Friday, August 21, 2015

Thinking About the Unthinkable

Christian Appy: America's Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 Years Later: On Aug. 6, 1945, the US obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima with a single bomb. Three days later they repeated that feat with Nagasaki, demonstrating that the "total war" that had been fought for the past six years (actually, longer in China) would turn much more destructive in the future. Japan surrendered a couple weeks later, pretty much on terms they had (too discreetly) proposed in the weeks before Hiroshima: clearer messages could have spared us all the ordeal of nuclear warfare (but then mutual respect and understanding might have spared us so much more). I know people who every year mark the anniversary of Hiroshima with vigils, not because they remember the 100,000+ victims there any different than the other 60 million lives the war took. They mark Hiroshima because the weapon the US introduced there still looms over us with its threat to instantly devastate life as we know it. And they mark it because our own nation -- not the only one to possess such weapons but the only one to have actually used them on an "enemy" people -- has still not demonstrated the maturity and modesty necessary to put the age of nuclear terror behind us. Two pieces of evidence here: one is that the US, despite having negotiated a deal (the NPT) where the world's nuclear powers promise to dismantle their arsenals in exchange for the rest of the world pledging to never develop such weapons, continues to build new bombs and formulate war plans assuming their use; the other is that the US has engaged in conventional and guerrilla warfare almost continuously since WWII ended, using its nuclear weapons as an umbrella for an empire of bases that girdle the world, allowing the US to poke its nose into nearly every country around the world (and shun the few -- at least the little ones -- that deny its hegemony). Or maybe the second is just the reason and effect of the first. Another way to phrase the second is that the US has repeatedly failed to support international efforts to resolve conflicts (especially its own) without resorting to war. So where many thought the advent of nuclear weapons would make further wars unthinkable, American defense mandarins not only embraced the horror -- the classic is Herman Kahn's Thinking About the Unthinkable -- but have resuscitated the concept of limited war and applied it repeatedly (even though they've virtually never achieved their stated goals).

I understand and appreciate anti-nuclear protesters, especially in the 1960s (which led to the Test Ban Treaty and the NPT) and in the 1980s (which led to several arms reduction treaties between the US and USSR). I also fully appreciate that Japan would have surrendered in 1945 regardless of whether the US bombed Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Nonetheless, those bombings don't bother me more than the rest of the war. I feel that it was inevitable that the bombs would be used once developed, and the end of WWII was as appropriate as any time could be: they were the icing on the cake, as if the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo weren't enough, or the German death camps, or the Rape of Nanking, or the starvation of Bengals far from the fighting lines. They remind us, among other things, that by the end of the war the US had descended to the barbarity of its enemies -- that indeed the real enemy was war, and that it had morally crippled those it didn't kill outright. That realization gave rise to the UN as a forum for preventing future wars -- a failure nearly from the start, but at least the fear of another Hiroshima many times over, of what came to be called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), forced powers with no good will whatsoever to pull back from brinksmanship. Arguably, nuclear deterrence also thwarted a fourth India-Pakistan war in 2002, and has kept Israel safe from attack since 1973 -- no Arab nation even thinks of such a thing, even though Israel continues to strike Syria whenever it feels like it. I think it's fair to say deterrence works, but also that its driving force is fear, the effect of which is to preserve and nurture hostility or worse: our so-called "limited wars."

Appy does a good job of reviewing Truman's "decision" to bomb Hiroshima:

Truman understood, of course, that if Hiroshima was a "military base," then so was Seattle; that the vast majority of its residents were civilians; and that perhaps 100,000 of them had already been killed. Indeed, he knew that Hiroshima was chosen not for its military significance but because it was one of only a handful of Japanese cities that had not already been firebombed and largely obliterated by American air power. U.S. officials, in fact, were intent on using the first atomic bombs to create maximum terror and destruction. They also wanted to measure their new weapon's power and so selected the "virgin targets" of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed Truman of his fear that, given all the firebombing of Japanese cities, there might not be a target left on which the atomic bomb could "show its strength" to the fullest. According to Stimson's diary, Truman "laughed and said he understood." [ . . . ]

By 1945, most Americans didn't care that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not committed Japan's war crimes. American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of "yellow peril" racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of "savages" -- "ruthless, merciless, and fanatic" people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true "civilians" and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America's willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William "Bull" Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, "The only good Jap is a Jap who's been dead six months."

Appy also writes about changing American attitudes to Hiroshima, which most recently appear to have hardened. For example, he writes about Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 bestseller, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption:

The book is decidedly a page-turner, but its focus on a single American's punishing ordeal and amazing recovery inhibits almost any impulse to move beyond the platitudes of nationalistic triumphalism and self-absorption or consider (among other things) the racism that so dramatically shaped American combat in the Pacific. That, at least, is the impression you get combing through some of the astonishing 25,000 customer reviews Unbroken has received on Amazon. "My respect for WWII veterans has soared," a typical reviewer writes. "Thank you Laura Hillenbrand for loving our men at war," writes another. It is "difficult to read of the inhumanity of the treatment of the courageous men serving our country." And so on.

Unbroken devotes a page and a half to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, all of it from the vantage point of the American crew of the Enola Gay. Hillenbrand raises concerns about the crew's safety: "No one knew for sure if . . . the bomber could get far enough away to survive what was coming." She describes the impact of the shockwaves, not on the ground, but at 30,000 feet when they slammed into the Enola Gay, "pitching the men into the air."

Also see Susan Southard: Entering the Nuclear Age, Body by Body, on the bombing of Nagasaki -- adapted from her new book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. The second bomb has been much less documented than the first -- Southard seems to be aiming for a belated companion to John Hersey's first-on-the-scene reporting in Hiroshima. Lest you forget the immediate experience:

The five-ton plutonium bomb plunged toward the city at 614 miles per hour. Forty-seven seconds later, a powerful implosion forced its plutonium core to compress from the size of a grapefruit to the size of a tennis ball, generating a nearly instantaneous chain reaction of nuclear fission. With colossal force and energy, the bomb detonated a third of a mile above the Urakami Valley and its 30,000 residents and workers, a mile and a half north of the intended target. At 11:02 a.m., a superbrilliant flash lit up the sky -- visible from as far away as Omura Naval Hospital more than 10 miles over the mountains -- followed by a thunderous explosion equal to the power of 21,000 tons of TNT. The entire city convulsed.

At its burst point, the center of the explosion reached temperatures higher than at the center of the sun, and the velocity of its shock wave exceeded the speed of sound. A tenth of a millisecond later, all of the materials that had made up the bomb converted into an ionized gas, and electromagnetic waves were released into the air. The thermal heat of the bomb ignited a fireball with an internal temperature of over 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Within one second, the blazing fireball expanded from 52 feet to its maximum size of 750 feet in diameter. Within three seconds, the ground below reached an estimated 5,400 to 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Directly beneath the bomb, infrared heat rays instantly carbonized human and animal flesh and vaporized internal organs.

As the atomic cloud billowed two miles overhead and eclipsed the sun, the bomb's vertical blast pressure crushed much of the Urakami Valley. Horizontal blast winds tore through the region at two and a half times the speed of a category five hurricane, pulverizing buildings, trees, plants, animals, and thousands of men, women, and children. In every direction, people were blown out of their shelters, houses, factories, schools, and hospital beds; catapulted against walls; or flattened beneath collapsed buildings.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were simple kiloton-range devices. The fusion-powered bombs first tested in the early 1950s were as much as a thousand times more powerful. J. Robert Oppenheimer famously argued against developing fusion bombs because the real-world targets were too small. Edward Teller was able to convince the US military not only to go ahead but to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance, excluding him from future influence. With hawks like Teller clearing out all possible opposition, it shouldn't be surprising that virtually every proposal of a pre-emptive nuclear strike came from the US. Until the Soviet Union developed its own bomb, many hard-core anti-communists agitated for "preventive war." When American efforts in Korea stalled and Vietnam went from bad to worse, many hawks saw nukes as a way to snatch victory from defeat. Nixon's version of this was what he called his "Madman Strategy": the idea was to convince the Soviets that he was so crazed he'd risk destroying the world to avoid losing Vietnam. By the 1980s, Andropov was so unnerved by America's "first strike" threats that the Soviets almost started a nuclear war by accident. Even recently, the US was promoting the idea of nuclear bombs as "bunker busters" to "take out" deeply buried infrastructure in Iran and North Korea. In fact, every time an American politician makes a point about "not taking options off the table," the world hears a threat to use nuclear weapons. No wonder the US is so flustered by Iran: every time we look at them, we see a mirror image of the US. (Israel, of course, has the same problem.)

Ask a question, or send a comment.