Hiroshima, 70 Years Later: My Country Right or Wrong?

Today is the seventieth anniversary of Hiroshima. On this day, seventy years ago, the United States used an atomic bomb in warfare for the first time in history. Another would follow, dropped on Nagasaki three days later. It is no exaggeration to say that since that time the world has been fixated on making sure that no nuclear weapon is ever used again. At this very time the American Congress debates whether or not to support President Obama’s recent agreement with Iran, designed to prevent Iran from attaining the capability the United States already used against Japan a lifetime ago.

The single bomb used on this day, August 6, was not used against a military target. It was dropped on an urban area, a major population center with hundreds of thousands of civilians, including the elderly, women, and children. Some 85,000 people were killed either instantly or within the first day. Many, many more died in the days and months following. Within four months the death toll reached as high as 165,000, the vast majority of whom were civilians. For the survivors, that was just the beginning of the ordeal.

As one who experienced it writes today,

As a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb.

Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 kilometers from Ground Zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help. As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the centre of the city. Grotesquely wounded people, whose clothes were tattered, or who were made naked by the blast. They were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with their intestines hanging out….

Of a population of 360,000 — largely non-combatant women, children and elderly — most became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. As of now, over 250,000 victims have perished in Hiroshima from the effects of the blast, heat and radiation. 70 years later, people are still dying from the delayed effects of one atomic bomb, considered crude by today’s standard for mass destruction.

Many Americans are as convinced that the United States was right in using the atomic bomb against Japan as they are that the United States has the right to bomb Iran in order to prevent it from developing the same capability. The two situations are hardly the same, of course, and there are sophisticated arguments in defense of each position. But quite often, I fear, the opinion stems from little more than an instinct that amounts to “My country, right or wrong.”

In fact, both arguments – that the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and that the United States is justified in bombing Iran should it develop nuclear weapons today – are flatly contradictory to classic Christian just war theory. This is hard for patriotic American Christians to admit, but it is no less clear for that.

During the 1940s, it is true, Japan was a dangerous, imperialistic aggressor that had rashly launched the United States, Asia, and the Pacific into World War II. Millions of innocent people paid for Japan’s imperialism with their lives, and many more suffered unspeakably. The U.S. government accurately reasoned that thousands of American soldiers would have to die to bring the Empire of the Sun to its knees. Given this scenario it is understandable that President Truman decided that it was better for many more Japanese people to die than for more American soldiers to die. But that does not make it right, nor does it lessen the horror of what America did.

It was a decision that emerged within the context of the Allied strategy used against both Germany and Japan during the final years of the war. Major cities were targeted because they contained hundreds of thousands of civilians. They were carpet bombed and firebombed. The Allied strategy was not only to destroy the Axis powers’ military and industrial capacity; it was to terrorize their populations into refusing to support the war effort. The culmination of a long road of military reasoning that began with General William Tecumseh Sherman’s determination to make the people of Georgia know that “War is hell,” it was a blatant violation of the just war principle that says that innocent civilians are never to be targeted with lethal force in military operations. It was rationalized by the assumption that it was justified by in the context of civilization-threatening Total War.

The Cold War showed us just where this attitude toward Total War could lead; the attitude itself threatens civilization. In recent decades¬†America’s approach to war has shifted accordingly. The United States military worked hard not to target civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the motivation for the invasion of Iraq and the potential use of military force against Iran are driven by the determination to secure the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But the irony is that this determination has led to a new violation of just war theory, a violation of the principle that war is only to be waged when necessary to defend a nation from an aggressor that is already in the act of waging war or some commensurate injustice. This violation is rationalized based on the principle, first clearly articulated by President Bush’s administration, that preemptive war is sometimes necessary to prevent an aggressor from waging war before it begins. Once again, it is assumed that this course of action is necessary in order to preserve civilization from otherwise imminent destruction.

My point is not to reduce our memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to its relevance for present day policy (though we can’t afford to ignore its lessons). These events – and the people who suffered from them – should be commemorated in their own right. But one of the appropriate ways to commemorate them is to reflect on the consequences of human sin – the sheer depths of evil to which nations can fall even when they are acting according to what they deem the purist motives and the obliterating destruction with which humanity is now threatened on a permanent basis.

Does God see it? Does God care about this and other injustices? How long, O Lord? The answer to the problem of evil remains unsolved, but God has made it clear what side he is on. He hears the oppressed and he answers their cry. He judges evil, though not ultimately in the way that we might expect. To paraphrase Ellie Wiesel, where was God at Auschwitz? He was on the gallows. Where was God at Hiroshima? He was among the charred remains, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

One hundred and sixty-five thousand human beings, each with their families, their stories, their hopes, their struggles. One bomb. And that’s what the good guys did. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t forget it. How long O Lord?

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 6, 2015, in Barack Obama, International Affairs, Just War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Hiroshima, 70 Years Later: My Country Right or Wrong?.

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