You shall not murder. Exodus 20:13, NRSV
Set the politics aside for this one.
The President’s historic visit to Hiroshima, something which was long overdue and needed to happen, was not an apology. That’s been a common criticism, but the critics need to set aside their politics and pay attention to what happened, and what was said. Criticism of, and obstruction of this President has become so commonplace, that reason has been a hard goal to reach. I watched the entire event twice. Let it be what it was. It was a well stated position which, more than seventy years after the fact, recognizes the bombing realistically, set in the perspective of the most destructive conflict in human history, and points to the need for peace and away from war as the means to resolve problems between nations. Any of the last four Presidents could have done the same thing, and would most likely have made similar comments. President Obama’s visit was non-political, and its significance needs to be considered in light of what it really was, and it’s not about whether you like his politics or agree with his presidency.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki taught humanity a lesson. We were at the end of a long, drawn out, and costly war, costly not only in terms of resources, but in terms of the number of lives lost, and the especially high percentage of civilian, non-combatant casualties, mostly due to the air war. Initially, there was fear that Hitler would push his German scientists to build what his propagandists constantly promoted as “wonder weapons.” The Germans were much further along in the nuclear development process than either the Americans or British, and if Hitler had got his hands on an atomic bomb, it would have been a very critical and grave situation for his neighbors. As it turned out, his racial policy and his hatred of Jews drove out many scientists who came to the United States and helped accelerate our development of it.
Building the atom bomb was certainly not without consideration of what might happen if it should be used. No one really knew. The escalation of a long war against dictators who were committed to the principle of “total war” pushed development of the bomb, and limited speculation about what would happen if it ever were used. Those who are quick to criticize need to understand that for the better part of the four years that the US was engaged in World War 2, the prospects for an Allied victory were not great, and no one really knew what the outcome would be. The development and almost immediate use of the atom bomb were just an extended progression of horror, and advancing a threshold that had been moving in that direction for years.
In all fairness, the thresholds of morality and ethics when it came to dropping bombs on civilian non-combatants behind the lines in cities were broken by the dictatorships early on in the war. The Japanese built a bomber fleet with the intention of using it against designated enemies to build their “Co-Prosperity Sphere” in Southeast Asia, and had been dropping explosives and incendiary firebombs on the Chinese for several years before the Germans copied their air force strategy, building a heavy bombing fleet instead of a fighter force, and turned it loose on Poland in 1939. Several hundred thousand civilians had died, and acres and acres of cities in China and Eastern Europe had been laid waste before the Japanese navy sent their aircraft carriers west, and destroyed Pearl Harbor. Technology changed the rules of war, and the change happened at a time when madmen had the power to change it.
War is a symptom of a fallen world. Think about it. As far as human civilization has advanced, by the time World War 2 came around, even with the experience of a previous war that had been more destructive than any prior to it, the same old, unresolved human problems were still seething beneath the surface. Unfortunately, human advances in science and technology had gone further than human wisdom was able to handle. Prejudice, jealousy, oppression, and hatred were fed by selfishness and greed, and the technology became a weapon to be used with the deadly intention of forcing people to bend to it. If you want any more proof of the Bible’s contention that humanity is fallen, and is incapable, through its own wisdom and reason, of saving itself, the fact that the most destrictive war in human history happened at a time when the educated and powerful had determined that society had reached the apex of reason is clear evidence of Biblical truth.
“Defending righteousness makes us feel virtuous, even as we undertake that which is utterly lacking in virtue.” Phillip Gulley, “Living the Quaker Way”
The Japanese and Germans were both influenced by philosophies that led their people to believe they were superior to other nationalities and races. So crossing this ethical threshold in war, by using their advanced weapons to destroy other countries, diminish their ability to defend themselves and walk in and help themselves to the resources was justifiable. The fact that the United States was defending most of those people, and perhaps ourselves too, should not lead us to believe that we are better people than those against whom we fought, and thus buy into the same moral bankruptcy that they accepted. It is understandable that in order to win the war and defend people from exploitation, we had to fight it with the same tactics as the enemy, which included terror bombing of cities full of civilian non-combatants, and the burning and destruction of cultural monuments and historical icons like Dresden, Wurzburg, and Vienna, and Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. But we haven’t learned the lesson if we consider Hiroshima and Nagasaki as retaliation for Pearl Harbor. That gets into measuring the value of American lives and casualties by the numbers against the nameless, faceless Japanese people who were incinerated by an atom bomb. There’s no quid pro quo here. That’s what Hiroshima teaches us.
Let’s not get on a moral high horse here. While there are those among us who are bothered by the fact that the United States remains the only nation in the world to use a nuclear weapon in combat, twice, and bothered by the whole air war and bombing campaign, there are plenty of others who simply see that giving back to the Germans and Japanese what they had done to their weaker enemies, and what the Japanese in particular did to us at Pearl Harbor, Corregidor, and Bataan, was the right thing to do, and that they, collectively, deserved what happened to them. If there’s any glory to claim, it should be done with a repentant attitude, realizing that we do indeed have the ability to avoid ever having to do something like this again, and we should take every advantage of every opportunity that affords itself to us to do so.
Technology isn’t moving backward. So human wisdom must be coupled with a higher power, the wisdom of God, in order to avoid any more Hiroshimas.