sabato 15 agosto 2015

Hiroshima & Nagasaki, 70 years ago

(in english only)

The debate is still going on, regarding the final act of World War Two: was the atomic bomb use "justified?" As a "global intelligence" website ( shows in a recent article* the debate is really about the moral character of the United States, more than the use of the Bomb itself. How the USA can be good if thousands of civilians were killed this way?

From a military point of view civilian populations became an obvious target: right from the first days of war. People works in factories and make weapons, from the people enemy soldiers are drafted. In the first days of war the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas was considered a crime but things changed very quickly. The city of Rotterdam was one of the first victims, on may the 14th, 1940. A threat of city bombing was used to force the dutch army's surrender; when the Germans tried to stop the airplanes, it was too late. The medieval city center was gutted by fire, hundreds of people died.
This was the beginning of "total war." Strategic bombing (that is, killing civilians and destroying homes) was used, quite famously, in the Battle of Britain, and after that used again in larger extent against the Axis countries, a majestic effort to destroy their war-making abilities.

Conventional air bombing is not a humane or charitable way of killing. Under a fire bombing, civilians die by burns, lack of oxygen, unbearable temperature, being slowly eaten by white phosphorus on their flesh, or buried under collapsed buindings. Both sides bombed civilians during the war, the Allied could make greater use of this way of killing because their air forces were stronger, and not because the other side was refraining from it.

Atomic bombings add radiations to the previous ways to die. Radiation exposure is particularly nasty because can kill you many years after the war has ended. But this was not really understood at the times. The atomic bomb was just another weapon to kill japanese quickly and efficiently (the USA air force was already doing that) with the additional advantage of showing quite clearly that resistance was futile. As for the "japs," the war had evolved from the "day of infamy" speech to a grim butcher affair. American soldiers were quite unwilling to take prisoners, and they imagined their enemies as cruel, untrustworthy subhuman beings. This is the other side of the story everybody knows, about japanese soldiers not surrendering because of honour and shame. That's true, but even when they wanted to surrender they could not.

So, if you think that the military and political leaders of the USA spent sleepless nights reflecting on the moral drama of the atomic weapons and the righteousness of their use, you're probably wrong. There're other problems they were probably thinking about. Could the Bomb be a stern warning to the Russians, a way to make them restrain from further territorial ambitions (against Japan itself)? Could it be an admonishment to western friends too? Or maybe it was better not to show it to the world? In the end they decided to use it: peace talks were stalling,** and the Bomb could be a way to end the war.

When you read about the lives the Bomb spared, ending the war before a full fledged invasion of Japan became necessary, you read the truth. That is, worry about japanese lives was quite unlikely in those days, but for sure the USA worried about their soldiers. In the last island battle (Okinawa) they lost a great deal of men, so they could imagine a battle in Japan mainland could be even worse.***

So, the Bomb was just the logical development of modern war. There're a lot of reasons to harbor doubts about the "fighting the good fight" retoric, and the Allies having all the right on their side, in my opinion. Still, the most controversial military fact of the war is just a consequence of what happened before it, and probably it really spared a lot of lives.
(**)  Main problem was, for the Japanese, not having guarantees about the emperor's fate.
(***) The hypotesis of using the Bomb on a uninhabitated target was considered, but probably such a demonstrative bombing could have been unimpressive if succesful, quite negative if the Bomb didn't explode.

5 commenti:

gabriele ha detto...

Since the article is in English I will comment in the same language.

The bombing of Japanese cities was mostly unnecessary for military purposes. In fact Kyoto was spared simply because the Secretary of State had his honeymoon there and he liked the city. There were massacres inflicted for vengeance, as you said the Japanese were considered inferior. More people died in the traditional bombing of Tokyo (200.000) than for the atomic bomb. This is completely different from strategic bombing of factory, the kind that was made against Italy, for instance.

Japan would have surrendered soon anyway because the Soviet Union was about to declare war on Japan (they were at at peace for most of WW2).

The atomic bomb was used to teach a lesson to the Japanese and to make a show for the Soviets. It was also strategically shortsighted in the long term. If you think about it without that show of force countries like North Korea and Iran probably would have never invested their scarce resources to gain such a weapon. A weapon that can't really be used but has strong political value, thanks to its use by the Americans.

Bruno ha detto...
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Bruno ha detto...

These massacres did persuade the japanese emperor to sue for peace, if we believe the official history. Japan could not going on forever, but to say that they were going to surrender anyway is a guess: the decision to surrender triggered a military coup, even the recording of the emperor speech to the people was in danger to be destroyed.
Anyway the possibility of making the bomb was known. It would be made and tested after the war anyway, by large and small countries. The world was going to enter in a cold war era because of the known potential of this weapon, even if not used. Or maybe the Bomb could have been used in another circumstance, with even worst effects (third world war?). Even if shortsighted, anyway, I don't think the atomic bombings were an atrocity more than the "usual" strategic bombing (that was used to kill people and not to destroy factories against Germany and Italy too. If wood was used by Italians as a construction material as widely than in Germany, Milano could have been destroyed by a firestorm.... ).

gabriele ha detto...

I admit that the importance of the atomic bombing is still debated but I have read many articles, on magazines of international relations, on why he was unnecessary. An example is here on Foreign Policy:

I agree that the usual strategic bombing was as least as bad as the nuclear one, but this isn't a good reason to justify it.

The strategic mistake is that militarily the atomic bomb is not really useful, in fact it destroy a whole lot of useful infrastructure and it cannot be used without the risk of retaliation. Its only practical value is political, it makes an impression on the average man. This power derives from the history of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. One thinks is to know that has a large potential to do damage, another one is to see it and hear the story on how the bomb ended the greatest war in the history of mankind.

Bruno ha detto...

The Bomb was quite useful for the USA when no other country had it. After that, it hardly was (is) indifferent because it started the era where a direct clash between the superpowers is almost unthinkable. Not really the era of peace, still...