Hiroshima anniversary: what might have been
A few days from now will be the sixtieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The rightness of that decision is still being vigorously debated.
Here's an article from the Weekly Standard (hat tip: Austin Bay) countering the argument that the bombing was unnecessary because Japan was about to surrender anyway. It makes a fairly convincing case that intelligence of the time actually indicated that the opposite was true.
I grew up in the immediate postwar years with the knowledge of our dropping of the atomic bomb. As I've already written, fear of nuclear war colored the childhood of most in my generation. That fear wasn't simply a fear of the Soviets and what they might do; it was also a fear of what America had already done.
I was very young--perhaps twelve or so--when I read the book Hiroshima by John Hersey. It terrified and sickened me. The descriptions of the suffering of the innocent residents of the city, going about their business on a summer day and either instantly incinerated or subject to horrific injuries and sights out of a Bosch painting, were nearly unendurable even in the reading. Multiplied in my mind's eye by many tens of thousands similarly suffering, they created a symphony of agony that reached such a crescendo it threatened to overwhelm me for a time.
Hersey's book purposely gives his reportage on Hiroshima no context at all, the better to appreciate the appalling human cost. He simply describes, and the reader identifies with the victims. There is no way to read his book and not feel a deep and visceral revulsion towards what happened there. Even learning (and believing) the justification for the bombing can never do away with the knowledge that the human cost was profound and almost unimaginable.
Hiroshima is an event of such huge significance that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it must be weighed against the most likely alternatives. But it seems almost obscene to do so in light of what actually happened there. How, in the balance of the scales, can such an overwhelmingly heavy reality be weighed against a projected alternative? The preponderance of the evidence now seems to argue that, without the bomb, the carnage would have been far worse. Projections are only best guesses, though; they can never be proven to have been inevitable.
So how can we judge that a projected alternative is worse than those horrors that we know actually did happen? The answer is that it takes a great deal of imagination to do so; the flesh-and-blood realities of Hershey's book are so vivid that they tend to block out all those other deaths that didn't happen but probably would have.
From my reading on the subject up to this point, I believe that the use of the bomb did in fact prevent far more deaths than not using it. But it's hard to wrap my mind around this fact; hard to know it. As I wrote here:
It is so very easy to criticize what is, what has actually been done. The resultant faults and flaws are right before our eyes. The world will always be imperfect; each action will create its own problems. But the even worse (perhaps far worse) things that might have happened but for those actions--those always remain invisible and unknowable, and can only be guessed at.
There's another aspect to criticism of the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, one that applies to many of those on the left who also have criticized our involvement in Iraq: they believe that the most important thing is to keep our (read: their) hands clean. Sins of commission are judged far more harshly than sins of omission for that reason. The deaths we cause (for whatever reasons, even primarily defensive ones) are considered far greater crimes than the deaths someone else would most likely have caused had we not done what we did. To a person with such a mindset, nothing could ever have justified being the agent of the suffering Hershey described, not even the prevention of far greater suffering.
[ADDENDUM: for further thoughts of mine on the subject of Hiroshima, see this and this.]