The United States is the only country in world history (so far) to use nuclear weapons. In bombing two Japanese cities, the U.S. government killed close to a quarter of a million people — the vast majority of them innocent civilians. At the time, almost all Americans were thrilled at the slaughter and heartily approved. Today, a lot of us believe that what happened was unjustified murder of innocents. Which view is best?
When I was growing up, I believed the atomic bombings were justified. I know all the standard arguments in favor of them, because I used to agree with them completely. (Here’s a sampling of arguments on both sides of the issue.) I came to see the bombings in a very different way, though, as I started questioning the legitimacy of coercive governments.
Before I started seeing the world in a different way, I saw every person living in a land as part of the organism of a nation-state, so they were collectively guilty for their government’s actions. Now, I see those people as individuals, most of whom couldn’t change “their” government’s actions if they wanted to. (And I realize now that many of them would have wanted to.)
The 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima has been a backdrop for some thinking I’ve been doing for the past few days about the question of national toughness. It was sparked by an episode of a history podcast called Hardcore History on the question of how national toughness affects history. Host Dan Carlin talked about the issue of whether we could defeat our grandparents in a fight with equal weapons. Whether it’s a good thing or not, they were tougher-minded than we are.
By historical standards, modern Americans might seem like a pretty wimpy bunch. A greater percentage of us worry about privacy rights and civil rights and war crimes than ever before. As a result, our own government at least gives lip service to caring about innocent civilians in war zones and some elements of it try to figure out how to “balance” privacy rights with what they’re going to do anyway insofar as spying on us.
Most of those of a few generations back weren’t concerned about a few — or even a lot — of dead Japanese, German or Italian civilians. The attitude was, “If we didn’t do it to them, they would do it to us.” It was purely a mentality that saw groups competing to the death. It didn’t see the world as a collection of individuals.
I believe the more modern way of looking at things is more accurate and more moral, but it’s also less likely to allow a group to survive and defeat another group in a existential conflict. Does that mean that as people get more moral, a nation is more likely to fall to someone else — all because too many people care about doing what’s morally right? It’s a disturbing dilemma.
Many of the leaders and common people of the past weren’t concerned with the things we care about today. In fact, those who cared about basic freedoms were frequently seen as enemies. A frequently cited example is from a 1938 speech by Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City, N.J., to his city’s Chamber of Commerce.
“We hear about constitutional rights, free speech and the free press,” Hague said. “Every time I hear these words I say to myself, ‘That man is a Red; that man is a Communist.’ You never hear a real American talk like that.”
Most of the people of that era weren’t concerned about constitutional rights. They also weren’t concerned when the U.S. military and its allies carpet bombed cities in Germany toward the end of World War II. In the bombing of Dresden, for instance, at least 25,000 civilians were killed in a heavy bombardment that served little military purpose. Our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t much care. They just wanted to win a war — and that meant killing all the Germans and Japanese that could be killed.
So are we too soft and moral today? Is it going to lead to our downfall? Would we be better off if we still retained more of the barbarian in us than we appear to have kept?
It depends on what you value, I suppose. If you value national survival, the kind of barbarism associated with toughness is a great thing. If you care about morality, though, we’re moving in the right direction (very slowly). So which is more important to you?
For me, I’m on the side of morality and seeing people as individuals. If that view means that this nation can’t survive as a political entity, is that so bad? Based on what I’ve said about it before, you know that it’s not a prospect that worries me.