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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?

Is Preemptive War Ever Justified? Iran, Calvin and Just War Theory

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 placed the question of the morality of preemptive war at the forefront of discussions about just war theory. The primary legal justification offered by the Bush administration for the war was that Saddam Hussein was developing a weapons program in violation of legal constraints put in place after the 1991 Iraq War, and in violation of UN resolutions. The moral argument rested on the claim of the United States and other nations that if Saddam developed weapons of mass destruction, he would most certainly use them against Israel, the United States, or other countries. He had used such weapons in the past. Why wait for a smoking gun – an entirely avoidable catastrophe – to justify intervention in the present?

Of course, U.S. intelligence turned out to be wrong about the state of Iraq’s WMD program. It didn’t take long for the administration’s justification to shift its emphasis to a theme that had always been offered as a subsidiary justification for war – Saddam’s oppressive treatment of his people. Looking back, it seems, few non-politically aligned just war theorists defend the U.S. invasion as having been morally  justified.

But the question of the morality of preemptive war has not gone away. Indeed, with Iran allegedly on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration has warned – emphatically – that it will use force, if necessary, to prevent that event. Iranian leaders, such as current president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, have spoken menacingly of wiping Israel off the map. At the very least a nuclear Iran would radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East – for the worse.


What should Christians think of preemptive war, sometimes referred to in recent years as the “Bush Doctrine”? Christian just war theorists have consistently maintained that war is only justified as a last resort, and when necessary for self-defense, national security, or basic justice. They have generally assumed – and often insisted – that the existence of a hostile power, including the capacity of such a power to do great damage – does not meet this requirement.

John Calvin is no exception. In his commentary on the Torah he uses the story of the Egyptian pharaoh’s ‘preemptive’ genocide of Jewish male children (Exodus 1:9) to observe that nations almost always defend their unjust wars on the basis of the claim that their opponent is a threat to their own security. Very rarely does an aggressor openly acknowledge itself to be such. To “be beforehand in crime,” Calvin observes,

is commonly considered the best mode of precaution, so that only those are accounted provident who consult for their own security by injuring others, if occasion requires it. From this source almost all wars proceed, because while every prince fears his neighbor, this fear so fills him with apprehension that he does not hesitate to cover the earth with human blood.

Calvin extends the observation to relations between individuals, then condemns the mode of reasoning in both cases:

But this is a wicked kind of cunning (however it may be varnished over with the specious name of foresight), unjustly to molest others for our own security. I fear this or that person because he both has the means of injuring me, and I am uncertain of his disposition towards me. Therefore, in order that I may be safe from harm, I will endeavor by every possible means to oppress him… If thus every one should indulge his own distrust, while each will be devising to do some injury to his possible enemies, there will be no end to iniquities… For when we have once determined to provide for our own advantage, or quiet, or safety, we ask not the question whether we are doing right or wrong.

To be sure, the world has changed quite a bit since Calvin wrote these words. War is both less common and more distant for us than it was for Calvin. At the same time, it is far more destructive and potentially catastrophic. Nuclear weapons and terrorism raise questions that 16th century imperial invasions, territorial rivalries, and religious persecution did not. I do not think classic just war theory can be invoked simplistically to condemn the possible use of military force against an internationally condemned rogue power like Iran.

That said, it is not irrelevant either. Calvin’s observation that doctrines of preemptive war are the basis for almost all wars remains soberingly true. Just think of the great conflicts of the 20th Century. From the absurdity and bungling that led Europe into World War I to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and later the Soviet Union, from Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to the Soviet Union’s placement of nuclear weapons in Cuba, aggressive powers have always claimed that their military actions were necessary to preempt the far more catastrophic attack of an opponent.

The problem with the doctrine of preemptive war, as Calvin rightly notes, is that it is simply too open-ended. Virtually any rival or power can be deemed to be a threat needing to be preempted. Tension alone becomes justification for violent self-defense. A state of crisis becomes inseparable from a state of war.

On the other hand, we can all imagine scenarios in which a preemptive strike seems clearly to be justified. Israel’s attack on Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967 is one widely cited example.

What principles might be brought to bear to distinguish a legitimate preemptive strike from the vast majority of such strikes that underlie most unjust wars? How imminent must the threat be, before a preemptive strike is morally justified? And how do we be sure that we are not inventing these principles so as to justify the war we want to have, rather than to serve as a relatively objective form of self-criticism that might actually shape our actions? Is the potential development of nuclear weapons by a new power (an ever more pervasive phenomena) sufficient? I have a hard time with this, given that it is unclear morally why one group of nations should be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, while preventing another group of nations from doing the same.

Does the agreement of the international community, represented by the United Nations, justify a preemptive strike? In the end the United States lacked such support for its invasion of Iraq. The UN is a problematic institution that is itself politicized and subject to uneven control by conflicting major world powers. Its legitimacy and efficacy is highly contested, and when national security is on the line, few powerful nations like the United States (or Israel) will cede to it veto power over the use of military force. Yet it may be the closest thing the world has to an objective international body that can arbitrate between legitimate and illegitimate justifications for preemptive war.

In the final analysis each nation, each government, makes these calls for itself, accountable to God. But as critics of just war theory point out, the theory has far too often been used simply as a form of moral self-justification than as a genuine means of testing policy options. The task of just war theorists, indeed, of all who deem themselves in a measure morally responsible for the actions of their government, is to face the moral question somewhat more honestly. For this reason, and in this time, we need to come to grips with the difficult problem of preemptive war. The question, as Calvin notes, is not whether or not we believe a war to be in our national interest. The question is whether our actions are just.

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