The passage of time sometimes serves to clarify history while at the same time can sometimes serve to encompass a considerable amount of Monday morning quarterbacking. The one thing time does in the interpretation of history is dull the sense of that moment in time; the social feeling of the moment, the emotions at play when decisions were made, the political mood and fears. All too often history comes to be judged at a later time when morals have changed, society has had the time to contemplate history, and the actual evolution of historical events, good or bad, as a result of a particular event of the past.
Let’s take those World War II Japanese-American internment camps that were set up following the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example. To be sure, our current moral platitudes, social mores, and “better” understanding of the “melting pot” of American ethnic cultural diversity, allow us to look back at that moment in time with revulsion that such things could have happened in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Well, the Greatest Generation folks, for all the hero worship we tend to give them, were downright afraid; it was pure fear. Fear of being attacked by a country who nearly took out the entire Pacific Naval fleet in a surprise attack; fear of nothing to stop the Imperial Japanese military from invading the West Coast. It matters not that we think that logic as being impossible by today’s standards. All that matters is that THEY believed it and the internment camps were a result of that fear. Keep in mind, that fear also mustered our country’s resources, built a military, supplied the world, and built a peace.
This August we “celebrated” the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As usual when time passes, certain revisionist history has come out challenging the alleged pure moral decision that led to the dropping of the first nuclear weapons that killed or maimed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The popular original “reason” has been that the Japanese had no intention of surrendering anytime soon and we’d likely have to invade Japan itself. The anticipated casualties of such a huge operation would have amounted to an estimated 1 million Allied casualties, not to mention the subsequent huge occupation force required to establish order. In other words, allegedly dropping the bombs likely saved American lives.
The revisionist theories center around the actual military need to drop the bombs, research allegedly conducted over declassified military and political documents of the day suggesting that Japan was on the verge of surrender; that the strategic conventional incendiary bombing had pretty much laid waste from 50% to 90% of most major cities already, and quoting commanders and politicians of the day indicating their moral and strategic reluctance in agreeing with the use of the bomb. It appears a driving force for the revisionists is more about trying to increase a collective American guilt rather than trying to find a more accurate representation of events that led to the decision for purposes of historical accuracy.
Look, those that lived through those times are nearly all dead now so asking them how it was back then is not possible anymore. The Japanese of that day were the enemy… a fierce enemy motivated by pure religious ideology and empirical worship. They engaged in battlefield atrocity, insane medical experiments, genocide, ethnic cleansing, the ultimate racists in pure torture for the sake of torture, and authorized rape. The average Japanese soldier was not fighting to preserve culture or defend the homeland, they were on a mission of conquest demanded by the military industrial/political complex of their times, with a fighting devotion to the Emperor, who they viewed not as a king but as a god… guided by ancient codes of valor for dying in battle. Ask any G.I.’s who fought on Tarawa, Saipan, or Guadalcanal if the atomic bombs should have been dropped or not. In fact, ask their mothers and fathers, or the parents of those killed in action, the same question. I’m positive you’d not get some answer buried in moral contemplation.
We call them The Greatest Generation because they were the last generation to fight to win; the enemies were defined, the strategic operations specific and were meant to defeat the enemy, fascism or Japanese imperialism. You can blame the Allies of the day for being just as guilty in violating the Geneva Convention in blowing up civilians as well as military targets as Germany or Japan. You can blame America for doing seemingly immoral acts of warfare.. like dropping atomic bombs. But it doesn’t take the uncovering of secret wartime reports to use a measure of common sense that maybe indeed someone made a decision to “just kill Japs” as a matter of retribution rather than using some other altruistic concept. It was war and we fought it to win. It’s the brutality of war that is supposed to inspire future generations to avoid it with peaceful negotiation rather than entertaining the impulse to fight.
Here’s some retrospect thoughts about those atomic bombs…
The Japanese did, in fact, surrender when we dropped the things. Yes, we had to drop a second bomb three days later when the Japanese government was suffering from shock & awe, but they did surrender, post haste. In other words, the dropping of the bombs was a strategic success; unconditional surrender and NOT some sort of negotiated cease fire or surrender months, and lives, later. We had previously demanded unconditional surrender of Germany as well. That’s how you end total war.
The tragic result of those two bombs being dropped, the total destruction from the release of never-before destructive power, the death and suffering years later due to the after effects, all contributed to the future fear of even thinking of using things like this in the future. Arguably it was this fear that kept up the Cold War and likely was a subliminal deterrent in the diffusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis, on both sides. People sometimes “blame” the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation and the years of fear and nuclear world proliferation as somehow being some sort of life trauma. The fact remains, it was the fear of what atom bombs could do, ala Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that kept us away from nuclear annihilation. I’d take the Cold War any day of the week to knowing that a guy with a finger on the button didn’t have history to reflect on before pressing it.
One might call this a drawback in the moral question of using nuclear weapons as a result of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Because a number of countries in the world have the capacity to use a nuclear weapon, and that better minds generally prevail in deciding whether or not to use them, wars are not being fought to win. In the human condition, war has always been that event of finality when two sides cause death and destruction until one side surrenders. It’s the result of war that makes us strive as a species to avoid it in the future. This forces negotiation and seeking more peaceful alternatives to settle disputes. Blowing the hell out of each other really doesn’t help anyone in the end. But when one side or the other, or both, have the capacity to totally annihilate each other many times over, it forces a reconsideration of what total war truly means… and thusly questions going to war at all when in fact going to war might be inevitable. What we have is a world now where wars are never fought totally. The countries that have the capability for nuclear warfare fear using it to the point that smaller regional wars now take years to settle (if at all) using conventional warfare. No one wants to make a Hiroshima/Nagasaki decision, so we use drones and smart bombs, which is good as it reduces unnecessary lives lost and collateral physical damage. But it’s not so good in ending wars quickly in a world where the enemy is religious fervor and not a political country.
The likelihood of a World War III nuclear scenario is largely very remote but what is not remote, and very likely just a matter of time, is the detonation of some nuclear device by manpack or other portable delivery system, by a person or persons with nothing to lose and having no moral obligation to the ramifications of their act.
History does, in fact, repeat itself sometimes. Mark my words on this one… if some Muslim extremist, or group, does something catastrophic the public will start thinking twice about the treatment of Muslims in general… out of fear… like the fear that consumed the nation after Pearl Harbor. We are already living in fear; Homeland Security, the TSA, all spawned from 9/11. Snipers, bombers, Islamic jihads, are all threats to us here at home in America. For now you can spout “Never again!” But the day may come to challenge that thought.