Thursday, August 6, 2009

Understanding Hiroshima

Caption: Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was set off there on August 6, 1945

Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

Sixty-four years ago today, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Since I just wrote today about what history can teach us about war, I was especially interested to find out about this poll, although I was by no means surprised:

Quinnipiac University recently asked more than 2,400 registered voters, "Do you think the United States did the right thing or the wrong thing by dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?"

Sixty-one percent of those polled said they believed the bomb was the right thing. Twenty-two percent called it wrong. Sixteen percent were undecided.

But here's where it gets interesting.

The poll's findings suggest that Americans' opinion of the bombing depends on their age, gender, ethnicity and political groundings.

Seventy-three percent of voters older than 55 approved of the decision, and only 50% of voters ages 18 to 34 approved. Seventy-four percent of Republicans said the bombings were a good idea, and 49% of Democrats said so. Seventy-two percent of men approved and 51% of women agreed.

Sixty-four Years After Hiroshima, Opinion Of The bombings Is Mixed

Caption: This memorial park is like Arlington National Cemetary in VA. However this is for 100 thousand civilian casualties as well as 100 thousand military.

Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, Okinawa

Image credit: tata_aka_T [Spelling corrected and link added by Cujo359]

At the time, we had been at war with Japan for nearly four years. The invasion of Okinawa had just concluded. It cost over 12,000 Allied dead, most of them American, and hundreds of thousands of Japanese casualties, mostly civilians. The Navy lost more dead in support of the invasion than it did at Pearl Harbor, our greatest naval defeat. According to that Wikipedia entry, roughly one quarter of Okinawa's civilian population died. Many committed suicide, others died resisting Allied soldiers in one way or another. Global Security notes:

Japanese human losses were enormous: 107,539 soldiers killed and 23,764 sealed in caves or buried by the Japanese themselves; 10,755 captured or surrendered. The Japanese lost 7,830 aircraft and 16 combat ships. Since many Okinawan residents fled to caves where they subsequently were entombed the precise number of civilian casualties will probably never be known, but the lowest estimate is 42,000 killed. Somewhere between one-tenth and one-fourth of the civilian population perished, though by some estimates the battle of Okinawa killed almost a third of the civilian population. According to US Army records during the planning phase of the operation, the assumption was that Okinawa was home to about 300,000 civilians. At the conclusion of hostilities around 196,000 civilians remained. However, US Army figures for the 82 day campaign showed a total figure of 142,058 civilian casualties, including those killed by artillery fire, air attacks and those who were pressed into service by the Japanese army.

Battle Of Okinawa

One of the reasons for the large number of civilian casualties is that many committed suicide, rather than experience an Allied occupation that they were taught to fear:

"In many cases, hand grenades, which were in extreme shortage, were distributed to residents," Masahide Ota, an Okinawan who fought with the Japanese Army's Blood and Iron Student Corps, said in an interview. "I heard people say they were told by the military to commit suicide using the grenades rather than becoming captives."

1945 Suicide Order Still A Trauma On Okinawa

The America and our allies knew that we were facing a fanatical enemy. Unfortunately, fanatics are tough to persuade. Historian, author, and Okinawa veteran William Manchester wrote:

Okinawa lies 330 miles southwest of the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu; before the war, it was Japanese soil. Had there been no atom bombs - and at that time the most powerful Americans, in Washington and at the Pentagon, doubted that the device would work - the invasion of the Nipponese homeland would have been staged from Okinawa, beginning with a landing on Kyushu to take place Nov. 1. The six Marine divisions, storming ashore abreast, would lead the way. President Truman asked Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose estimates of casualties on the eve of battles had proved uncannily accurate, about Kyushu. The general predicted a million Americans would die in that first phase.

The Bloodiest Battle Of All

Given the carnage of Okinawa, it's hard to argue with that estimate. Kyushu is only one of the islands in the Japanese chain, and not the most populous. Given that perhaps twenty Japanese died for every Allied soldier on Okinawa, it stands to reason that millions of Japanese would have died as well. The choice before President Truman was either to destroy more Japanese cities in the hope of preventing another tragic campaign, or to avoid bombing those cities and perhaps risk even higher casualties on all sides. That choice couldn't have been easy. It certainly shouldn't have been.

Note that I wrote "more Japanese cities". One of the things that fascinates me about our discussion of the atomic bombs is that people often assume these were somehow aberrant events. We had already firebombed Tokyo, killing at least as many people as died at Hiroshima. We firebombed most major Japanese cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted for atomic weapons largely because they'd been left untouched. The main difference between an atomic weapon and our raids on other Japanese cities was the number of aircraft required to deliver it.

Yet I've never heard of a poll about what people think of that.

We certainly weren't the first to target civilian areas. In fact, of the major protagonists, we were among the last. The Japanese, Germans, and British all got there ahead of us. But in the end, we did it, too.

So, once again we see that what we think about a situation is heavily influenced by how much we know about it. Those who lived with the situation were generally in favor of it. This quote from William Manchester's article may serve to explain that:

Given the assumption that nuclear weapons would contribute nothing to victory, the battle of Okinawa had to be fought. No one doubted the need to bring Japan to its knees. But some Americans came to hate the things we had to do, even when convinced that doing them was absolutely necessary; they had never understood the bestial, monstrous and vile means required to reach the objective - an unconditional Japanese surrender. As for me, I could not reconcile the romanticized view of war that runs like a red streak through our literature - and the glowing aura of selfless patriotism that had led us to put our lives at forfeit - with the wet, green hell from which I had barely escaped. Today, I understand. I was there, and was twice wounded.

The Bloodiest Battle Of All

Manchester's article is a recounting of his experiences there. It is sad, angry, and often rather gory. If you are ready to condemn our use of atomic weapons during that war, you owe it to yourself to read it, especially if you want to discuss your opinions with me. For my part, I'm not completely sure it was necessary. I don't think it's possible to be completely sure, but at the same time it seemed like the better of the choices available. Two more monstrous acts in a long series of monstrous acts, or one more long, dreadful campaign - no choice was a good one. We certainly shouldn't be proud of that choice, but at the same time I don't think we need to feel shame.

This quote from Manchester may explain why as well as anything:

The character of combat has always been determined by the weapons available to men when their battles were fought. In the beginning they were limited to hand weapons - clubs, rocks, swords, lances. At the Battle of Camlann in 539, England's Arthur - a great warrior, not a king - led a charge that slew 930 Saxons, including their leader.

It is important to grasp the fact that those 930 men were not killed by snipers, grenades or shells. The dead were bludgeoned or stabbed to death, and we have a pretty good idea how this was done. One of the facts withheld from [American] civilians during World War II was that Kabar fighting knives, with seven-inch blades honed to such precision that you could shave with them, were issued to Marines and that we were taught to use them. You never cut downward. You drove the point of your blade into a man's lower belly and ripped upward. In the process, you yourself became soaked in the other man's gore. After that charge at Camlann, Arthur must have been half-drowned in blood.

The Bloodiest Battle Of All

[link added]

Violent death is nearly always painful and tragic. Modern industrial wars of the sort we were fighting then cannot continue without the weapons and supplies that an undamaged industrial country can produce. That can't excuse atrocity, but choosing not to commit one in the face of this knowledge is what we (usually) expect our leaders to do. We owe it to ourselves and our societies to know what we're asking them to do, and why.


TSlice said...

Hopefully nuclear weapons will never be used again.

Cujo359 said...

Hopefully, but one of the lessons you can draw from what I wrote is that as memories fade about how horrible an all-out war is, the more likely it is that we'll experience another one. During the Cold War, all the major powers were led either by people who experienced WWII, or their children. As new generations of leaders emerge, the collective knowledge of such things will gradually disappear.

In short, I'm less optimistic about this than I was twenty years ago.