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Death From the Sky: Hiroshima and Normalised Atrocities

When US President Harry S. Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by another on Nagasaki a few days later, he was not acting as an agent untethered from history. In the wheels of his wearied mind lay the battered Marines who, despite being victorious, had received sanguinary lashings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

A fear grew, and US military sources speculated about, the slaughter that might follow an invasion of the Japanese homeland. They also pondered the future role of the Soviets, and wondered whether there were other means by which Japan’s involvement in the war might be terminated before Moscow got its hands on the battered remains of North-East Asia.

Much is made about the moral dilemma Truman faced. He knew there was the nastiest of weapons at hand, born from the race to acquire it from Nazi Germany. But on a certain level, it was merely another weapon, one to use, a choice sample in the cabinet of lethal means and measures. By that stage of the war, killing civilians from the air, not to mention land, was banal and commonplace; enemy populations were to be experimented upon, burned, torched, gassed, shelled and eradicated in the program of total war.

By the time Truman made his decision, Japan had become a graveyard of strategic aerial bombing. General Curtis E. LeMay of the US Air Force prided himself on incinerating the enemy, and was encouraged by various study commissions advocating the use of incendiary bombs against Japan’s flammable urban architecture. He was realising the dreams of such figures as the pioneering US aviator and airpower enthusiast Billy Mitchell, who fantasised in the 1920s about Japanese cities being “the greatest aerial targets the world has ever seen.” In 1941, US Army chief of staff George Marshall spread the word to journalists that the US would “set the paper cities of Japan on fire.” Civilians would not be spared.

Towards the end of the war, daylight precision bombing had fallen out of favour; LeMay preferred the use of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, heavily laden with firebombs, to do the work. His pride of joy in conflagration was Tokyo. During the six-hour raid over the night of March 9 and 10, 1945, the US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that 87,793 had perished, with 40,918 injuries.

There was little novel in LeMay’s blunt approach. Britain’s Air Force Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris fertilised the ground, and the air, for such an idea. He made it his mission to not only kill Germans but kill German civilians with a cool determination. He did so with a workmanlike conviction so disturbing it chilled the blood of many Britons. As he put it, “The cities of Germany, including their working populations, are literally the heart of Germany’s war potential.” It was his intention to, he explained to personnel, “in addition to the horrors of fire … to bring masonry crashing down on top of the Boche, to kill the Boche and to terrify the Boche.” The Teutonic enemy came, not so much in all shades, but one. Saturation bombing, regarded after the Second World War as generally ineffective, a ghastly failure to bring the population to its knees, received its blessing in Bomber Command.

This entire process neutered the moral compass of its executioners. Killing civilians had ceased to be a problem of war, one of those afterthoughts which served to sanction mass murder. Britain’s chief of the air staff for a good deal of the war, Charles Portal, called it a “fallacy” that bombing Germany’s cities “was really intended to kill and frighten Germans and that we camouflaged this intention by the pretence that we would destroy industry. Any such idea is completely false. The loss of life, which amounted to some 600,000 killed, was purely incidental.” When 600,000 becomes an incidental matter, we are well on the way to celebrating the charnel houses of indiscriminate war.

When the issue of saturation bombing creased the legal minds behind the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials, an admission had to be made: all sides of the Second World War had made the air a realm of convenience in the killing of humanity, uniformed or not. To win was all that mattered. While the Nuremberg Charter left it open to criminalise German aerial tactics, the International Military Tribunal hedged. As chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring was singled out for air attacks on Poland and other states but the prosecutors refrained from pushing the point, likely reflecting the cold fact, as Matthew Lippmann puts it, “that both Germany and the Allies engaged in similar tactics.”

It is true that Germany and Japan gave a good pioneering go at indiscriminate aerial slaughter. But the Allied powers, marshalling never before seen fleets of murderous bombers, perfected the bloody harvest. The war had to be won, and, if needed, over the corpses of the hapless mother, defenceless child and frail grandparent. As the historian Charles S. Maier notes with characteristic sharpness, a tacit consensus prevailed after the Second World War that the ledger of brutality was all stacked on one side. German bombings during the Spanish Civil War, notably of Guernica; Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and Coventry during the world war that followed, were seen as “acts of wanton terror.” The Allied attacks on Italian, German and Japanese urban centres, in proportion and scale far more destructive, were seen as “legitimate military actions.”

Distinctions about civilian and non-civilian vanished in the atomic cloud. Hiroshima’s tale is the apotheosis of eliminating distinctions in war. It propagated such dangerous beliefs that nuclear wars might be won, sparing a handful of specialists and breeders in bunkers planning for the new post-apocalyptic dawn. It normalised, even as it constituted a warning, the act of annihilation itself.

Prior to the twin incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the redoubtable nurse and writer Vera Brittain issued a warning that remains salient to those who wish to resort to waging death from the sky: “If the nations cannot agree, when peace returns, to refrain from the use of the bombing aeroplane as they have refrained from using poison gas, then mankind itself deserves to perish from the epidemic of moral insanity which today afflicts our civilisation.”

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20 comments

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  1. Jack Cade

    As I understand it, Japan had already offered to surrender, conditional upon the Allies agreeing not to charge the emperor with war crimes.
    The first bomb may have been justifiable, but the second was pure bastardry.
    I have no sympathy for the Japanese – I’ve see the memorial to their unprovoked evil acts in Nanjing – but let us not be convinced that the bombing of Nagasaki was anything other than a war crime. Spite.
    They didn’t charge the emperor anyway, so their second bomb was just a template for a procession of US excuses for waging war and mass murder. Killing millions of Muslims Indiscriminately, but criticising China’s treatment of Uighurs…
    I note that the Guardian is reporting hordes of Chinese fishing boats in Galapagos waters. It may or may not be true, and It is appalling if it is factual. But there has never been similar outrage expressed over South Korean longline fishing, with 100 km long nets scooping everything out of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
    Fake news? The only positive feature of the Trump presidency has been his enabling the world to question US motives on everything.

  2. Stephen

    Just the article we need right now to remind us of our own devilish natures.

    Brilliant!

  3. Kacey

    The Japanese entered World War II as opportunists who wanted to expand their empire and acquire natural resources from resource-wealthy nations such as Australia and China. In World War II, it was widely believed that the Japanese army were an incredibly cruel and inhumanely callous army who were prepared to do ANYTHING, even suicide at the hands of feared Kamakaze Pilots, to get what they wanted. The Kamakaze made ever-increasing and persistent deliberate suicidal crashes into enemy targets, usually ships. The Japanese army, during World War II, posed a greater threat to Australia than any other enemy at that time – their invasive naval submarines entered Sydney Harbour and their destructive, large scale bombing impacted Darwin in a bombing attack that was far more severe than Pearl Harbour.

    My father saw the devastation, cruelty and cannibalism left behind by Japanese soldiers right throughout the Malay Peninsular and into New Guinea. There was no doubt then – and no doubt now – that the Japanese would not have stopped until they enslaved most of south east Asia, China, Australia and New Zealand. It was a war that the Japanese were absolutely DETERMINED to win and were not prepared to surrender until the last man was standing!

    The long, long list of countries the Japanese invaded, conquered, or occupied by Japan before or during WWII is as follows:

    China, the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, United States, Malaysia (UK), Singapore, Hong Kong (UK), Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Timor (Portugal), Australia by bombing and by sea, New Zealand by sea, Burma (Myanmar), India, British New Guinea (Papua), The Philippines, Andaman and Nicobar Islands (India), Straits Settlements (Singapore), Brunei (UK), Nauru (Australia), Guam (USA), Imphal (India), Wake Island (USA), Gilbert and Ellice Islands (UK), Christmas island (Australia), Manchuria, Taiwan and Korea – every country the Japanese invaded, the inhabitants were either murdered or brutally treated in a manner that equalled the appalling treatment the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis.

    This is WHY, tragically, the use of the atomic bombs (at that time) was just about the ONLY way America – and many nations like China, Australia and the UK – believed Japan would cease their expansion and aggressive invasion and incredibly cruel occupation of so many nations. The catastrophe of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs were, indeed, devastating to the human race but many people (at that time) believed that, in the end, the bombings saved countless MORE lives by a rampaging, suicidal and brutal army that had no intention of stopping until the expansionist policies of Emperor Hirohito were satisfied.

    Of course the Japanese youth of today cannot be blamed for the sins of their fathers in the same way young Americans or Australians cannot be blamed for the war crimes that are coming to light right now in relation to our own soldiers in Vietnam, Korea and Iraq/Syria. Let’s hope politicians do EVERYTHING in their power to avoid war and conflict in the future – NOBODY BENEFITS!

  4. Michael Taylor

    Kacey, from what I understand the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan was not taken lightly. It came down to “how many Japanese lives will be lost if we drop the atomic bombs versus how many allies’ lives will be lost if we invade.” By memory, and don’t hold me to this, the Americans predicted they’d lose 240,000 troops by invading.

    Yes, war is cruel.

    All because Japan wanted more land.

    My father also fought the Japanese, spending two years in New Guinea.

    I remember (it was about twelve years ago) he was appalled that some Australian soldiers in Afghanistan put out a video of them taunting a Taliban fighter. “The enemy already wants to kill you,” he said, “so there’s no point in giving them a further reason.”

    He went on that the Japanese soldier was a good fighter. You had to respect him for that. The moment you lost that respect, you lost your guard. Lose your guard … and you could lose your life.

    Despite spending two years fighting them in the jungle, it was not the soldiers he hated the most: it was the Japanese government that sent them there. They – like him – were doing what the government sent them there to do.

    He hardly ever – EVER – spoke about the war, but he told me this:

    “The day the war ended … I forgave the enemy.” Why? Because like he said, the enemy didn’t want to be there. Only the government wanted them there.

  5. Jack Cade

    Michael Taylor

    My father was in the Royal Navy, mainly on 2 battle cruisers, first guarding the convoys and later bombarding the defences at Anzio etc. He would not talk about the war, refused to march on Anzac Day (‘I don’t need reminding of the war. I want to forget it .’)
    I only gleaned his experiences by asking him if examples used in Alistair MacLean books were accurate. Even then, only one word answers. ‘Dad, is this true?’
    ‘Yes’.
    Many of the UK merchant seamen were Merseysiders, And everyone I knew growing up in Liverpool had brothers in the merchant fleets. When U- boats sank ships, the escorts were told not to pick up survivors because they were making themselves targets. So RN destroyers and frigates ploughed through packs of what could have been their relatives floating in the water as the ships sank.
    No wonder they wouldn’t talk about it. There is no glory in war – only draft dodgers like John Wayne and Menzies and Dumbya Bush see any glory in it. Wayne’s great benefactor – John Ford – once dismissed Wayne’s screen heroism by saying ‘John Wayne loves putting on uniform. Just so long as it comes from props’.

  6. Cool Pete

    Jack Cade’s first point is correct, that the Japanese were trying to surrender conditionally, but Truman was not willing to budge. Ambassador Sato was trying to have a third party approach the USA to negotiate surrender and even approach Molotov on August 8, only to be handed a declaration of war.
    Two points are salient. One, Truman hoped to impress Stalin that he had this new weapon, yet, Two, Stalin played him like a poker player concealing a prize hand, as despite the tenuous alliance between the USA and Russia, Stalin, through espionage, already knew about the atomic bomb.
    References to the Rape of Nanjing or the cruel treatment of Allied POWs, or even the activities of Unit 731 cannot and should not be used to justify the use of the atomic bomb.
    And, I wrote my postgraduate diploma on the Showa Emperor (1926-1989) and the claims that he was responsible for the war are false on several grounds. One, initial aggression began with the Kwantung Army, an elite regiment of the Japanese Army without his knowledge. Two, even Judge William Flood Webb, the head of the IMTFE admitted, despite David Bergamini’s book Japan’s Imperialist Conspiracy, to which he provided the foreword, that the hanging of Iwane Matsui may have been a miscarriage of justice, and I agree that he was the fall guy for junior officers, and the hanging of Koki Hirota was as great, if not greater, a miscarriage of justice. Three, the Meiji Constitution, in place at the time, had the Emperor as both a living doll and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and when presented with a universal declaration of war by the Imperial War Council, had no choice but to approve it. In fact, he had rebuked Seishiro Itagaki, another of the Sugamo Seven hanged on December 23, 1948 (the Sugamo Seven were, Kenji Doihara, Akira Muto, Hideki Tojo, Akira Muto, Iwane Matsui, Koki Hirota and Itagaki Seishiro) over aggression in Asia. And finally, the Imperial War Council was divided at a meeting called on August 14, 1945, with some favouring surrender others one last stand, but the Showa Emperor called for surrender.
    To my mind, BOTH bombs were acts of bastardry. Paul Tibbets (Hiroshima) was both too arrogant and too stupid to see that he was used as a pawn by Truman to achieve political objectives.
    And, finally, for the Americans to say that there was no such thing as an innocent civilian is a nonsense, as in Australia, and in America, women worked in munitions factories with the men away and children even worked in munitions factories in Japan having been conscripted.

  7. Margaret Bywater

    “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.

  8. wam

    The american population has been brought up on killing as a legitimate endpoint The 2nd amendment became a right to kill American Indians while ‘protecting property culminating in wounded knee The military involved in the massacre of bud dajo were praised by President Roosevelt Take a shocking search of such slaughter by Americans till Abu Ghraib.
    The Japanese war was spooked by the treachery of pearl harbour (despite darwin being attacked with more savagery)
    This so demonised the Japanese that body parts form a major part of ‘mail’ nome from fingers, to to skulls. Indeed d Franklin Roosevelt himself was reportedly given, by U.S. Representative Francis E. Walter, a gift of a letter-opener made of a Japanese soldier’s arm (Roosevelt later ordered that the gift be returned and called for its proper burial).
    This attitude prompted the bomb directed at hiroshima citizens. In 1945 is you heard that a single bomb could destroy a city. What would be your reaction?? The nagasaki bomb was unnecessary and pure american massacre tactics.
    I was visiting the peace park 50 years ago and the septic young woman in front of me wrote –
    ‘better them than us’
    Even knowing the atrocities in china and burma railway, I was horrified at being so close to an american attitude.

  9. Ken

    Michael, war is hell from my what I see but the comment by your father “The day the war ended … I forgave the enemy” speaks to a deep wisdom borne of a profound suffering, and in that light I see manifest a humanity that few are lucky enough to find in this short life. To cling to the past is suffering enhanced, to not learn from the past is suffering renewed. It’s good news day when one hears another example of a person who transcended a personal hell, so thanks for sharing.

  10. Ken

    We all need to do whatever we can to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
    ICAN is doing what it can but needs us all to help.

  11. Michael Taylor

    Thank you, Ken. So many have misunderstood his comment, mostly with responses of; “Geez, how can you forgive the enemy after what they did?”

    And I see your reasoning: The horror has already been lived. Why relive it?

    Towards me, my father was a cruel, soulless, heartless man. I never knew why. It was not until I read “Kokoda” by Peter Fitzsimmons a few years before my father died that I finally knew what indescribable horrors he had been through in the New Guinea jungles. It explained why he was the way he was. I admit to crying. I phoned my father and thanked him for what he did for his country. Only then – 65 years after the end of the war – did he open up.

  12. RomeoCharlie29

    Jack Cade, Michael Taylor my father was in the RAN having been at Tobruk ( and therefore qualifying as a ‘Rat’,) on Corvettes escorting relief convoys to Murmansk and, at the end of the war, being in Japan for the surrender as well as, subsequently, doing security for Australian diplomats in Tokyo. Three of the ships on which he served, including HMAS Perth, were sunk after he left them which, I think, made him a lucky man, yet he rarely spoke of his experiences and when he did it was of the ‘lighter moments’. Much of what my siblings and I know, was gleaned from him in the very late years of his life or from others. His Murmansk convoy escort duties were the result of a secondment to the RN, and we only learned of it in the mid eighties when he, and a handful of other Australian sailors, were awarded a medal issued by the Soviet government. This bleak and brave episode was best captured by Nicholas Monsarrat in his book HM Corvette. The fact that there was no resistance from the Japanese poplace, to the ‘Occupation’ would seem to indicate the war was not broadly popular. In the Atomic Bomb memorial in Nagasaki there is reference to the contention that Japan had been seeking to end the war by enlisting the Russians before the two bombs were dropped. I think both bombings were acts of bastardry and the fact that allied POW’s were also killed only reinforces that belief. Thanks for the article Binoy.

  13. Michael Taylor

    RomeoC, yes, they didn’t hold back when recalling the lighter moments.

    Dad recalled the time he was ordered to drive a truck laden with supplies from A to B. The route took him past the tent he shared with a number of other soldiers.

    Given that the guys were always starving, it was prearranged that Dad would pull up outside the tent, quickly grab a wooden crate of food and throw it into the tent, then hop back in the truck and drive off as though nothing had happened.

    The guys waited until he returned before opening up the crate.

    With great excitement they opened it up …

    It was a crate of bloody soap! 😂

  14. Greg Pocock

    My dad was on Kokoda and was on New Britain , he was in Signals . He told me how because he was very agile and was used to climbing coconut trees ,he was climbing up a coconut tree to put up an aerial and his Warrant Officer poked his head out of a hut and said Ted they have just dropped a bomb on Japan , my dad replied I hope it’s a fuc++++ big one . Later on the day the war ended the troops were told if they killed any Japanese soldiers they would be classed as murder , some troops were still fired on by Japanese remaining soldiers . My dad also had mentioned that they landed on New Britain with only about a hundred rounds as a wharfie strike delayed an ammunition ship . I remember my dad and I were grounded at West Wyalong flying back from Hay to Maitland for three days and a movie Tora Tora Tora on tv caused my dad to have flashbacks and a very unsettled night for him . One of his mates stayed in an went to Japan as Occupational Force stayed in also for Korea rising to Lt Col , and I used to attend their unit Anzac Day reminders ,now all of them really nice guys that used to ring me up to come down to Sydney after my dad died in 1991 and all had a outlook that if the bomb hadn’t been dropped a lot less of them would be around ( especially when you think of the mishandling of the New Guinea campaign ,Blaimey unabled to stand up to MacArthur )

  15. Michael Taylor

    Greg, my Dad was also in signals.

    He told Mum that at times they’d have to set up the wires at night time … stand completely still while waiting for a flash of lightning so they could see where to step to next. Rinse and repeat.

    As for killing the enemy after the war was over, not long before he died Dad told me of an incident that I best not mention here.

    About 15 years ago my old chain-smoking doctor told me that just after the end of the war was announced he and a few nurses were walking along in a village in New Guinea when around the corner came a patrol of Japanese soldiers. The doctor’s heart skipped a beat. He whispered to the nurses, “keep walking, and let’s hope they know the war is over.”

    They kept on walking and as they reached the Japanese soldiers their officer shouted something out. My doctor’s heart skipped another beat, wondering what the instructions were from the officer. But the group of medics kept walking, and as they passed by the soldiers, the soldiers all saluted them. The medics were on the winning team and the soldiers were showing their respect.

  16. Jack Cade

    Michael, Greg, at al

    You will no doubt be amused at Quoras latest atrocity…

    ‘Did any of our allies offer any help in the War in the Pacific?’

  17. Michael Taylor

    Sorry, Jack, I’ve been busy yelling at umpires. Cheating bastards. 😡

  18. Jack Cade

    Michael

    But quality prevailed. Best AFL match this season.
    Still choked that they dropped the Hoff again…

  19. Michael Taylor

    Best game of the year. No argument. 😀

  20. wam

    Whew thought we were done but success. Beats me how the opposition is allowed to miss the ball, punch charlie’s arms to dislodge the ball and get away with it??
    My dad(1908) came back from tobruk loving joe and hating the pommie warmonger, pig iron bob and the septics and too ill for PNG.
    He ended up at daws road wired up every 6 months or so in the 50s and TPI in 1960ish

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