The Failure to Question the bombing of Hiroshima means that nuclear war is more likely
The New Yorker has reprinted this remarkable John Hersey essay about survivors from Hiroshima. Until it was published in 1946, the American public had very little idea of what had taken place.
Seventy years after the bombing, there is strikingly little reflection on the morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks. NPR this morning carried a report about a historian who has researched the secret military committee that chose Hiroshima as the target. He described approvingly how one factor had been apparently that they wanted to deter future war by demonstrating the bomb’s effectiveness, especially since the H-bomb, which they knew would be ready within a few years, was so much worse. This was one reason they chose a populated area rather than, for instance, Tokyo Bay, which was also considered as a potential target.
This circular and utterly inhuman logic was originated by Edward Teller (a truly awful man, by the way). Neither the reporter nor the historian questioned this amoral calculus which, in due time, led to the equally inhuman logic of nuclear strategies which persist to this day. American and, we presume, Russian and Chinese nuclear strategy still posits the large-scale use of nuclear weapons. Thousands of missiles remain primed for this mission, ready to be launched within minutes. The Brits and French are prepared to fire theirs off too, should such a conflagration occur. Important to demonstrate of course that they are still world “powers”.
India, Pakistan and Israel each possess enough nuclear weapons that alone could likely bring about the end of humanity. In none of these cases is the national nuclear “doctrine” discussed or elaborated, so we have no idea of the circumstances under which any of these countries would use such weapons. (In the case of the US, Russia, France and UK, by contrast, we have some theoretical – and it is purely theoretical – understanding of the doctrine of use which – again in theory – is supposed to mean that the actual use is less likely to be triggered…). In Israel’s case, we don’t even know how many or what weapons they have.
Meanwhile, baffingly, President Obama is presented as pro-disarmament, when in fact the only meaningful decision of his presidency on this score has been to initiate the wholesale modernisation of America’s arsenal, at the staggering cost of $986 billion, a decision which, in turn, has helped Putin justify the large-scale modernisation of Russia’s weapons, including the deployment of new classes of missile submarines and massive mobile ICBM launchers. Just as the NY Times and others celebrate Obama’s diplomatic “victory” in Iran, while overlooking arms sales to despotic regimes in Egypt (just restarted, in case you missed it), the true record of this “disarmament President” is consistently ignored.
It is perhaps no coincidence that other realities of nuclear weapons are also ignored, including the mortifying incidence of accidents and near-catastrophes (chronicled in Eric Schlosser’s recent book), but above all, the realities of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just as you will hear very little discussion in Britain about the war crime of carpet bombing German cities when all military need had evaporated, today in America, questioning of the nuclear devastation of Japanese cities is the preserve of a few brave leftists, like Greg Mitchell, Chomsky and others. Mainstream America doesn’t want to hear it, preferring the simplistic exculpatory narrative that there was no choice to end the war. In case the reader too is tempted by this narrative, remember that never in history have leaders had “no choice”. And when the choice was to incinerate hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians then there is an inescapable obligation to question.
The past informs the present. Until there is honesty and self-criticism about what were, without doubt, war crimes of a truly massive scale, we cannot really expect any questioning of the lunacy of today’s nuclear strategy. Don’t give me that crap about how we cannot understand what it was like for people then; that is what the study and discussion of history is for. We make moral judgements about past actions all the time. It’s astonishing that the use of nuclear bombs is somehow treated as an exception.
One day, human beings will look back on our current generation as one of the most feckless and foolish ever. Risking catastrophic global warming is one thing. But at least that issue is debated. The other method by which humanity can destroy itself and the planet – and much more swiftly – is barely mentioned. The total failure of nuclear powers to live up to their treaty commitments to disarm fully is likewise completely ignored. Why? The refusal to question self-serving history is surely part of the answer. As long as Americans, and many others, regard the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as somehow “good” or at least unavoidable, then one cannot expect proper discussion of how to avoid the possibility of it happening again.