Battlepanda: Atom Bomb Rashomon


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Atom Bomb Rashomon

60 years later, people are still passionate over the rights and wrongs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think the discussion is a good thing. The entry of nuclear weapons into our active arsenal is too important not to continue to be examined. However, I am a little tired of the lack of concrete parameters in this argument. Was Japan just about ready to cry uncle? Or would the alternative to going nuclear have been a foolhardy land invasion? Perhaps when I have time I'll organize all the competing arguments, counterpoints and other points to ponder in an omnigraffle chart. For now, here's a few thoughts:

1) Don't confuse Japan's defeat and Japan's surrender
Before nary a nuclear bomb was dropped, it was clear that Japan was licked. In the words of Rob Farley: "By August of 1945, Japan had no capacity to hurt the United States. The IJN was largely destroyed, and the air force was grounded." However, if you've ever played a game of chess you'd know that forcing a checkmate can be difficult and time-consuming even against a weak enemy. Now imagine that the pieces you have to sacrifice to force a chessmate each represent tens of thousands of your own soldiers. In addition, imagine a clock ticking away signifying the continual deaths of thousands of prisoners of war and innocent civilians (in the various countries Japan still occupied) as time goes on. Now you're close to being in Truman's shoes. I think commenter "Bill" at Steve Gillard's laid out Truman's options well:
1 - drop the bomb

2 - invade the southern islands (operation Olympic) followed on by a strike at Tokyo (operation Coronet). Both would be initiated by large scale gas attacks followed by beach assaults. The estimated total casualties (for both sides) were in the region of 750,000 to a million within the first MONTH of operation Olympic.

3 - Blockade the home islands. Accept the slaughter of those held in Japanese POW camps (civilian as well as military personnel), continue fighting in the Dutch East Indies as well as in Malaysia and Manchuria, and simply starve the Japanese into surrendering.
2) Remember that Truman did not have our hindsight
We now see the nuclear bomb with special horror because of radiation poisoning. Truman was only aware of the devastation on impact. If he had known the peculiarly pernicious effects of the atomic bombs, he might have opted for conventional (though still deadly) tactics. You can't condemn Truman morally for Hiroshima without feeling the same condemnation for the firebombing of Tokyo or the Allied carpet bombing of Dresden.

3) Liberals: Do yourselves and your side a favor and don't compare this to Iraq
Because, on oh so many levels, it just does not compute. There are good arguments for saying that Truman should not have dropped the bomb. But comparing it to the GWOT or the GSAVE only strengthens the arguments of the other side.

UPDATE: I see Kevin Drum also have a good comment thread on this. Here's a particularly good one by commenter "Silent E":
50,000,000 people died in WW2. How many of their deaths were immoral? ALL OF THEM.

But is there a special category of "super-nuclear-immorality"? NO. The 200,000 deaths of those killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be weighed against
** 250,000+ Americans who would die in an invasion of Kyushu and the following campaign to occupy the Home Islands.
** 400,000+ POWs and foreign captives held by Japanese forces across East Asia who would have been executed once the home islands were invaded.
** 250,000+ Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and other noncombatant *victims* of Japanese aggression who were dying *each month* as a result of ongoing combat across East Asia.
** 2-6 millions of probable Japanese casualties from resistance to the invasion, resulting from suicide attacks, bombing of cities and villages, and starvation or disease.

17 million people died in the Pacific Theater following the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.

Based on the above, if the Allied invasion of Japan occured without the use of nuclear weapons and surrender occured quickly one year later, an additional 4-8 million people would have been killed.

A blockade of the Home Islands would kill millions of women, children, and elderly through starvation and disease. Until the Emperor ordered surrender, the Imperial Army and Navy would continue to fight abroad in Asia and the Pacific, killing millions more.