Those Damned Bombs

It’s far greater thing to share principles than conclusions.  So much of what is believed to be “thinking” today is little more than the embracing of prepackaged conclusions distributed by a group(s) the individual wishes to self-identify with.  The canonical example of this being global climate change.  Few have enough expertise to really comprehend the science behind the topic, and even fewer have spent more then a few minutes to perform anything that would be considered a balanced consideration of the data.  Lest I am misunderstood, the issue is not trusting experts, the issue is emotionally adopting a conclusion based primarily on your political self-identification.

The Junto recently discussed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the United States during WWII.  It is unfortunate that this topic has become such a badge to display liberal or conservative street cred.  It’s a complex topic offering much fruit to those willing to wrestle with it, but it’s also one hell of a Rorschach test.  These discussions all-to-often begin with conclusions and then move on to facts.

I am very hesitant to grant dropping Little Boy and Fat Man a status of morally justifiable acts, though I consider myself a pretty solid conservative.  During a recent discussion, it was pointed out that there is some similarity between the arguments used to justify dropping the bombs and arguments used to justify a preemptive strike.  I couldn’t agree more.  Most arguments used to justify the use of atomic weapons in Japan are based to large extent on assumptions, hypothetical situations, and often emotion and a touch of vengeance.

Many of my good and manly friends, the majority in fact, disagree with me on this conclusion – yet I believe we do align in the principles to which we hold fast.  To be clear I’m not encouraging us to all just get along, far from it.  My point is to recognized shared principles and then to have a lively and virile debate.

Here is five minute video by Father Wilson Miscamble, professor of History at Notre Dame.  It’s interesting, informative, and also suffers from the defects I mentioned above.


  1. Didymus says:

    The Battle of Okinawa ended on June 22nd, less than 7 weeks before Hiroshima. American casualties: 49,151, with 12,520 dead. Estimates of Japanese military casualties: 117,000 with 110,000 dead (94%). Estimate of civilian casualties: 142,000, tens of thousands of whom committed suicide or were killed by Japanese soldiers. The Japanese ordered the battleship Yamato, the largest ship afloat, to proceed to Okinawa, beach itself, and fight until destroyed. There were over 3,000 kamikaze attacks. The horrors of this battle were so awful that there were 26,000 psychiatric cases among U.S. servicemen just from Okinawa. Whatever anyone’s opinion on whether the A-bombs should have been dropped at all or on what targets, there is no evidence that Japan was prepared to lay down arms, and as Okinawa proved, the casualties from an invasion of Japan, both military and civilian, would have been astronomical. Even after the bombs were dropped, when the Emperor informed the military that he was going to surrender, there was a conspiracy among military officers to remove him and to keep fighting. I think it is difficult for us to appreciate the situation today.

    • Hythloday says:

      All good points Didymus. An understanding of the circumstances and situation does allow empathy for the decision makers (chances are pretty good I would have made the same or similar decision) and a diminishing – even removal – of culpability. Things get a little dicey though, when the objective morality is confused with the subjective culpability. I do think there may be an opportunity for an argument based on the principle of double-effect, but I have never heard anyone make it.

      • Didymus says:

        I think the double-effect question in war is a very important one, to which I don’t have an answer. Case in point – Hamas attacking Israel from the middle of civilian populations. Can Israel morally respond, knowing there will be inevitable civilian casualties? How much collateral damage is acceptable? If we say none, we give Hamas free reign to attack Israel. I do think that most people involved with the dropping of the bombs would claim that the targets were chosen to destroy industrial capacity and to save lives on both sides by speeding the end of the war, and not to simply kill a bunch of civilians. It’s a safe bet that dropping the bombs did in fact save more lives than they took. However, I am deeply ambivalent about the decision due to the choice of targets, and also from not being chronologically proximate to the event, although as you say, that is more an issue of culpability than objective morality.

  2. Spaniard says:

    As you point out, Hythloday, this topic is rich with potential to explore the dilemma of use of force. What I wonder is whether the decision to drop the A-bomb per se is really the dispute? Or is it, rather, whether bombs should be dropped on civilian targets? – in which case I would certainly want to discuss if and how strongly can a committed populace be considered “innocent” civilians. (clearly, in any event, children are innocent)

    I guess my point is that I believe, in the spirit of looking at moral principles instead of post-facto justifications, the sin was participating in “total war” involving significant targeting of civilians in the first place. Although certainly practiced prior to WWII, and at some level probably for all time, the scale of total war in my opinion accelerated rapidly in WWII.

    If we say that specific targeting of civilians, including children, in order to cause terror and surrender is morally wrong then we’re in complete agreement. If we say that the decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was morally wrong simply because it was nuclear and not an equivalent conventional bomb load, I can’t yet agree that the weapon type creates the moral wrong. But this doesn’t mean I cannot be moved by further arguments, and scotch.

    As you say: those damned bombs.

  3. Timshel says:

    This will likely show some naivete and lack of philosophical and theological training on my part, but issues like this one generally cause me to struggle to articulate a clear stand, and to instead pray for forgiveness for our ignorance of God’s will in such cases. It seems to me that, in circumstances like Didymus outlines, it would be difficult to conceive of losing (or not securing victory/continuing to fight with massive casualties) on principle. Everything Didymus says makes sense to me…and yet…I cannot conceive that causing such massive devastation and death was not, in some way, a serious sin — a failure to love as God loves — Him who sacrificed Himself for the world.

    I have often thought that, were I ever put in the situation in which I had to take a life in order to defend my own or my family — no matter how apparently justified — I would hurry to Confession and pray for forgiveness for whatever part I played that led to such a damnable action. Perhaps this is like that: We have done what we thought was best, knowing that it falls far short of You. Forgive us, O Lord.

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