Many years ago in New York I saw on the side of a bus a whiskey ad I’ve remembered all this time. It’s been for me a model of the short poem, and indeed I’ve come upon few short poems subsequently that exhibited more poetic talent. The ad consisted of two eleven-syllable lines of “verse,” thus:
In life, experience is the great teacher.
In Scotch, Teacher’s is the great experience.
For present purposes we must jettison the second line (licking our lips, to be sure, as it disappears), leaving the first to register a principle whose banality suggests that it enshrines a most useful truth. I bring up the matter because, writing on the forty-second anniversary of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I want to consider something suggested by the long debate about the ethics, if any, of that ghastly affair. Namely, the importance of experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views about that use of the atom bomb.
The experience I’m talking about is having to come to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death. The experience is common to those in the marines and the infantry and even the line navy, to those, in short, who fought the Second World War mindful always that their mission was, as they were repeatedly assured, “to close with the enemy and destroy him.” Destroy, notice: not hurt, frighten, drive away, or capture. I think there’s something to be learned about that war, as well as about the tendency of historical memory unwittingly to resolve ambiguity and generally clean up the premises, by considering the way testimonies emanating from real war experience tend to complicate attitudes about the most cruel ending of that most cruel war.
“What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?” The recruiting poster deserves ridicule and contempt, of course, but here its question is embarrassingly relevant, and the problem is one that touches on the dirty little secret of social class in America. Arthur T. Hadley said recently that those for whom the use of the A-bomb was “wrong” seem to be implying “that it would have been better to allow thousands on thousands of American and Japanese infantrymen to die in honest hand-to-hand combat on the beaches than to drop those two bombs.” People holding such views, he notes, “do not come from the ranks of society that produce infantrymen or pilots.” And there’s an eloquence problem: most of those with firsthand experience of the war at its worst were not elaborately educated people. Relatively inarticulate, most have remained silent about what they know. That is, few of those destined to be blown to pieces if the main Japanese islands had been invaded went on to become our most effective men of letters or impressive ethical theorists or professors of contemporary history or of international law. The testimony of experience has tended to come from rough diamonds–James Jones’ is an example–who went through the war as enlisted men in the infantry or the Marine Corps.
Anticipating objections from those without such experience, in his book WWII Jones carefully prepares for his chapter on the A-bombs by detailing the plans already in motion for the infantry assaults on the home islands of Kyushu (thirteen divisions scheduled to land in November 1945) and ultimately Honshu (sixteen divisions scheduled for March 1946). Planners of the invasion assumed that it would require a full year, to November 1946, for the Japanese to be sufficiently worn down by land-combat attrition to surrender. By that time, one million American casualties was the expected price. Jones observes that the forthcoming invasion of Kyushu “was well into its collecting and stockpiling stages before the war ended.” (The island of Saipan was designated a main ammunition and supply base for the invasion, and if you go there today you can see some of the assembled stuff still sitting there.) “The assault troops were chosen and already in training,” Jones reminds his readers, and he illuminates by the light of experience what this meant:
What it must have been like to some old-timer buck sergeant or staff sergeant who had been through Guadalcanal or Bougainville or the Philippines, to stand on some beach and watch this huge war machine beginning to stir and move all around him and know that he very likely had survived this far only to fall dead on the dirt of Japan’s home islands, hardly bears thinking about.
Another bright enlisted man, this one an experienced marine destined for the assault on Honshu, adds his testimony. Former Pfc. E. B. Sledge, author of the splendid memoir With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, noticed at the time that the fighting grew “more vicious the closer we got to Japan,” with the carnage of Iwo Jima and Okinawa worse than what had gone before. He points out that
what we had experienced [my emphasis] in fighting the Japs (pardon the expression) on Peleliu and Okinawa caused us to formulate some very definite opinions that the invasion . . . would be a ghastly bloodletting. It would shock the American public and the world. [Every Japanese] soldier, civilian, woman, and child would fight to the death with whatever weapons they had, ride, grenade, or bamboo spear.
The Japanese pre-invasion patriotic song, “One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor,” says Sledge, “meant just that.” Universal national kamikaze was the point. One kamikaze pilot, discouraged by his unit’s failure to impede the Americans very much despite the bizarre casualties it caused, wrote before diving his plane onto an American ship “I see the war situation becoming more desperate. All Japanese must become soldiers and die for the Emperor.” Sledge’s First Marine Division was to land close to the Yokosuka Naval Base, “one of the most heavily defended sectors of the island.” The marines were told, he recalls, that
due to the strong beach defenses, caves, tunnels, and numerous Jap suicide torpedo boats and manned mines, few Marines in the first five assault waves would get ashore alive—my company was scheduled to be in the first and second waves. The veterans in the outfit felt we had already run out of luck anyway…. We viewed the invasion with complete resignation that we would be killed—either on the beach or inland.
And the invasion was going to take place: there’s no question about that. It was not theoretical or merely rumored in order to scare the Japanese. By July 10, 1945, the prelanding naval and aerial bombardment of the coast had begun, and the battleships Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and King George V were steaming up and down the coast, softening it up with their sixteen-inch shells.
On the other hand, John Kenneth Galbraith is persuaded that the Japanese would have surrendered surely by November without an invasion. He thinks the A-bombs were unnecessary and unjustified because the war was ending anyway. The A-bombs meant, he says, “a difference, at most, of two or three weeks.” But at the time, with no indication that surrender was on the way, the kamikazes were sinking American vessels, the Indianapolis was sunk (880 men killed), and Allied casualties were running to over 7,000 per week. “Two or three weeks,” says Galbraith.
Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wounded, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thousands or related to one of them. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the fifteenth, the war pursued its accustomed course: on the twelfth of August eight captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the fifty-first United States submarine, Bonefish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down, the seventieth to be sunk, and the Destroyer Escort Underhill was lost. That’s a bit of what happened in six days of the two or three weeks posited by Galbraith. What did he do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.
Likewise, the historian Michael Sherry, author of a recent book on the rise of the American bombing mystique, The Creation of Armageddon, argues that we didn’t delay long enough between the test explosion in New Mexico and the mortal explosions in Japan. More delay would have made possible deeper moral considerations and perhaps laudable second thoughts and restraint. “The risks of delaying the bomb’s use,” he says would have been small—not the thousands of casualties expected of invasion but only a few days or weeks of relatively routine operations.” While the mass murders represented by these “relatively routine operations were enacting, Michael Sherry was safe at home. Indeed when the bombs were dropped he was going on eight months old, in danger only of falling out of his pram. In speaking thus of Galbraith and Sherry, I’m aware of the offensive implications ad hominem. But what’s at stake in an infantry assault is so entirely unthinkable to those without the experience of one, or several, or many, even if they possess very wide-ranging imaginations and warm sympathies, that experience is crucial in this case.
In general, the principle is, the farther from the scene of horror the easier the talk. One young combat naval officer close to the action wrote home m the fall of 1943, just before the marines underwent the agony of Tarawa: “When I read that we will fight the Japs for years if necessary and will sacrifice hundreds of thousands if we must, I always like to check from where he’s talking: it’s seldom out here.” That was Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy. And Winston Churchill, with an irony perhaps too broad and easy, noted in Parliament that the people who preferred invasion to A-bombing seemed to have “no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves.”
A remoteness from experience like Galbraith’s and Sherry’s and a similar rationalistic abstraction from actuality, seem to motivate the reaction of an anonymous reviewer of William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War for The New York Review of Books. The reviewer naturally dislikes Manchester’s still terming the enemy Nips or Japs, but what really shakes him (her?) is this passage of Manchester’s:
After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion of Japan’s home islands—astaggering number of Americans but millions more of Japanese— and you thank God for the atomic bomb.
Thank God for the atom bomb. From this, “one recoils” says the reviewer. One does, doesn’t one?
And not just a staggering number of Americans would have been killed in the invasion. Thousands of British assault troops would have been destroyed too, the anticipated casualties from the almost 200,000 men in the six divisions (the same number used to invade Normandy) assigned to invade the Malay Peninsula on September 9. Aimed at the reconquest of Singapore, this operation was expected to last until about March 1946—that is, seven more months of infantry fighting. “But for the atomic bombs,” a British observer intimate with the Japanese defenses notes, “I don’t think we would have stood a cat in hell’s chance. We would have been murdered in the biggest massacre of the war. They would have annihilated the lot of us.”
The Dutchman Laurens van der Post had been a prisoner of the Japanese for three and a half years. He and thousands of his fellows enfeebled by beriberi and pellagra, were being systematically starved to death, the Japanese rationalizing this treatment not just because the prisoners were white men but because they had allowed themselves to be captured at all and were therefore moral garbage. In the summer of 1945 Marshal Terauchi issued a significant order: at the moment the Allies invaded the main islands, all prisoners were to be killed by the prison-camp commanders. But thank God that did not happen. When the A-bombs were dropped, van der Post recalls, “This cataclysm I was certain would make the Japanese feel that they could withdraw from the war without dishonor, because it would strike them, as it had us in the silence of our prison night, as something supernatural.”
In an exchange of views not long ago in The New York Review of Books, Joseph Alsop and David Joravsky set forth the by now familiar argument on both sides of the debate about the “ethics” of the bomb. It’s not hard to guess which side each chose once you know that Alsop experienced capture by the Japanese at Hong Kong early in 1942, while Joravsky came into no deadly contact with the Japanese: a young combat-innocent soldier, he was on his way to the Pacific when the war ended. The editors of The New York Review gave the debate the tendentious title “Was the Hiroshima Bomb Necessary?” surely an unanswerable question (unlike “Was It Effective?”) and one precisely indicating the intellectual difficulties involved in imposing ex post facto a rational and even a genteel ethics on this event. In arguing the acceptability of the bomb, Alsop focuses on the power and fanaticism of War Minister Anami, who insisted that Japan fight to the bitter end, defending the main islands with the same techniques and tenacity employed at Iwo and Okinawa. Alsop concludes: “Japanese surrender could never have been obtained, at any rate without the honor-satisfying bloodbath envisioned by … Anami, if the hideous destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not finally galvanized the peace advocates into tearing up the entire Japanese book of rules.” The Japanese plan to deploy the undefeated bulk of their ground forces, over two million men, plus 10,000 kamikaze planes, plus the elderly and all the women and children with sharpened spears they could muster in a suicidal defense makes it absurd, says Alsop, to “hold the common view, by now hardly challenged by anyone, that the decision to drop the two bombs on Japan was wicked in itself, and that President Truman and all others who joined in making or who [like Robert Oppenheimer] assented to this decision shared in the wickedness.” And in explanation of “the two bombs,” Alsop adds: “The true, climactic, and successful effort of the Japanese peace advocates … did not begin in deadly earnest until after the second bomb had destroyed Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb was thus the trigger to all the developments that led to peace.” At this time the army was so unready for surrender that most looked forward to the forthcoming invasion as an indispensable opportunity to show their mettle, enthusiastically agreeing with the army spokesman who reasoned early in 1945, “Since the retreat from Guadalcanal, the Army has had little opportunity to engage the enemy in land battles. But when we meet in Japan proper, our Army will demonstrate its invincible superiority.” This possibility foreclosed by the Emperor’s post-A-bomb surrender broadcast, the shocked, disappointed officers of one infantry battalion, anticipating a professionally impressive defense of the beaches, killed themselves in the following numbers: one major, three captains, ten first lieutenants, and twelve second lieutenants.
David Joravsky, now a professor of history at Northwestern, argued on the other hand that those who decided to use the A-bombs on cities betray defects of “reason and self-restraint.” It all needn’t have happened, he says, “if the U.S. government had been willing to take a few more days and to be a bit more thoughtful in opening up the age of nuclear warfare.” I’ve already noted what “a few more days” would mean to the luckless troops and sailors on the spot, and as to being thoughtful when “opening up the age of nuclear warfare,” of course no one was focusing on anything as portentous as that, which reflects a historian’s tidy hindsight. The U.S. government was engaged not in that sort of momentous thing but in ending the war conclusively, as well as irrationally Remembering Pearl Harbor with a vengeance. It didn’t know then what everyone knows now about leukemia and various kinds of carcinoma and birth defects. Truman was not being sly or coy when he insisted that the bomb was “only another weapon.” History, as Eliot’s “Gerontion” notes,
… has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. . . .
Neither fear nor courage saves us.
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
Understanding the past requires pretending that you don’t know the present. It requires feeling its own pressure on your pulses without any ex post facto illumination. That’s a harder thing to do than Joravsky seems to think.
The Alsop-Joravsky debate, reduced to a collision between experience and theory, was conducted with a certain civilized respect for evidence. Not so the way the scurrilous, agitprop New Statesman conceives those justifying the dropping of the bomb and those opposing. They are, on the one hand, says Bruce Page, “the imperialist class-forces acting through Harry Truman” and, on the other, those representing “the humane, democratic virtues”—in short, “fascists” as opposed to “populists.” But ironically the bomb saved the lives not of any imperialists but only of the low and humble, the quintessentially democratic huddled masses—the conscripted enlisted men manning the fated invasion divisions and the sailors crouching at their gun-mounts in terror of the Kamikazes. When the war ended, Bruce Page was nine years old. For someone of his experience, phrases like “imperialist class forces” come easily, and the issues look perfectly clear.
He’s not the only one to have forgotten, if he ever knew, the unspeakable savagery of the Pacific war. The dramatic postwar Japanese success at hustling and merchandising and tourism has (happily, in many ways) effaced for most people the vicious assault context in which the Hiroshima horror should be viewed. It is easy to forget, or not to know, what Japan was like before it was first destroyed, and then humiliated, tamed, and constitutionalized by the West. “Implacable, treacherous, barbaric”—thosewere Admiral Halsey’s characterizations of the enemy, and at the time few facing the Japanese would deny that they fit to a T. One remembers the captured American airmen—the lucky ones who escaped decapitation—lockedfor years in packing crates. One remembers the gleeful use of bayonets on civilians, on nurses and the wounded, in Hong Kong and Singapore. Anyone who actually fought in the Pacific recalls the Japanese routinely firing on medics, killing the wounded (torturing them first, if possible), and cutting off the penises of the dead to stick in the corpses’ mouths. The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the Pacific war.
And of course the brutality was not just on one side. There was much sadism and cruelty, undeniably racist, on ours. (It’s worth noting in passing how few hopes blacks could entertain of desegregation and decent treatment when the U.S. Army itself slandered the enemy as “the little brown Jap.”) Marines and soldiers could augment their view of their own invincibility by possessing a well-washed Japanese skull, and very soon after Guadalcanal it was common to treat surrendering Japanese as handy rifle targets. Plenty of Japanese gold teeth were extracted—some from still living mouths—with Marine Corps Ka-Bar Knives, and one of E. B. Sledge’s fellow marines went around with a cut-off Japanese hand. When its smell grew too offensive and Sledge urged him to get rid of it, he defended his possession of this trophy thus: “How many Marines you reckon that hand pulled the trigger on?” (It’s hardly necessary to observe that a soldier in the ETO would probably not have dealt that way with a German or Italian—that is, a “white person’s”— hand.) In the Pacific the situation grew so public and scandalous that in September 1942, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet issued this order: “No part of the enemy’s body may be used as a souvenir. Unit Commanders will take stern disciplinary action. . . .”
Among Americans it was widely held that the Japanese were really subhuman, little yellow beasts, and popular imagery depicted them as lice, rats, bats, vipers, dogs, and monkeys. What was required, said the Marine Corps journal The Leatherneck in May 1945, was “a gigantic task of extermination.” The Japanese constituted a “pestilence,” and the only appropriate treatment was “annihilation.” Some of the marines landing on Iwo Jima had “Rodent Exterminator” written on their helmet covers, and on one American flagship the naval commander had erected a large sign enjoining all to “KILL JAPS! KILL JAPS! KILL MORE JAPS!” Herman Wouk remembers the Pacific war scene correctly while analyzing ensign Keith in The Caine Mutiny: “Like most of the naval executioners of Kwajalein, he seemed to regard the enemy as a species of animal pest.” And the feeling was entirely reciprocal: “From the grim and desperate taciturnity with which the Japanese died, they seemed on their side to believe that they were contending with an invasion of large armed ants.” Hiroshima seems to follow in natural sequence: “This obliviousness of both sides to the fact that the opponents were human beings may perhaps be cited as the key to the many massacres of the Pacific war.” Since the Jap vermin resist so madly and have killed so many of us, let’s pour gasoline into their bunkers and light it and then shoot those afire who try to get out. Why not? Why not blow them all up, with satchel charges or with something stronger? Why not, indeed, drop a new kind of bomb on them, and on the un-uniformed ones too, since the Japanese government has announced that women from ages of seventeen to forty are being called up to repel the invasion? The intelligence officer of the U.S. Fifth Air Force declared on July 21, 1945, that “the entire population of Japan is a proper military target,” and he added emphatically, “There are no civilians in Japan.” Why delay and allow one more American high school kid to see his own intestines blown out of his body and spread before him in the dirt while he screams and screams when with the new bomb we can end the whole thing just like that?
On Okinawa, only weeks before Hiroshima, 123,000 Japanese and Americans killed each other. (About 140,000 Japanese died at Hiroshima.) “Just awful” was the comment on the Okinawa slaughter not of some pacifist but of General MacArthur. On July 14, 1945, General Marshall sadly informed the Combined Chiefs of Staff—he was not trying to scare the Japanese—that it’s “now clear . . . that in order to finish with the Japanese quickly, it will be necessary to invade the industrial heart of Japan.” The invasion was definitely on, as I know because I was to be in it.
When the atom bomb ended the war, I was in the Forty-fifth Infantry Division, which had been through the European war so thoroughly that it had needed to be reconstituted two or three times. We were in a staging area near Rheims, ready to be shipped back across the United States for refresher training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and then sent on for final preparation in the Philippines. My division, like most of the ones transferred from Europe, was to take part in the invasion of Honshu. (The earlier landing on Kyushu was to be carried out by the 700,000 infantry already in the Pacific, those with whom James Jones has sympathized.) I was a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all. The killing was all going to be over, and peace was actually going to be the state of things. When the Enola Gay dropped its package, “There were cheers,” says John Toland, “over the intercom; it meant the end of the war.” Down on the ground the reaction of Sledge’s marine buddies when they heard the news was more solemn and complicated. They heard about the end of the war
with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief. We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. . . . Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.
These troops who cried and cheered with relief or who sat stunned by the weight of their experience are very different from the high-minded, guilt- ridden GIs we’re told about by J. Glenn Gray in his sensitive book The Warriors. During the war in Europe Gray was an interrogator in the Army Counterintelligence Corps, and in that capacity he experienced the war at Division level. There’s no denying that Gray’s outlook on everything was admirably noble, elevated, and responsible. After the war he became a much-admired professor of philosophy at Colorado College and an esteemed editor of Heidegger. But The Warriors, his meditation on the moral and psychological dimensions of modern soldiering, gives every sign of error occasioned by remoteness from experience. Division headquarters is miles—miles—behind the line where soldiers experience terror and madness and relieve those pressures by crazy brutality and sadism. Indeed, unless they actually encountered the enemy during the war, most “soldiers” have very little idea what “combat” was like. As William Manchester says, “All who wore uniforms are called veterans, but more than 90 percent of them are as uninformed about the killing zones as those on the home front.” Manchester’s fellow marine E. B. Sledge thoughtfully and responsibly invokes the terms drastically and totally to underline the differences in experience between front and rear, and not even the far rear, but the close rear. “Our code of conduct toward the enemy,” he notes, “differed drastically from that prevailing back at the division CP.” (He’s describing gold-tooth extraction from still-living Japanese.) Again he writes: “We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines . . . ,” even, he would insist, to men as intelligent and sensitive as Glenn Gray, who missed seeing with his own eyes Sledge’s marine friends sliding under fire down a shell-pocked ridge slimy with mud and liquid dysentery shit into the maggoty Japanese and USMC corpses at the bottom, vomiting as the maggots burrowed into their own foul clothing. “We didn’t talk about such things,” says Sledge. “They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans…. Nor do authors normally write about such vileness; unless they have seen it with their own eyes, it is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane.” And Sledge has added a comment on such experience and the insulation provided by even a short distance: “Often people just behind our rifle companies couldn’t understand what we knew.” Glenn Gray was not in a rifle company, or even just behind one. “When the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came,” he asks us to believe, “many an American soldier felt shocked and ashamed.” Shocked, OK, but why ashamed? Because we’d destroyed civilians? We’d been doing that for years, in raids on Hamburg and Berlin and Cologne and Frankfurt and Mannheim and Dresden, and Tokyo, and besides, the two A-bombs wiped out 10,000 Japanese troops, not often thought of now, John Hersey’s kindly physicians and Jesuit priests being more touching. If around division headquarters some of the people Gray talked to felt ashamed, down in the rifle companies no one did, despite Gray’s assertions. “The combat soldier,” he says,
knew better than did Americans at home what those bombs meant in suffering and injustice. The man of conscience realized intuitively that the vast majority of Japanese in both cities were no more, if no less, guilty of the war than were his own parents, sisters, or brothers.
I find this canting nonsense. The purpose of the bombs was not to “punish” people but to stop the war. To intensify the shame Gray insists we feel, he seems willing to fiddle the facts. The Hiroshima bomb, he says, was dropped “without any warning.” But actually, two days before, 720,000 leaflets were dropped on the city urging everyone to get out and indicating that the place was going to be (as the Potsdam Declaration had promised) obliterated. Of course few left.
Experience whispers that the pity is not that we used the bomb to end the Japanese war but that it wasn’t ready in time to end the German one. If only it could have been rushed into production faster and dropped at the right moment on the Reich Chancellery or Berchtesgaden or Hitler’s military headquarters in East Prussia (where Colonel Stauffenberg’s July 20 bomb didn’t do the job because it wasn’t big enough), much of the Nazi hierarchy could have been pulverized immediately, saving not just the embarrassment of the Nuremberg trials but the lives of around four million Jews, Poles, Slavs, and gypsies, not to mention the lives and limbs of millions of Allied and German soldiers. If the bomb had only been ready in time, the young men of my infantry platoon would not have been so cruelly killed and wounded.
All this is not to deny that like the Russian Revolution, the atom-bombing of Japan was a vast historical tragedy, and every passing year magnifies the dilemma into which it has lodged the contemporary world. As with the Russian Revolution, there are two sides—that’s why it’s a tragedy instead of a disaster—and unless we are, like Bruce Page, simple-mindedly unimaginative and cruel, we will be painfully aware of both sides at once. To observe that from the viewpoint of the war’s victims-to-be the bomb seemed precisely the right thing to drop is to purchase no immunity from horror. To experience both sides, one might study the book Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, which presents a number of amateur drawings and watercolors of the Hiroshima scene made by middle-aged and elderly survivors for a peace exhibition in 1975. In addition to the almost unbearable pictures, the book offers brief moments of memoir not for the weak- stomached:
While taking my severely wounded wife out to the river bank . . ., I was horrified indeed at the sight of a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeball in his palm. He looked to be in great pain but there was nothing that I could do for him. I wonder what became of him. Even today I vividly remember the sight. I was simply miserable.
These childlike drawings and paintings are of skin hanging down, breasts torn off, people bleeding and burning, dying mothers nursing dead babies. A bloody woman holds a bloody child in the ruins of a house, and the artist remembers her calling, “Please help this child! Someone, please help this child. Please help! Someone, please.” As Samuel Johnson said of the smothering of Desdemona, the innocent in another tragedy, “It is not to be endured.” Nor, it should be noticed, is an infantryman’s account of having his arm blown off in the Arno Valley in Italy in 1944:
I wanted to die and die fast. I wanted to forget this miserable world. I cursed the war, I cursed the people who were responsible for it, I cursed God for putting me here … to suffer for something I never did or knew anything about.
(A good place to interrupt and remember Glenn Gray’s noble but hopelessly one-sided remarks about “injustice,” as well as “suffering.”)
“For this was hell,” the soldier goes on,
and I never imagined anything or anyone could suffer so bitterly I screamed and cursed. Why? What had I done to deserve this? But no answer came. I yelled for medics, because subconsciously I wanted to live. I tried to apply my right hand over my bleeding stump, but I didn’t have the strength to hold it. I looked to the left of me and saw the bloody mess that was once my left arm; its fingers and palm were turned upward, like a flower looking to the sun for its strength.
The future scholar-critic who writes The History of Canting in the Twentieth Century will find much to study and interpret in the utterances of those who dilate on the special wickedness of the A-bomb-droppers. He will realize that such utterance can perform for the speaker a valuable double function. First, it can display the fineness of his moral weave. And second, by implication it can also inform the audience that during the war he was not socially so unfortunate as to find himself down there with the ground forces, where he might have had to compromise the purity and clarity of his moral system by the experience of weighing his own life against someone else’s. Down there, which is where the other people were, is the place where coarse self-interest is the rule. When the young soldier with the wild eyes comes at you, firing, do you shoot him in the foot, hoping he’ll be hurt badly enough to drop or mis-aim the gun with which he’s going to kill you, or do you shoot him in the chest (or, if you’re a prime shot, in the head) and make certain that you and not he will be the survivor of that mortal moment?
It would be not just stupid but would betray a lamentable want of human experience to expect soldiers to be very sensitive humanitarians. The Glenn Grays of this world need to have their attention directed to the testimony of those who know, like, say, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, who said, “Moderation in war is imbecility,” or Sir Arthur Harris, director of the admittedly wicked aerial-bombing campaign designed, as Churchill put it, to “de-house” the German civilian population, who observed that “War is immoral,” or our own General W. T. Sherman: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” Lord Louis Mountbatten, trying to say something sensible about the dropping of the A-bomb, came up only with “War is crazy.” Or rather, it requires choices among crazinesses. “It would seem even more crazy,” he went on, “if we were to have more casualties on our side to save the Japanese.” One of the unpleasant facts for anyone in the ground armies during the war was that you had to become pro tern a subordinate of the very uncivilian George S. Patton and respond somehow to his unremitting insistence that you embrace his view of things. But in one of his effusions he was right, and his observation tends to suggest the experimental dubiousness of the concept of “just wars.” “War is not a contest with gloves,” he perceived. “It is resorted to only when laws, which are rules, have failed.” Soldiers being like that, only the barest decencies should be expected of them. They did not start the war, except in the terrible sense hinted at in Frederic Manning’s observation based on his front-line experience in the Great War: “War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.” Knowing that unflattering truth by experience, soldiers have every motive for wanting a war stopped, by any means.
The stupidity, parochialism, and greed in the international mismanagement of the whole nuclear challenge should not tempt us to misimagine the circumstances of the bomb’s first “use.” Nor should our well-justified fears and suspicions occasioned by the capture of the nuclear-power trade by the inept and the mendacious (who have fucked up the works at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, etc.) tempt us to infer retrospectively extraordinary corruption, imbecility, or motiveless malignity in those who decided, all things considered, to drop the bomb. Times change. Harry Truman . . . knew war, and he knew better than some of his critics then and now what he was doing and why he was doing it. “Having found the bomb,” he said, “we have used it. … We have used it to shorten the agony of young Americans.”
The past, which as always did not know the future, acted in ways that ask to be imagined before they are condemned. Or even simplified.
The New Republic