Saturday, August 07, 2010

Ending the Good War

My son, who lives in Minnesota, and I talk weekly. He and I discussed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and war in general this morning, as do family members from all parts of our warring nation, and we try to learn what makes it so frequent, so terrible, and so hard to avoid. While I am a pacifist, I acknowledged to him that staying out of World War II would have been impossible after the Japanese empire conducted their devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. It was not like 9.11.01, after all, when terrorists killed so many but had no homeland and no military. Japan and the US are both nation-states. The Pearl Harbor attack was clearly an unprovoked attack of one nation-state upon another and was doomed to reprisal.
Given that the US responded to that attack and declared war, what was the obligation of the civilian leadership? Assuming a non-pacifist leadership (fair assumption for most or all nation-states on Earth), the goals were:
  • win the war
  • gain assurances of peace
  • deter future wars
Some would assert that another goal would be to punish the Japanese nation for its unprovoked war crime attack. Some would go further and suggest that the Japanese people themselves should be hurt for allowing their imperial war machine to run so wildly amok. Some set up measures of relative worth--that US soldiers' lives are far more valuable than were the Japanese lives, even civilians, even children who were innocent of any wrong intention or any harm to anyone. Many US people believed and still believe that the Japanese got what they deserved with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This is hate speech, beneath a mature culture and not worthy of a great nation. The dastardly attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing war were horrific and were the fault of the Japanese warlords, but their authoritarian government allowed no dissent. No Japanese civilians voted for these warlords and all were forced by imperial law to contribute to any government effort, even war against a non-aggressor like the US. Those civilians were protected under international law that is just and correct, wouldn't we all agree? After all, would we want to permit Iraqi assassins to kill our children because they are Americans and Americans launched an unprovoked attack on them in March 2003? Iraq had not fired a single bullet at the US, we attacked based on lies and yet we would not expect it to be legal for Iraqis to murder our children here in our land as a just response. Japanese civilians were protected, period, and we violated that international norm.
Did Japan mistreat our POWs? Yes. Did they start the war? Yes. Does it follow that Hiroshima and Nagasaki--two civilian targets of no military consequence--were legitimate targets by the rules of war? No, the opposite is true, according to the Hague Accords, the Geneva Conventions and other international law, which would be even further declared with the Nuremberg Principles following the end of that war. All attacks on civilians are in violation of international rules of war and the very rules of war of our own armed forces.
It was illegal for the Germans to bomb London and illegal for the Allies to bomb German cities. It was illegal for Japan to bomb Chinese cities and for the US to bomb Japanese cities. Bombing civilians is unsoldierly and violates the conduct of war laws of the nations, first promulagated by the Holy Roman Empire, written by St. Augustine back almost 1,600 years ago.
However, goes the common wisdom, those atomic bombings shortened World War II and saved a million lives or more, since they rendered the invasion of the Japanese homeland unnecessary. The tradeoff may have even saved more Japanese civilians than it killed and certainly saved enormous numbers of American lives.
This is personal for many of us, Japanese or American. It is quite personal, even existential, for me, since my father was already fighting in the South Pacific, (US troops, South Pacific, WWII) would almost certainly have been a part of any invasion of Japan, and casualties would have been quite high on all sides, as the Japanese would not only be on their homeland but the warlord propaganda had been telling citizens and soldiers alike that if the Americans came they would be coming to commit genocide, that the Americans were baby killers and bayoneted babies and there were even stories of American troops eating the babies they killed. The Japanese would have been fighting for their very existence, no longer to expand their empire, and it would have been very bloody for all.
The facts, however, stand all this on its head. Research since the end of World War II has shown some startling and myth-busting facts.
  • The US broke Japanese secret codes and knew most of their plans and intentions by the end of the previous year, 1944. It was obvious that Japan's leaders, both civilian and military, were increasingly coming to the opinion that they were bound to lose the war against the US.
  • The possibility existed as early as late winter or early spring of 1945 for the US and Japan to declare a ceasefire and launch negotiations for peace. Diplomatic cables both intercepted and decoded by the US, as well as back channel communications through the Soviets (who were not at war with Japan and who were a safe intermediary), strongly suggest this possibility on numerous documented occasions (Thomas and Witts, 1977).
  • Japan was not prepared to surrender unconditionally until the atomic bombs were used, but the conditions under which they would have surrendered were virtually identical to those allowed when Douglas McArthur conducted the ceremonial surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri and allowed the Japanese to keep their figurehead emperor.
  • Harry Truman, president upon FDR's death in office, was determined to use the new weapons on Japanese cities. He not only wanted complete capitulation without condition from the Japanese, but he wanted to show the Soviets that we would, in fact, not hesitate to drop these weapons of mass destruction directly on cities--indeed, it is the consensus of historians and political scientists and international relations scholars that the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were really meant much more as the start of the Cold War than the end of WWII. But these weapons weren't ready until early August and therefore negotiating the surrender of Japan was not in his interest until that time.
What do these facts mean? They mean that if the US had negotiated a conditional surrender in April, May, June or July of 1945, all the US troops who died between that time and the surrender of Japan on August 15 were completely gratuitous, unnecessary, and a function of some very callous calculations by Harry Truman and his war council. This means that the atomic bombs did not shorten World War II, they prolonged it. This means that the atomic bombs did not save lives, they cost both American and Japanese lives.
It is long past time to review the record and retire both the nuclear arsenals and the lies that help protect them from our legitimate wishes for peace based on good relationships rather than abject fear of weapons of terror, which is all that these WMD have ever been. They were built in secret and justified by lies. It is time to open all this to the light of true exam and come to better decisions. We owe it to our children and the generations to come.
Thomas, Gordon, and Witts, Max Morgan (1977). Enola Gay. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day.

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