Thursday, 3 January 2013


It's not often that folk actually pay to read what I think, and rarer still when they post a considered comment about what I've written, so I'm doubly honoured to have received the following thoughts tonight on a post that was included in the book Guts Pose in which I made a throwaway statement that Japan had suffered "Atomic genocide"…
First up, let me say I enjoyed this diary immensely. I bought it on Amazon and read it on New Years Eve whilst the in-laws were engrossed in the dreary annual Kohaku performance (yes, my wife is Japanese).
That said, I wish to raise a point of order. I take strong issue with your reference to "atomic genocide".
What exactly is it about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that qualifies as "genocide"?
A tragic waste of human life? Without question. But more Japanese died during the March 9th, 1945 conventional bombing raid on Tokyo. Was that also a "genocide"? And if so how should we view the entire air war against the Japan homelands? Should that be classed as "genocide" in it's entirety?
Bear in mind that the city of Kyoto was spared from bombing during the war as it was considered a city of extreme cultural significance to the Japanese nation. It is a strange kind of genocide that spares the cultural icons of a target nation, wouldn't you agree.
Rather, I suggest to you that the air war INCLUDING the two atomic bombings, whilst horrific to the victims, should be seem as ultimately forcing the Japanese High Command to face reality, thereby averting the further deaths of potentially 10 million Japanese civilians. 
Alternative history doesn't get taught in schools so very few people know that possibly the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War was the one that was never fought — Operation Downfall — the Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands. The Imperial HQ was readying children, women and old men to banzai charge American machine guns and tanks armed with nothing more than sharp bamboo sticks.
In short, I believe that characterizing the atomic bombings as "genocide" is inaccurate, unfair to the people who actually fought during those times, and demeans the experience of peoples who actually HAVE suffered real genocide such as the Jews, Armenians and Rwandans.
This is my opinion and I sincerely hope that it is published, not as a criticism, but to put perspective on an important historical event which gets misrepresented so often by Japanese and the Japanese media.
Thank you.
Saitama Steve 
On reflection, I agree "genocide" was a poor choice of word. I was trying to find the right one to describe the enormity of the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in one moment. Genocide is the attempt to eradicate a race or nation, and that was not what the Allies were about. And I take what Saitama Steve said about potentially averting millions more casualties that the mass killings of civilians presumably prevented. That was presumably true.

So, what is the right word to describe all that? I'm really not sure.

No disrespect to Saitama Steve, whose argument is entirely reasonable and valid, but stacking up the horrors of war as being less horrific than what might have happened had those horrors not been perpetrated makes my head hurt. Such arguments seem to me to be more political calculations than moral ones.

Had a sniper been able to kill the Connecticut nutter before he had killed the 26 school kids and teachers, of course the only clear moral thing to do would be to take the bloody shot. The morality gets a bit foggier if in taking that shot you knew you'd also be killing five kids in the line of fire. Is taking the lives of five innocents worth saving two dozen? How about 12 innocents? How about 26 innocent lives to save 26 others? What if the good guys were not armed with a sniper's rifle but a Predator drone? How many Pakistani wedding party guests is it moral to kill in pursuit of one terrorist? Or an alleged terrorist? When does the pursuit of alleged terrorists become terrorism itself?

I don't know.

The political answer is the ends justify the means. And that's good enough for most questions. I'm not smart enough to figure out if that is a good enough moral argument, I suspect it isn't. Had Japan won the war, would the Rape of Nanking be justified as an unpleasant but necessary oppression that by hastening the subjugation of a country saved countless millions of lives of civilians in the future? Seems absurd. And yet rational. We destroyed this village to save it.

What's the right word? Horror? Tragedy? Pragmatic Morality? Atrocity? Politics?

All of the above.

More from me about all this from three years ago in this post and comments.

Carry on.


Ἀντισθένης said...

A bit of an aside here, but I think that 'saving ten million lives' with the nuking of two cities of civilians is not only an abomination even if true, but a lie. First, Japan was already routed, and any invasion of the 'home islands' would have quickly exhausted what little was left of Japan's military and materiel. As for the school kids with sticks? I don't believe many would have stayed in battle, or their guardians would have put up with a total Gotterdamerung. There was also the fact that Japanese HQ was getting to the point of formal surrender, so the bombs were dispatched quickly before that could happen. Finally, the Americans had a total blockade going and could simply have starved the Japanese further than they already had. Ever noticed all old Japanese who were born before the occupation are short and bent? You can never make up for childhood malnutrition.

The elephants in the middle of the room are:
- you use any weapon you make
- American Empire
- Stalin
- the American public would not have countenanced the atrocities on Europeans

Saitama Steve said...

OMIA I agree that you don't have to be John Stuart Mills to see that the Utilitarian argument (the needs of the many out way the needs of the few) has plenty of moral flaws. But nevertheless that is the logic by which wars are fought. It always has been and always will be.

For the poster above I think it might duty to refute a few of your points.

1. Japan certainly was exhausted but they retained a capacity to inflict massive casualties on any invading force. The Battle of Okinawa was viewed by everyone in the world as a precursor to the kind of blood letting that the Japanese were ready to inflict. The Japanese High Command correctly predicted that Operation Downfall would strike first at Kyushu and they were ready to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the invaders. By August 1945 the Japanese had positioned 14 divisions (900,000 men) in Kyushu along with 10,000 Kamikaze planes and over one thousand manned torpedoes and suicide boats. The slaughter on both sides would have dwarfed anything that came before it in the Pacific conflict.

2. You don't believe that Japanese civilians were ready to pointlessly sacrifice their lives in the name of their Living God, the Emperor? Perhaps you're not familiar with Banzai Cliff in Saipan where thousands of civilians leaped to their death rather than bear the shame of surrender. The Japanese of that time had truly earned a reputation very similar to fanatical Islamic Jihadists today.

3. There was no way of anyone on the Allied side knowing the inner mechanics of the Japanese High Command with respect to looking for a way to surrender. The inner politics of the Japanese War Council were as inscrutable then as North Korea's are today. What WAS known is that the Allies made their war demands very clear via the Potsdam Declaration and no satisfactory response from the enemy had been forthcoming.

4. Could they have simply starved the Japanese into surrender? Yes. But why is that a preferable alternative?
In all likelihood that would have lead to even more death and suffering so I don't see your point. And for every month that the war continued, more people died in the jungles, cities and prison camps of Asia.

5. You allude to some kind of racial aspect to the use of the atomic weapons against the Japanese. All I can say is that's complete conjecture on your part that isn't supported by facts. The Manhattan Project was launched with Nazi Germany clearly in mind right from the Einstein–Szilárd letter to Roosevelt. Allied Bomber command certainly pursued their operations against Germany with just as much vigor as they did against the Japanese. The history of Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden is testament to that.

Anonymous said...

One quick comment to the above. The American leadership did not use the atomic bomb to save potentially 10 million Japanese lives; They used the bombs to save the lives of their American fighting men. The Japanese command for their part were convinced that if they could inflict enough casualties the morally corrupt and weak democratic American public would push/demand an end to the war with a negotiated surrender.

Thank you to "Our Man In Abiko" for providing such a forum and to the commentators for their contributions.

Please call me "Thesndu."

Our Man in Abiko said...

Thanks all. I'd just add that I doubt the motive to drop the bomb counts for much one way or the other in calculations of morality. Certainly not for the victims.

Anonymous said...

OMIA - Whichever way you cut it, its an indisputable truth that ending the war abruptly (which is what the a-bombings achieved) DID save lives on both sides in the net equation.

Now as for the argument about whether its "moral" to take one innocent life to save twenty, i think that's one if those rare questions to which there is no absolute answer. The wisest philosophers in the world have battled with that one for centuries.

All I will say to that is that if I were a parent, son, sister or brother burying a loved one killed in Iwo Jima, Okinawa or some other Pacific hell hole, the choice would be easy. Lets not forget it was a long bloody war that the Japanese started.