A Thought Experiment

At the Boston Globe, James Carroll has a very thoughtful column on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You might remember that the Hiroshima bombing occurred 64 years ago this week. Carroll does not defend the bombings — in his words, they were “a mistake and a crime” — but he acknowledges that people who were adults in 1945 saw the bombings very differently from those of us who know them from history books. However, he says that “To firmly regret atomic use in the past is to invite absolute renunciation of nuclear weapons in the present and future.” Firm regret is an imperative.

Within the spirit of firm regret I’d also like to see a little more — well, actually, a lot more — humility across the board regarding the bombings. Living memory of World War II is fading, and it’s unrealistic to expect people who have firmly held a point of view for many years to change it. But I think it would be very useful for those of us who came along later to be able to acknowledge that the decision to bomb Hiroshima was not as simple at the time as it seems to most of us today.

Please let me be clear that I am not defending the dropping of the bomb. However, I think if we could put ourselves in the places of the decision-makers of 1945 — knowing only what they knew, feeling what they felt — there are lessons to be learned that we have not learned from the way we remember Hiroshima.

Except on the extreme Right there is widespread consensus that the bomb should never be dropped again, and that’s good. But because we’ve enshrined the bombings of Hiroshima and Hagasaki as events apart from the course of ordinary history, we are not hearing everything the bombings are saying to us.

With the passage of time, events can take on symbolic meaning that obscures factual events and muddies the lessons we might have learned. We see this a lot on the Right, where historic figures become archetypes for virtues or faults that have little to do with reality. For example, Winston Churchill represents never-back-down resolve, when at times the real Churchill did advise backing down. The hapless Neville Chamberlain has been cast in the role of “liberal appeaser,” when in fact Chamberlain was a Conservative whose style of governing closely resembled that of George W. Bush.

My point is that people and events of history can, over time, take on symbolic meaning that can be considerably removed from the actual person or event, and these symbols are often made by our own projections more than by what the real historical person actually did or how the real historical event actually happened. And then the deeper lessons we might have learned are brushed aside in favor of our own biases.

It’s useful, I think, to acknowledge the atomic bomb today has taken on a symbolic meaning it didn’t have in 1945. Consider that possibly as many or more people had been killed in the March 1945 Tokyo firebombings, by conventional bombs dropped from B-52 29s, as would die in Hiroshima. Deaths in Japan from all conventional bombs dropped in the course of the war far exceeded the number of people killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the conventional bombings of Japan have passed from the collective consciousness of the American general public, and today “conventional bombing” lacks the metaphorical clout of “mushroom cloud.”

Indeed, some seem to have the attitude that conventional bombing isn’t that big a deal; it’s only nuclear bombing that is unthinkable. Is that the lesson we should be taking?

Let’s go back to 1945. It would be a few years, I believe, before the lingering danger of radioactive fallout would be fully appreciated. It would be a few years before it began to dawn on most people that full-scale thermonuclear war could wipe out our entire species. At the time, as far as most decision makers knew, what they had was a really big bomb with no more moral weight attached to it than any other bomb they had dropped already. Even many of the physicists didn’t seem to fully appreciate what it was they had made until after it was dropped.

And for those whose knowledge of the bloodbath in the Pacific was fresh, raw and oozing — not acted out heroically by John Wayne on the big screen — and who anticipated more months of hand-to-hand carnage, the bomb must have seemed the mother of all magic bullets.

Yes, there were military experts who believed the war could have been concluded as quickly without the bomb. But there were other experts, with titles just as impressive, with just as many stars on their shoulders and medals on their chests, who said otherwise. Would you have known which argument to believe in 1945? How would you have known?

I think it’s important to be able to acknowledge the decision was difficult, because otherwise we take no lessons from it that we can apply to other decisions. This applies to those who defend the decision to drop the bomb as much as to those who think the decision indefensible. It would be useful to suspend judgments and look at the decision, and the decision makers, dispassionately. What did they know? What did they not know? What were the reasons expressed at the time for dropping or not dropping the bomb? How might we know how and when the war would have ended had the bomb not been used? How much did bias and emotion effect the decision? What lessons can be taken from this (beyond “the bomb is bad”), and how can we apply those lessons to national security decisions being made today?

It may be that history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way. If the only lesson we take from Hiroshima is “don’t drop nuclear bombs,” what are we missing? The next magic bullet to come along and promise to end an intractable situation probably will not be a nuclear bomb, but something entirely different. When the decision is made whether to use that shiny new thing, will we have learned any lessons from Hiroshima?

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