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 in discussing events such as this one. 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. You don’t have to look any further than the Second World War to see that humanity is fallen, as the Bible’s writers reveal. The fact that the most destructive and brutal war in history, caused by greed, inhumanity and racial and social prejudice, occurred at a time when most people would think that human civilization had advanced to its highest point is proof of that point.
“Defending righteousness makes us feel virtuous, even as we undertake that which is utterly lacking in virtue.” Phillip Gulley, “Living the Quaker Way”
The Nazi government of Germany, and the military dictatorship of Japan were both driven by “master race” philosophies. In their own way, connected to their own culture, they believed, and used their resources to promote and teach, the superiority of their own national and racial heritage over others who were considered inferior. It was a driving force in the actions of both countries which led to the initial start of the war. The United States initially stayed out of the conflict, in both Europe and Asia. The American people were frustrated by the Allied Powers’ lack of objectivity, and insistence upon feathering their own economic and political nest with the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and had adopted a policy of isolationism as a result. We largely ignored the Japanese invasion of China, and continued to sell oil and scrap metal to the Japanese military. When war broke out in Europe, President Roosevelt was far sighted enough to realize that the conflict could escalate, and that Nazi expansionist policy would eventually threaten the United States, but the people weren’t ready for another “European fracas.” By late 1941, the way things had developed had indeed rung the alarm bells, but even while the United States was contemplating “undertaking that which is virtually lacking in virtue,” that is, figuring out how to get into the war and answer the desperate request of the British for military help, the Japanese resolved the issue by attacking Pearl Harbor.
We must not make the same mistake by giving in to the philosophical mess that led Japan and Germany to believe the rest of the world was inferior, and to use that to motivate their people to support a global war against their neighbors. It’s tempting to justify acts of war by weighing the value of one race or nationality of humanity against another, but that is wrong. The American ideal that “all men are created equal” is rooted in scripture. America itself is a melting pot of culture, ethnic and racial diversity, national origin, and even religious belief, and that fact is a strength that has proven to be far more powerful in building national unity than any “master race” theory ever could. Yes, we suffered in World War 2. Somewhere around 420,000 Americans, almost all of them military personnel, were killed, and about 12,000 civilians, mostly merchant marines, also died. But there’s no quid pro quo here. Comparing the value of American lives to those of the Japanese or Germans, or any other enemy, puts you in the same philosophical category as the master race theorists. One of the lessons we’ve learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that we can’t go there.
The other lesson is, perhaps more valuable. Technology is moving forward with science, and with it has come the development of even more powerful, dangerous, and horrible weapons. The first atomic bomb leveled most of a large, industrial city, and killed 130,000 people within a few seconds of the flash of its explosion. Nagasaki fared better, because the hills that enclosed its city center protected most of its residential neighborhoods from the blast. But we have bombs available now that can travel on rockets to anywhere in the world in about 15 minutes time, and can wipe out whole metropolitan areas, destroy infrastructure, and create a wasteland that won’t support human life.
These things are in God’s hands, but he has given us his wisdom, and from it there are principles that we should be able to discern, regarding our very existence. One of those principles is that the weight of the value of human life, created in the image of God, is far greater than the ability that we have discovered which has the capacity to destroy us.
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Matthew 5:44-45, ESV