Almost thirty years ago, I visited Ground Zero in Nagasaki, Japan. Ground Zero marks the spot above which the second nuclear bomb dropped on Japan during World War II exploded. The bomb exploded, as designed, in the air because by doing so it caused more destruction than if the explosion had occurred upon the bomb hitting the ground.
Last week, I visited the airfield on Tinian from which the B-29 Superfortresses launched the nuclear attacks on Japan. I saw the bomb pits where the bombs were stored prior to loading, four 8500 foot long deserted runways (the other two runways are now the Tinian airport), and the shell of the air operations building.
Tinian’s population is under 2000 people supplemented by 400-800 temporary workers. A struggling casino/resort with 427 hotel rooms, several restaurants, a spa, pool, fitness facility, and a handful of small shops is Tinian’s primary economic engine. Tinian’s port was empty; only one small commercial fishing vessel (perhaps 40 feet in length) and several pleasure boats were visible. Most businesses seemed permanently shuttered. The miles of roadways stretching Tinian’s length and breadth were primarily legacies of WWII when the island hosted the world’s largest and busiest airport.
Nagasaki, by contrast, was a thriving commercial hub, larger and more prosperous than at any previous point in its history. The peace park at Ground Zero includes an obelisk marking Ground Zero and a museum that briefly summarizes the military campaigns of WWII, the devastation the nuclear bomb wrought, and the story of the city’s recovery.
Was the nuclear attack ethically justifiable? Before answering that question, two widely held shibboleths require debunking. First, the military alternative to employing nuclear weapons was not invading Japan but maintaining the blockade that was already in place. The allies prior to invading Okinawa had near total control of the air and effectively blockaded Japan by sea. The blockade was slowly starving Japanese to death. Furthermore, Japan no longer had an offensive military capability. Japan lacked both the natural resources to feed itself and to rebuild its capacity to wage war. All of this was known to U.S. military leaders.
From an ethical perspective, assessing the morality of the Okinawa invasion requires weighing the total costs to both sides of the invasion (number of fatalities and casualties, other fiscal and logistical costs, destruction and environmental ill effects, and intangible costs, e.g., increased racial or national prejudice) against an estimate of the same costs to both sides had the allies relied upon a blockade rather than invasion strategy.
Second, the U.S. and its allies had no urgent requirement to win the war. Victory was extremely important, but whether victory occurred in 1945, 1946, or 1947 was far less important. Many people and leaders among the allies felt an understandable urgency to end the war that nevertheless lacked a factual justification. War weariness and near-total commitment to the war effort had taken a toll, emotional and otherwise. The U.S. could have reduced its near-total war footing and implemented military personnel rotations while continuing to control the skies and blockade Japan. These steps would most likely have been less popular among the American citizenry than achieving a more immediate victory, but the best ethical choice can entail difficult, painful, and unpopular steps.
Were the nuclear attacks on Japan morally justifiable? I’m persuaded the attacks were morally justifiable, costing less in human and other costs than an extended blockade. Relying upon Just War Theory, the only ethical framework for assessing the morality of war that has gained significant traction among Christians and Western philosophers, the two jus in bello criteria of proportionality and non-combatant discrimination provide the framework for drawing that conclusion. The proportionality assessment consists in weighing the actual or potential costs associated with each of the three strategic options that the U.S. had (invasion, extended blockade, and nuclear attack).
Tragically, all three strategic options inescapably entailed significant violations of the noncombatant discrimination criterion, i.e., injury and death to noncombatants. Even though most of the dead and injured in the two nuclear attacks were civilians, no comparable military targets existed against which the U.S. could have used its two nuclear weapons. Like all siege warfare, the blockade of Japan probably had disproportional consequences for the civilian population, as the military prioritized the well-being of its personnel and the need to maintain Japan’s already severely limited war fighting capacity. As the invasion of Okinawa sadly proved, invading a densely populated island on which the populace greatly feared the allies and using WWII era air, ground, and naval forces and munitions against an entrenched enemy, many of whom were willing to fight to the death, caused large numbers of civilian casualties and fatalities. In short, one can reasonably argue that the nuclear attacks were the least bad alternative.
Musing about my visits to Nagasaki and Tinian left me with several thoughts:
· Sometimes we have no good choices, but we may have ignored an alternative (e.g., the blockade) that offers the best available choice;
· Confusing the urgent and the important can wrongly skew decisions, moral and otherwise;
· Long-term success in life does not depend upon avoiding bad things (Tinian, a Japanese possession prior to WWII, suffered invasion; Nagasaki suffered a nuclear attack), but upon how the community responds in the aftermath (Tinian remains an economic backwater, Japan developed into a democratic and economic powerhouse);
· These musings seem applicable to both individuals and communities.