Thursday, August 13, 2015

And So It Goes...

Nearly six years ago, on September 3rd, 2009, I wrote this post observing the 70th anniversary of the declaration of war against Germany by France and Great Britain, marking the beginning of the greatest human-initiated calamity in history. In what seems to be the blink of an eye, we are now about to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which officially took place on September 2, 1945 when officials of the Imperial Government of Japan signed the documents of surrender to Allied officials aboard the battleship USS Missouri.

The defeat of Germany in April of that year meant the eventual defeat of Japan seemed inevitable by the summer of '45. Just how eventual was anybody's guess at the time. On August 6th and August 9th of that year, the United States dropped two atomic bombs, one over the city of Hiroshima, the other over Nagasaki. Nobody knows for sure but most likely around 130,000 human beings perished either as a direct result of the blasts, or because of disease caused by nuclear fallout, something that was not completely understood at the time. Facing the prospect of the annihilation of their country, the Japanese government, still with their Emperor at the helm, agreed to the Allied terms of surrender.

The only thought more horrible than the devastation resulting from those two weapons of mass destruction, is the contemplation of what most likely would have happened had the bombs not been dropped. In the works was a massive invasion of Japan by Allied forces who freed from the conflict in Europe, could now concentrate their efforts in the Pacific. By August of 1945, the list of Allied nations ready and willing to participate in the invasion included the Soviet Union who had just reneged on their non-aggression pact with Japan. Conservative military assessments of the operation, anticipated the loss of one to two hundred thousand Allied personnel in the invasion. Less optimistic planners put the number closer to one million. For the defense of their island home from an attack they knew was coming, the Japanese were in the process of assembling a civilian militia to augment their military which had been severely depleted in the war. Estimates of civilian losses by the Japanese government in the event of an invasion, were in the neighborhood of twenty million.

Given the carnage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it may seem trite, even cruel to suggest that those two attacks actually saved lives, but the numbers are difficult to ignore. In the years that followed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world became fixated on the horrific fate of the victims of the nuclear attacks. While it is entirely appropriate to remember the appalling destruction of the two Japanese cities and their people, those attacks must be looked at within the broader context of the war. Many cities in Japan and Germany had already been bombed with Allied incendiary devices which set off massive, horrifying fire storms. Literally hell on earth, those fire storms consumed everything in their path, including people seeking shelter in air raid shelters, burning them alive. In Tokyo alone, 100,000 people perished in these attacks. Had the United States not developed the atomic bomb, and perhaps more significantly, displayed the will to use it, death by incineration would have been the fate of several more Japanese cities and millions of their inhabitants.

There are many alternate scenarios that critics of the bombings believe might have ended the war without reverting to the use of the deadliest, most indiscriminate weapon to date. Some argue that the entry of the Soviet Union into the war would have been enough of an incentive for the Japanese to surrender. Some suggest that deploying the bomb over a non-populated area would have been enough to convince the Japanese to throw in the towel. Others say that while the first attack on Hiroshima may have been justified, the second on Nagaski was entirely unnecessary and amounted to nothing more than premeditated, cold blooded, mass murder. These are all justifiable arguments based upon speculation, but little evidence.

After the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan remained resolute in dictating the terms of its own surrender. These included no foreign occupation of Japan, Korea or Formosa, and Japanese control of their own disarmament, demobilization, and prosecution of war criminals. Not surprisingly, the terms were not accepted by the Allies.

We can speculate until kingdom come but by the beginning of August, 1945, it was obvious to everyone that the cost of ending the war, whatever it would be, was going to be appalling. What everyone does agree upon is that after the United States dropped the bomb, the world was never the same. We may have won the war in the most efficient way possible in terms of loss of life, but it may have come at the cost of our moral credibility. The United States remains the only nation that has used an atomic weapon against human beings.

In the years following the war, weapons became more deadly and indiscriminate. Soon the richest nations of the world, at least those on the winning side of WWII, all developed their own nuclear weapons. Former allies became enemies, each equipped with the means to destroy the other. Some felt, erroneously of course, that this nuclear stalemate would mean the end to all war as the threat of mutual annihilation would encourage negotiation at all costs over hostility. In reality all it meant is that the superpowers neutralized each other while smaller nations, breakaway republics or even renegade groups of radicals without a nation, learned how to subvert traditional rules of warfare, undermining the big powers who were understandably loathe to use their most lethal weapons. This happened to the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and to the United States again in Iraq.

Unfortunately, with our sophisticated technology we still haven't been able to make war obsolete. Ironically, the more sophisticated the weapons became, the less effective they were. As we have seen recently, our most effective and terrifying adversaries are people whose weapons could have been found in the Middle Ages or earlier. They are people who are willing to violate all sense of human decency, are wholeheartedly devoted to their cause, are not afraid to die.

And all of our superior technology and firepower is powerless to stop them.

So what  have we learned from the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Not much I'm afraid.

1 comment:

Michael said...

In my younger years I really thought that in spite of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that humanity would never choose to destroy itself. I have since done a complete 180. As I have grown older and visited many foreign countries and lived in several parts of the U.S. I began to understand how certain ideologies were antithetical to the humanity, our great saving grace, that I once thought of as our protection against self-destruction. Now I see that those ideologies somehow took precedence over life. We don't need nuclear weapons to destroy ourselves although they may be the quickest and most efficient means. We can do it slowly through political inertia; through oligarchs; through environmental denial; through small and incessant wars of ideology and greed; through overuse of various drugs that were once considered the world’s salvation; through racism; through narcissism. Will humanity prevail? It is very difficult for me to be optimistic; very difficult indeed.