Monday, August 9, 2010

A repost on this sad anniversary

I wanted to repost something I wrote three years ago at this time of the year.

There's been quite an argument going on at Mark Shea's (and elsewhere, I'm sure) about the morality of America's use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Let me be clear: I am firmly and irrevocably on the side of those who say, without nuance, that our use of these weapons to destroy over a hundred thousand people, most of them civilians, to force Japan to an unconditional surrender (when, in fact, the Japanese had made overtures already for a surrender even on what were called hard terms) was a hideously immoral act, a grave evil.

My repost begins below. I encourage all who take the opposing side to read it before commenting here:


"Hiroshima is anger, Nagasaki is prayer"

I will warn you right now, that you will most likely not be able to keep yourself from crying if you read this.

It is the story of Dr. Takashi Nagai, a man who survived the dropping of the atom bomb at Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Dr. Nagai's wisdom, charity, humility, patience and peace glow like a bright ember embedded in a dark gray mushroom cloud of infamy. The hardest thing about confronting the reality of that infamy is admitting that our nation, which calls itself "one Nation, under God," was responsible for this act of unspeakable evil.

Is "evil" too strong a word, when we talk about the use of the atom bomb at Hiroshima or Nagasaki? After all, the war had to end somehow. An invasion or blockade of Japan might have killed just as many people, and lots of our own troops would have perished as well. There were at least some military targets in both cities, as there were in most industrial cities. And before Hiroshima we might not have realized fully just how many innocent civilians would die in that moment of horror.

But those arguments don't hold water, when measured against clear Catholic teachings. It is morally evil to target civilians, even in wartime. It is morally evil to kill a disproportionate number of civilians even when we have legitimate military targets, something which made our earlier conventional bombing runs morally problematic as well. And whatever we claim our leaders did or didn't know before Hiroshima, they knew perfectly well what they were doing when they destroyed Nagasaki.

A little more than one-fourth of the nearly three hundred thousand people who lived in the city died at our hands, 45,000 of those in the instant the bomb was dropped. Some of them were nearly vaporized by the blast itself, but others died from the heat; go here to see the bones of a human hand fused to a clump of melted glass, for a graphic illustration of what that sort of death was like. (Update 2010--image is no longer available online.)

An additional fourth, another 75,000, suffered severe and lasting injuries from the Bock's Car's cargo. I'm not going to post a link to pictures of radiation injuries; they're too heartbreaking and too graphic.

I will show you the ruins of Nagasaki's Cathedral--Nagasaki had a large population of Catholics and Christians, about 8,000 of whom died on August 9, 1945. One of the worst effects of war, sometimes, is the propaganda both sides spread about each other; many Americans, by 1945, believed that the Japanese were all brutal pagan savages who would never surrender without the use of such a devastating weapon as the atom bomb. I wonder if there were even eight thousand Americans who had any idea that there were eight thousand Christians in all of Japan, let alone in Nagasaki itself?

This damage, this destruction, this devastation, these deaths--they were our doing. War is always ugly, but it is not always evil; yet no just war permits the targeted death and destruction of the innocent.

Dr. Takashi Nagai could have become a bitter, broken, angry man. Not one of us would have blamed him for it. Yet the words he spoke at the ruined cathedral transcend the horror around him, and reach for the eternal. For the remainder of his life of suffering he wrote and spoke about his experiences, and always wove words of peace, and his deep Christian faith, into everything he did.

His final words on earth were, "Pray! Please pray!"

In his memory, in his honor, please say a prayer today that human beings will never again unleash the destructive force of weapons like these against each other.

(originally posted on August 9, 2007)


Dymphna said...

I wonder if any of those Catholics in Nagasaki gave a hoot about the Catholics in Korea, China, the Phillipines or Indochina.

Red Cardigan said...

I wonder why someone would be inclined to sit in judgment on the souls of the faithful departed--especially when some of them left this life in the midst of physical torment like we can't possibly imagine.

Seriously, Dymphna. Read the story of Takashi Nagai, and get back to me.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the atomic blasts, we firebombed many Japanese cities. I have a friend who was born in the firebombing of her mother's city. The numbers of dead and injured are staggering.

See "The Fog of War" to learn more. Robert McNamara recalls his boss, Curtis Lemay, commenting to him that if the Japanese won the war, Lemay and McNamara would be tried as war criminals.

That was "the good war" to so many Americans. Any wonder some of us questioned going to war again in Vietnam, when there had been no attack on American soil?

Thank you, Erin, for the sober reminder.


freddy said...

Thanks for the reminder and your wise words. I've been thinking about Dr. Nagai and the other victims of the bombs for the past few days and praying. Our country really needs a lot of mercy right now!

I've been called ignorant, communist, pacifist, and dirty hippie for having the same beliefs about the atomic bombs (and the immoral and horrific firebombings) as you, Mark and Jimmy Akin have expressed. But how can you read the stories of the victims and not be brokenhearted?

God have mercy.
St. Maximilian Kolbe and Takashi Nagai, pray for us.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother, who lived during that time, said that the US would have never used those bombs in Germany or any of the other "white" countries, that racism played a major part of why the US felt free to bomb Japan. She thought it was a disgrace.

Rebecca in CA said...

I agree with you one hundred percent. And one doesn't need to be a Catholic to recognize the immorality of such an act.

Anonymous said...

Thank the Good Lord, I'm finally finding others who think along the same lines as I have felt ever since I heard of it in school as a child, and personally from friends whose scarred Auntie managed to survive to live with her family, as well as from my husband who saw the devastation even years later in still bandaged and wandering survivors. It's not the time to justify whatever was done, but to try and make right and do right from the injustice of it all.

Our own innocent military recruits were also exposed to radiation here in the US during the testing phases, protected with only smoked glass.

The ignorance abounded of radiation exposure, but to go along with a premise that use of the bomb would result in annihilation of other humans is an absolute despicabilty of objectivification; a Mengelian torture, not unlike any other complete depravity such as marked by the neglect by the Milwaukee police of the tortured little Laotian boy running down the street screaming, the Talibani torture of the girl on the cover of Time, etc.

Dear Mother of God, pray for us.

Mark P. Shea said...

I wonder if any of those Catholics in Nagasaki gave a hoot about the Catholics in Korea, China, the Phillipines or Indochina.

Dunno. Best to just incinerate them, if you aren't sure, eh? I mean, they were only disciples of St. Maximilien Kolbe, some of them.

Always good to see the representatives of Truly True Catholic faith leap to the defense of the mass murder of their fellow Catholics, Dymphna.

Gerard Nadal said...


I've been a student of WWII for over twenty years. My uncles all fought in that conflict, some in the European theatre, some in the Pacific. I hear and understand what you are saying about the immorality of targeting civilians, and I agree. But I come away from my study of this human tragedy in the middle of the last century resolute in not second-guessing those who lived through it and prosecuted it.

Before the United States' entry into the war, the Axis powers were busy committing unspeakable atrocities aimed at the civilian populations of China, Indochina, and Europe. They were armed to the teeth with the biggest and best weapons on the planet, while our GI's were drilling in boot camp with broom sticks as there was a shortage of rifles. We unilaterally obeyed the treaties after WWI and were caught flat-footed.

It is safe and easy from a distance of 65 years to say what ought or ought not have been done, but these people saw the fate that awaited them, the absolute existential threat, if they did not fight with all at their disposal. As the war ground on, the raw savagery on a scale never before known began to take its toll on all sides. The fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo claimed almost three times as many lives as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, the war claimed over 44 million civilian lives on all sides.

The choice became clear to this generation: Defeat equals death vs. victory no matter what the cost.

In this debate what is often overlooked is the pinpoint accuracy of the military planners' casualty projections. 3 million US and Japanese casualties were predicted for the invasion of the mainland of Japan. Given the ferocity of the Iwo Jima and Okinowa campaigns, the military had every reason to believe in the accuracy of those predictions. At Okinowa, civilians hurled themselves and their children off of cliffs into the sea, rather than be captured by the Americans. The fanaticism bred into that populace was very real.

The choice before Truman was 2 million Japanese casualties+ 1 million American casualties, or a few hundred thousand Japanese casualties with two bombs. No Japanese casualties was not an option.

Not much of a choice.

Truman chose the least number of casualties. In that light, the manner by which they come to meet their end really doesn't matter very much, when over 50 million lives had already been lost.

Everyone from that generation with whom I've spoken has told me that The American people would have been enraged had they discovered that we had those bombs and proceeded with a conventional invasion which would have incurred 10-12x the number of casualties.

A different people, in a different time, with not much of a choice given the disparity in casualty projections. With entire nations mobilized, civilians were a major percentage of manufacture and supply for their nations' war machines and were considered by all parties as legitimate targets in shutting off the flow of men and material.

I share the moral vision of the Church. But I find it impossible to reach back to a time with a very different organic understanding of war and selectively castigate Truman for his decision. Given the options presented to him, he opted for the least amount of civilian casualties.

Osumashi Kinyobe said...

Forgive the incredible lateness of this comment but I just stumbled onto this wonderful site!

I have been to Nagasaki (please see photos on my blog site), to Nyoko-do (Dr. Takashi Nagai's hermitage) and even read his words. Had those who left comments read them- and the history to drop the bomb- more carefully, one would see that militarily, it was the right decision, that even after Japan's surrender, the military government was planning on a coup and that Dr. Nagai himself resigned to the end of the war.

Japan's imperial designs for expansion and the economic depression gave rise to a military government. It annexed Korea in 1910 and went to war with China in 1937. Japan's new empire stretched from Japan itself to the outer Pacific Islands. Every resource- from people (who were encouraged to kill themselves for the emperor) to metal to even gold and silver filaments in kimonos- were used in the war effort. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, that was the last straw.

Dr. Takashi Nagai was a part of this era. He developed leukemia after examining x-rays. Weakened, his spirit was strong because his wife loved him and he loved God.

When the bomb was dropped and the world he knew destroyed, he was angry but then he came to his senses:

"Who turned the beautiful city of Nagasaki into a heap of ashes? ... We did. We started the foolish war ourselves." (from "A Hill in Bloom")

There is no debating that the bomb had horrific consequences. Another consequence, however, was that the seat of Catholicism in Japan is now a place of peace and beauty. War destroyed its military spirit and replaced it with something else.

Go there and see. It is totally worth it.