die.

Whether you deliberately kill hundreds of thousands of civilians by instantaneously burning them to a cinder (followed, of course, by months and years of radiation poisoning for thousands of others), or whether you slowly load them into cattle trucks and send them to gas chambers and then incinerate them in furnaces, it is still wrong to deliberately murder civilians. If instead of using a massive bomb dropped from the skies, America had dropped killer squads into Hiroshima to round people up, slaughter them with knives and burn their bodies until Japan surrendered, that would have been equally immoral. The method of killing doesn’t mean very much, although it could be argued that an atomic bomb is more immoral than many others because it precludes civilians from any chance of escape. At least if America had sent killer squads into Hiroshima, most civilians might have had a chance of escape or resistance. With a nuclear bomb, there is no escape, no chance of survival. The point is, there is no legitimate justification for deliberately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. None. No matter what method you use – atomic bombs, conventional bombs, bullets, machetes or gas chambers – it is still wrong.

One of the biggest problems with the continual political and academic attempts to try and justify this horrendous attack on civilians is that it opens the door to future attacks on civilians. It’s a slippery slope to moral nihilism and indiscriminate slaughter. If it’s legitimate to kill 200,000 Japanese civilians to save the lives of American soldiers in the war, or end a terrible war, then why not a few thousand Iraqi or Afghan civilians to prevent another terrorist attack like 9/11? More importantly, if it’s legitimate for America to kill enemy civilians to potentially save the lives of its citizens, then why shouldn’t other nations take the same attitude? And why stop at states? Why not terrorist or militant groups? Why couldn’t terrorist groups argue that killing a few enemy civilians now could save more lives in future? What if a few bomb attacks on the London Underground helped to prevent the invasion of Iraq and thereby saved over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians? Wouldn’t that be the same justification?

In fact, this kind of moral calculation, following the American example, is exactly what we have witnessed ever since. In Osama bin Laden’s statements he frequently referenced the atomic attack on Hiroshima as justification for his own group’s actions. If America can deliberately target civilians to achieve their goals, then why shouldn’t bin Laden? Is it just that some people – the evil ones – are forbidden from deliberately killing civilians, but others – the good guys – can kill hundreds of thousands of civilians as long as it is in a good cause? In some ways, the 9/11 attacks represent the same twisted logic as the original ground zero: deliberately trying to kill thousands of civilians is justified by the rightness of your cause. The real question posed by these continued attempts to justify Hiroshima is: can atrocity against civilians ever be justified, even if the perpetrator believes it’s in a good and noble cause? The answer is, no! Emphatically, no! From this perspective, 9/11 and ground zero Hiroshima are the twin bastards of the same perverted moral logic.

Until America – and all of those who continue to offer legitimacy to its atomic attacks – admit that it was an immoral horrendous atrocity, instead of trying to whitewash it out of history, the belief that targeting civilians is sometimes justified will never be eradicated. Owning up and making a commitment to never deliberately targetting civilians again is crucial because America is an opinion leader – an example to the rest of the world. And if America refuses to apologise for deliberately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and demonstrating real repentance for this horrific act, then why should any other government apologise for similar acts? Why should China ever apologise or indeed stop attacking civilians in Tibet? Why should Russia repent of its attacks on civilians in Chechnya? Indeed, why should al Qaeda ever apologise, or the IRA, or ETA, or any group that has deliberately attacked civilians?

In the end, if indiscriminately killing civilians is inherently wrong, and if America should apologise for its horrific attacks on Japan, then it must also give up its nuclear weapons, because such weapons can only ever kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. They are indiscriminate. They cannot be used in a war between armed opponents. They are civilian-targetted weapons. At present, America and the other nuclear powers have enough nuclear bombs to kill every man, woman and child on the planet several times over. Threatening to deliberately kill millions of civilians is immoral, and hypocritical. If it’s wrong for terrorists to threaten to kill civilians, and if no cause or belief justifies terrorist targetting of civilians, then the same is true for nuclear weapons. It’s that simple.

Never again. Abolish nuclear weapons now.

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About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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6 Responses to There is no justification for Hiroshima – or the possession of nuclear weapons

  1. section9 says:

    But of course, the emperor’s surrender message to the Japanese people specifically mentioned the new type of weapon developed by the Americans as one consideration that compelled him to accept the Potsdam Declaration. Whether or not the use of atomic weapons was morally wrong (it was, of course, but then again, so was the Blitz, and so was Dresden) is immaterial to the fact that the War in the Pacific had to be brought to a speedy conclusion outside the use of Operation DOWNFALL.

    55 million souls had been butchered by the time Truman had inherited his decision from FDR.

    The alternative, as proposed by the Navy, was a blockade which would have led to massive starvation among much of the Japanese civilian population.

    This is very easy for you and I to argue about, but in the end, it’s sophistry. We weren’t sitting in the Phillipines and the Marianas with a death sentence on our dogtags. Many of these guys had survived the European Campaign only to have drawn the Short Straw and found out they didn’t have enough points like the Normandy guys did. So they had to become sergeants and take over platoons of raw eighteen year-olds who were scheduled for CORONET in 1946 (the invasion of Honshu).

    Paul Tibbets and the men of the 509th Composite Group made this entire matter, and the hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides that would have resulted (up to and including the use of tactical nuclear weapons) a moot point. And everyone got to go home.

    Many of us are alive today in the U.S. and Japan to debate the finer points of the “slippery slope” of bombing civilians only because those men were alive in 1945 to drop that bomb.

    • I appreciate your comment, but you’ve missed the point. The ends do not justify the means. Ever. That’s a basic principle. Otherwise, we’d have no basis for condemning terrorism. Some things are wrong, no matter what. If Japan had nuked a couple of American cities, no justifications would have been accepted. And if America had not had the bomb and had instead sent in a kill squad to slaughter thousands of civilians by machete, film the corpses and sent the film to the Japanese leadership as a threat to try and induce surrender, that would have been considered inhuman, uncivilised and unacceptable. Incinerating civilians with an atomic bomb is no different. Check out the photos of atomic burn victims online if you think the bomb was more humane than chopping them up with machetes. It’s time we stopped trying to justify the unjustifiable – stopped trying to whitewash one of the crimes of the century. Just because the US leadership faced a difficult choice does not justify their action. It may help us understand it better, but it doesn’t justify it. It’s time to admit it was a huge mistake and a terrible crime against humanity, and take the necessary steps to ensure it never happens again. Otherwise, if we don’t admit it was wrong, the door will remain open for America and others to do it again.

    • adr says:

      One worry I have with this argument is there were surely other options too, even as late as 1945. It wasn’t just invade, nuke, blockade. Maybe we could have offered some surrender terms other than just unconditional or something like that.

      Something that bugs me about war is as soon as you enter that state, there’s a kind of tunnel vision in place. You /must/ defeat the enemy utterly, victory at any cost, etc. It’s a dangerous state of mind that we should never allow ourselves to get into. When you’re so focused on “winning the war”, you lose sight of just what that means in the human cost.

  2. The words of one of the Hiroshima survivors (as quoted in Hiroshima by John Hersey): “The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justified, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result?”

  3. Brian says:

    Unfortunately Richard you have demonstrated a complete sense of both naivete and historical lacking in your moralistic view of WWII.

    First, I wonder just how old you are.

    Were you alive during the years of 1939-45?

    Have you ever served in uniform in combat?

    If not, then your entire thesis is nothing but a feelings based opinion not rooted in reality?

    Ask any soldier, sailor or airman during the titanic struggle if they had any other thought besides doing their job ( which was destroying the enemy and its will to continue ) and getting home in alive and in one piece.

    War is hard!

    War is brutal !

    Total war means that civilains will die.

    Such is the reality of human struggle and WWII was the definitive example of such.

    As for Hiroshima and Nagasaki- I suggest you put aside your post-mortum emotionalism and try looking at what happened from the lens of 1945.

    In the first place we had no assurance that the first uranium bomb to be dropped would even work. It had never been tried before in an airburst situation.

    Moreover, the Japanese were responsible for the actions of their militaristic government ( as were the Germans and Italians ) which had rejected the Potsdam Declaration issued a few weeks before the automic missions.

    Are you aware of the casualties we and the Japanese endured at Iwo Jima or Okinawa?

    I suggest you find any US Marine still alive and ask him how finatical the Japanese soldier was and see if they buy into your worldview of how imoral we were to have dropped the bombs.

    Check out Operation Coronet and Olympic and see what the projected casualties would have been for a Novemember 1945 invasion of the Japanese home islands.

    Japan was not in a position to dictate any terms but complete unconditional surrender.

    They started the war in China and later by attacking the US at Pearl Harbor and the UK and Dutch through their aggressive aims.

    Failure in war has terrible consequences.

    Never start a war that you cannot win and even Admiral Yamamoto knew that Japan had no chance of ultimate victory when faced with the enormous resources and industrial capabilities of the USA.

    You try to draw a moral equivalnce to the actions of the USA against Japan and the goals of modern terrorists like OBL and have failed completely.

    If not for the benevolence of our occupation in Japan after the war, Japan would have resembled Poland or Hungary both poltically and socially.

    If you cannot see the difference- nothing will change your view.

  4. OSB says:

    Thank you for mentioning the fact that justifying the bombs over Japan amounts to justifying any subsequent use of the “nuclear option” every time a war gets a bit too hard.

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