Debating the Morality of Hiroshima

Debating the Morality of Hiroshima.

By George Friedman

Republished with permission of Stratfor

Each year at this time — the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima — the world pauses. The pause is less to mourn the dead than to debate a moral question: whether the bombing was justified and, by extension, whether the United States unnecessarily slaughtered tens of thousands of people on Aug. 6, 1945. The debate rarely focuses on a careful analysis of war and morality and is more frequently framed by existing views of the United States. The debate is rarely about Hiroshima or about World War II. It is a debate about the moral character of the United States. This is not an illegitimate subject, and Hiroshima might be a useful point with which to begin the debate. But that isn’t possible until after we consider the origins of Hiroshima, which can be found in the evolution of modern warfare.

Innovations in Industrial Warfare

Warfare became industrial for a simple reason. The introduction of firearms brought to the battlefield a weapon with tremendous strength and an overwhelming weakness. The strength was the ability to kill or disable an enemy at distances far beyond the range of previous weapons. The weakness was that without extraordinary training and talent on the part of the soldier, firearms are quite inaccurate. For a soldier under the pressure of combat, loading and effectively aiming his weapon — particularly with muzzle-loaded firearms — was not an easy task.

To compensate for the inaccuracy of firearms, larger forces could all fire at the same time. Simultaneous firing increased the probability of inflicting casualties on the enemy, and simultaneity, choreographed as it was in multiple lines of troops — with some firing, some waiting and some reloading — maintained near-continuous fire. The solution on the other side was more soldiers pouring more fire on their enemy. Thus, the inaccuracy of a deadly weapon required ever-larger armies.

It also required increasing innovations in weaponry. Firearms evolved from muzzleloaders to breechloaders, then those able to hold clips of multiple rounds and finally the machine gun, which compensated for its own inaccuracy per shot by saturating the horizon with bullets. It was said that in World War I it required 10,000 bullets to kill one soldier. I have no idea where this calculation came from, but it was true in essence. Given the inaccuracy of most riflemen, masses of them were needed. The machine gun made riflemen far more effective.

The approach to warfare that made it less efficient is at the heart of the real issue leading to Hiroshima. Armies surged in size and had to be equipped. Rifles and machine guns were not the work of master smiths but had to be mass-produced in factories, as did a wide range of products needed to support multimillion-man armies. These factories were the key enablers of war. Killing one solder eliminated one rifle, but destroying a factory eliminated the combat power of large numbers of soldiers. Therefore, destroying factories mass-producing the means of war was the most efficient counter to the massed armies made necessary by inaccurate weapons. These factories typically were in cities. In order to function, they had to have efficient transportation links with other factories manufacturing precursor parts, and thus tended to be located near other factories, transportation hubs, and their workers and the systems that employees needed to live and work — houses, grocery stores, schools and so on.

Master military strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued that the key to war was to attack the center of gravity of the enemy’s capacity to wage war. By World War I, the center of gravity was no longer the army but the factories and the workers who produced the engines of war. The distinction between soldier and civilian, critical to all modern notions of military morality, dissolved. The ability to wage war disappeared when the factories did. But given the location of factories, by necessity in cities, any attack on these factories would kill not only workers but also their children, and the milkman’s children. This was, by definition, total war — the only war that could be waged in the industrial age.

At the outset of World War I, there was no way to destroy war-critical factories or populations from a distance. But as with most things, a problem found a solution close at hand. Aircraft made their appearance on the European battlefield during World War I — first as observation planes, then as fighters tasked with shooting down observation planes, and then as bombers tasked with destroying targets identified by reconnaissance aircraft.

Targeting the Industrial Plant

Geopolitically, it was clear that World War I had not solved the fundamental problem of Europe and that another war was inevitable. Among those who believed this were the theorists of air power. Chief among these was Giulio Douhet, an Italian who thought through the reality of war at the time and concluded that the chief solution would be the destruction of the enemy’s war-making capacity. Douhet believed this would best be achieved by aircraft attacking cities en masse and destroying them. Joined in this view by the American Gen. Billy Mitchell and Britain’s Hugh Trenchard, Douhet argued that the key to warfare was to use large numbers of massed bombers to annihilate cities. This would achieve two things: It would destroy the enemy’s industrial plant and trigger a revolt by the public against the government. Because both sides would have massed bombers, the key to war was to launch attacks greater than the enemy’s potential response by both having a larger air force and destroying the enemy’s ability to produce more aircraft.

The inter-war air strategists were in part shaped by the carnage they saw in protracted trench warfare. Douhet believed that the role of air power was almost purely offensive, requiring rapid and destructive attacks against first the opposing forces’ aircraft and then against civilian industrial and commercial centers. Trenchard, like Douhet, saw air power as a strategic and valuable force. Where Trenchard differed from his Italian contemporary was in considering ground forces still important and suggesting joint ground and air operations against enemy airfields. Early American air theorists, including Mitchell and the Army Air Corps Tactical School, viewed the role of strategic bombing as targeted against the war-making capacity of the enemy, rather than against the enemy morale, as Douhet and some European counterparts considered. Mitchell saw attacks on industry, communications and transportation as the real objectives of strategic air power and saw the armies in the field as false objectives.

Douhet implicitly recognized the weakness of aircraft, which was the same as the weakness of rifles: They were extremely imprecise. In 1940, when the British began launching attacks on Germany, the imprecision of the bomber was so great that German intelligence could not figure out what they were trying to bomb. Only massing bombers and destroying cities would work.

The Germans used this dual strategy in the Battle of Britain. They failed both because of lack of sufficient weapons and an air force not designed for strategic bombardment (which is what attacks on cities were called) but for tactical support for ground warfare. The British adopted nighttime area bombardment, making no secret that their goal was the destruction of cities to suppress production and generate political opposition.

The United States took a different approach: precision daylight bombardment. The Army Air Corps Tactical School sought to make bombing more efficient by finding and identifying bottlenecks in the opponent’s supply chain. Targeting the bottleneck would reduce the total number of bombers, men and bombs needed to achieve the same ultimate goal as large city bombing. The Americans felt that they could solve the problem of inaccuracy and total attacks on cities through technology. They developed the Norden bombsight, which was supposed to enable the dropping of iron bombs with precision. The bombsights were delivered to the planes by armed guard, and the bombardier was ordered to destroy the bombsight at all costs if shot down. Regardless of this technology, U.S. bombing was not much more accurate than the deliberate randomness of the British.

By the time the air war focused on Japan, there were no illusions that there was precision in bombing. Curtis LeMay, who commanded U.S. air forces in the Pacific, adopted the British strategy of nighttime attacks with incendiary bombs. On the night of March 9, 1945, 279 B-29s conducted an incendiary bombing attack on Tokyo that destroyed more than 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) of the city and killed an estimated 100,000 people.

The Tokyo bombing followed Douhet’s logic. So did the creation of the atomic bomb. Douhet’s point that destroying cities was the key to winning wars drove Allied strategy against Germany and in Japan. The atomic bomb was a radically new weapon technologically, but in terms of military doctrine it was simply a logical step forward in the destruction of cities. The effects of radiation were poorly understood at the time, but even with acute radiation deaths included the death toll was less than 166,000 in Hiroshima. The development of the atomic bomb was one of the greatest scientific undertakings of all time, but it was not needed to destroy cities. That was already being done. The atomic bomb simply was a way to accomplish the goal using only one plane and several billion dollars.

Hiroshima’s Aftermath

The Japanese themselves were not certain what happened in Hiroshima. Many of Japan’s leaders dismissed U.S. claims of a new type of bomb, thinking that this was simply a continuation of the conventional destructions of cities. It was one of the reasons that no decision on surrender was made. The Japanese were prepared to live with extraordinary casualties. The firebombing of Tokyo did not lead to talk of surrender. And the argument was that since Hiroshima was not a special case, it did not warrant surrender. Recent research into archives shows that the Japanese were not planning on surrender. True, Japan had put out diplomatic feelers, but it is often forgotten that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in the midst of negotiations. It is in this context that feelers have to be considered.

There are those who are confident that the Japanese would have surrendered without the bombing of Hiroshima. But they did not surrender because of the Tokyo bombing. Submarine warfare — not just bombing — had crippled Japan’s industry, but this had been the case for many months. And the example of Okinawa, with its kamikaze attacks and civilian resistance to the death, was sobering. You and I may know what was coming, but President Harry S. Truman did not have the luxury.

There are two defenses from a military perspective, then, of the American bombing. One is that no one at the time could be certain of what the Japanese were going to do because a reading of the record shows that even after Hiroshima, even the Japanese didn’t know what they were going to do. Second, a doctrine and reality of war was unfolding — a process that began hundreds of years earlier. But those who would challenge these defenses are compelled to explain how they would have dealt with monstrous regimes like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The focus on Hiroshima is morally justifiable only in the context of condemning several centuries of military development. It can be condemned, but I don’t know what difference it makes. The logic of the musket played itself out ineluctably to Hiroshima. But the core reality that played out was this: Over time, the distinction between military and civilian became untenable. War fighting began in the factory and ended with the soldier at the front. The soldier was a capillary. The arteries of war were in the city.

There is a tendency in our time to demand that someone do something about evil. There is a willful denial of the truth that anything that is done requires actions that are evil. The moral lesson of Hiroshima is twofold. The first is that military doctrine, like other things, is ruthlessly logical. The second is that in confronting Germany and Japan, moral purity was impossible, save for the end being pursued, which was destroying the prior evil. President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the logic of strategy and the logic of morality, in my opinion. For him, choices were shaped by military doctrine and the nature of the evil he faced. Truman had even less choice.

Hiroshima was an act that flowed logically from history, and we cannot in retrospect claim to know what the Japanese would or would not have done. However, I think that had I been there, knowing what was known then — or even what is known now — I would have been trapped in a logic that ultimately justified itself: Japan surrendered, and Asia was saved from a great evil.

Debating the Morality of Hiroshima is republished with permission of Stratfor.”


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30 responses to “Debating the Morality of Hiroshima

  1. thordaddy

    The impetus behind this debate though is the swirling specter of charges of “hypocrisy” all-around. So what “we” get are two sides arguing the “unprincipled exception” and neither LOSING any autonomy for this slight of hand. In other words, those that assert a universal morality have to fold into this frame a mass annihilation of Japanese (no easy undertaking) while those who reject a universal morality are seemingly attempting to establish one with the certain “immorality” of this mass annihilation as its “foundation.” What is really lost on the masses is that both sides agree in principle in the idea of a universal morality. This clearly advantages one side over the other. So how does the other side recompense?

    • Cannot those who “assert a universal morality” assert the mass annihilation of Japanese to be immoral?

      • thordaddy


        Of course, but “they” do not want to OR their assertion of a universal morality is a gross lie.

      • I am not sure who you are referring to.

      • thordaddy


        That side that asserts a universal morality AND defines this particular act as absolutely immoral ARE NOT A RELEVANT PART OF THE DEBATE… The debate is amongst those that assert a universal morality and those that reject such an oppressive idea. And each side has to make such a nearly impossible coherent argument that charges of total hypocrisy IS THE TRUE AIM of this “debate.” So even though both sides seemingly agree on a universal morality all is lost on the masses in a cloud of hypocrisy.

      • I am not sure these general divisions you opine about are entirely reflective of reality. Can you provide specific examples?

      • thordaddy


        The only real debate MUST BE BETWEEN those who assert a universal morality and those who reject a universal morality. If BOTH SIDES agree on a universal morality in principle then the debate is whether this particular act was immoral or within our shared universal morality? BUT THIS IS NOT the real purpose of this debate. The real purpose is to soil all sides with charges of “hypocrisy” so that the consensus of an agreed upon universal morality is hidden and those that reject a universal morality stay hidden within this debate.

      • Why do you feel this is the real purpose of the debate? Who gets to decide what this “real purpose” is?

      • thordaddy


        Feeling is the wrong word. “We” already know the dominate ethos is “no universal morality” and so ALL DEBATES float within this ideological stew. A debate amongst those that agree in principle of a “universal morality” STILL DEBATE inside the dominate ethos that rejects a “universal morality.” So in the particular scenario presented by Hiroshoma, the first question that needs answered is, “who are the actual participants in this debate and what represents the origin of debate?” My take is that this scenario gets WIDE SPREAD attention because it represents evidence of no universal morality (radical liberation) all the while pushing a “universal morality” (radical liberation). A debate about the morality or immorality of the act itself is simple misdirection and a debate limited to a very small intellectual and spiritual minority.

      • tD
        Please provide specific examples of the parties to this debate on morality you believe is occurring with respect to the bombing of Hiroshima.

      • thordaddy


        The debaters MUST DECLARE themselves. I can only logically speculate where the real debate is… Is the debate between those with antithetical worldviews, ie., universal morality versus no universal morality, or is the debate amongst those with a shared worldview in which the act itself is to be determined moral or immoral? I will readily acknowledge that both debates are taking place. But would also argue that the former takes place in the public sphere while the latter is mostly a private affair FOR THE SIMPLE FACT that most reject a universal morality and the aim of the public debate is to ultimately affirm their ignorant belief.

  2. I am not convinced this sub-debate is taking place in the manner you have described. I am also not convinced that “most reject a universal morality.” It seems like a lot of opinion presented as fact. Again, specific examples (or anything more substantive than your declarations) would go a long way to make the point you attempt to make more plausible.

    • thordaddy

      This is the key phrase:

      “The debate is rarely about Hiroshima or about World War II. It is a debate about the moral character of the United States.”

      But the moral character of the “United” States is really an internal battle amongst the white American himself. He is a head divided between “universal morality” and “no universal morality.” The manner in which Hiroshima fits into this multi-frame concludes at different places. That part of white man’s mind that rejects “universal morality” should have no thoughts on the matter of the morality or immorality of Hiroshima. Amorality envelopes all events. But, because this belief is actually a desire, he still must intrude upon those giving consensus to the idea of “universal morality” in the very debate over the morality or immorality of Hiroshima. He still finds it necessary to impose his will and desire to exist in a world with no universal morality and he can point to those “murderous” white Americans at Hiroshima to “prove” it. The very event itself is proof of no universal morality. “We” exist in an amoral universe. Anti-perfect. A white man’s head divided between the perfect universe and the anti-perfect universe. Hiroshima is just the “rubber ball.”

      • Wouldn’t it be easier to say the moral debate over Hiroshima suggests that the debaters embrace a moral universe? They merely define morality differently.

      • thordaddy


        Two individuals with opposing conceptions of “universal morality” are either both wrong or one right and one wrong. Never could both be right, BUT all can agree to accepting that a universal morality exists. THIS DOES NOT HOWEVER address he who BELIEVES no universal morality exists. And because of this very belief, the amoralist CANNOT JOIN THE DEBATE as he cannot in good conscience argue for the ultimate morality or immorality OF ANYTHING. Although, he STILL DESIRES TO IMPOSE his amoral universe on those who agree in principle on a universal morality. So how does he “enter” the debate? He obviously must cloak himself in a “universal morality” so as to quite stealthily inject amorality into the debate. This is the real debate… Whether America is moral, immoral or amoral? Many debate over the truth of the first two, but many others WANT the latter to be true.

      • Who is the amoral person who has joined the debate? Be specific.

      • thordaddy


        “We” cannot know unless the amoralist declare himself WHICH he will not wish to do if he is desirous of infiltrating the real rebate in order to push his amoral belief.

        Are “we” of the understanding that a universal morality exists? If so, define yours please?

      • The two great commandments that contain the whole law of God are:

        •Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength;
        •Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

      • thordaddy


        And what of those who worship no God? Are they lacking a universal morality? I will also note that the First Commandment and the “love thy neighbor” phrase are prohibitions against loving anything and declarations that one must love the right thing… Very, very illiberal.

      • In your world does the commandment to love your neighbor apply if you neighbor is not white?

      • thordaddy


        I don’t “love” myself so I may hate that “neighbor” trying to destroy me. Or… I simply seek no “neighbors.” Is this forbidden in your world? You need to get to the heart of the matter.

      • You are avoiding the question.

      • thordaddy


        No I am not… You are modifying the commandment to SIMPLY “love thy neighbor” and leaving out “as thy self.”

        How much love does one have left AFTER giving it all to the Greatest Commandment?

        My universal morality, on the other hand, is Man strives towards Supremacy OR he is in descent.

      • I made no such modification. Why do you feel that I have?

      • thordaddy


        Because I answered your question… And you claimed that I didn’t… I said that I do not love myself and therefore am under no commandment to love my neighbor. I am also not prohibited from having no neighbors ESPECIALLY ones that wish my annihilation.

        But to answer your question as asked, “must I love a black neighbor?” No, absolutely not. And given what I know about the state of racial affairs within America, loving a black neighbor BECAUSE he was a black neighbor would be a form passive self-annihilation that a Supremacist doctrine like Christianity COULD NOT POSSIBLY MANDATE.

      • And so we have come full circle. Another way to describe not loving yourself is shame. It makes perfect sense that you would espouse a philosophy of hatred towards other people for such a flimsy reason as skin color given the shame you must be suffering from. I understand that makes you feel better about yourself but SHAME IS SELF ANNIHILATION far more than a married couple choosing to use contraception after having two children. Any rational person would see that but I don’t think you are operating on a reasonable level.

      • thordaddy


        You are interpreting “love thy neighbor as you love thyself” AS A MANDATE TO LOVE YOURSELF. There is no such mandate in the Christian doctrine ESPECIALLY as it relates to the Greateat Commandment. To fulfill that commandment to its greatest extent leaves both no room to love thyself and evidence that one is not a self-annihilator.

        Are you claiming yourself to be a Christian or you have just embraced these commandments as your “universal morality?”

        Where you get confused on the racial question is thinking that I have to justify myself in the eyes of an avowed anti-white Supremacist. That’s nonsensical and self-annihilating. Again, “we” read your desire for liberation without separation. You LITERALLY BELIEVE in forcing white Supremacists to live amongst those they do not want to live amongst. This is your shame coming through. Being forced to live with the likes of “me.” But that is a fraud. I have no desire to live amongst your kind, but your kind will not leave well enough alone.

      • Again, I make no such interpretation. Loving God means loving his creation whole heartedly and not out of obligation.

        As for living together, I have no desire to force you to live near me. I have no desire to interfere in your life. You are the one posting comments obsessively on my blog. Please feel free not to.

      • thordaddy


        This blog isn’t you ruminating in the solitary confinement of your library room, but rather, analogous to you sticking your head out of the front door of your house relentlessly excoriating the entire global neighborhood.

        Your feeble attempt to introduce the racial element is utterly predictable… But my freedom and your freedom does not have to be in relation to black freedom. And I understand that you are not attempting to force me to live amongst you. You are attempting to make me feel “shameful” for not desiring to live amongst blacks (or anyone I do not desire to live amongst except other whites). This desire to “see” shame in healthy observation is rooted in revenge for a certain archetype of white man you despise.

      • Not true. I don’t want you to feel shame. It is obvious to me that you do feel shame as is evidenced by your behavior. Nor do I despise any archetype of white man..

        I think our back and forth has run its course. I would advise you to go read other blogs that fit in with your view of the world. Good luck to you.

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