I find myself thinking about atomic bombs.
When the subject of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come up it’s almost always in isolation. People who are against it only talk in terms of their belief that the attacks were barbaric and unnecessary. People who are for it only talk in terms of their belief that the attack was necessary to stop the much, much greater destruction that would be caused by an American invasion of the Japanese islands. I admit that I have often fallen under this trap myself. It cannot and should not be thought of in those terms, however.
The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the final action in three decades of insanity that gripped the entire globe. That number is almost exact, since it was an event that occurred in early 1915 that precipitated the entire event. It was there that the idea of attacking civilians became normal, expected even.
Throughout most of recorded history there was a notion that warfare was, somehow, civilized. Well, maybe not civilized, so much, but certainly subject to rules. Those rules, in turn, were as much a product of available technology as any sort of desire on the part of men to be kind to other men. The basic explanation is two-fold. First, until the last century or so it was really hard for people to kill each other. Second, throughout most of human history killing civilians was a giant waste. They were much more useful as workers or slaves.
The instances of indiscriminate attacks on civilians are fairly rare throughout recorded history. That doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent. The Viking raids on the British Isles come to mind, for one. Even so, the Viking attacks were borne of practicality. They hit monasteries because monks make terrible warriors and usually had gold. They were also generally isolated, making for easy pickings. Genghis Khan occasionally wiped towns off the map. Even that was usually pragmatic. It was a way of making sure that everyone else knew not to fuck with the Golden Horde.
Attacks against civilians, overall, were rare though. The reason is fairly simple. It was exceptionally hard to kill people throughout most of history. If you need to run someone through with a spear or hack their head off at the neck with an axe you have to be there. You have to think about it. You have to see the fear in their eyes. You can’t accidentally kill someone the next town over or destroy that town because you missed a swing with your sword. You have to, in short, want to kill people.
The Civil War in the United States was arguably the first modern war. Armies started using repeating rifles and Gatling guns. The Union engaged in aerial reconnaissance throughout much of the war. News was transmitted instantaneously using telegraph. Steam powered metal ships fought all along the coasts and up the Mississippi River. By 1864 the ground around Richmond, VA was almost indistinguishable from the Western Front in 1918.
The Civil War also contained two instances of direct attempts to take a country out of the war by taking the civilians out of the war. In the fall of 1864 Philip Sheridan decided to deny the Confederates use of the Shenandoah Valley by burning the fields and destroying livestock. Two months later William Tecumseh Sherman made his famous March to the Sea and turned himself into one of the greatest villains of the war from the Southern perspective. Even that wasn’t truly unconditional warfare. Sheridan and Sherman went after the livelihood of the Southern civilians but did not intentionally attempt to go after anyone’s lives.
It was left to the Great War for the next step. The most tragic thing about WWI was that it was a completely and totally unnecessary war. Europe had developed a policy of avoiding direct war on the continent through a combination of diplomacy and proxy conflicts over colonial holdings. When the war broke out it was because everyone overreacted to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the careful system of avoidance completely broke down. Rather than recognizing that the war was stupid and back down the various powers went entirely beyond all civility.
Germany, for reasons I don’t fully understand, was the nation that introduced the three worst innovations of WWI. Two of those things were a combination of technology and necessity. Before the war Germany had gone all-in on airships and submarines. The Zeppelins were magnificent pieces of technology for their day, capable of carrying heavy payloads long distances. This was at a time when airplanes weren’t guaranteed to be more than curiosities. The U-Boat fleet was basically ignored by the rest of the world, as submarines had so far proven to be fragile and unreliable at best. German war planners were forward thinking enough to realize that they had a major disadvantage in any war against Britain and that was the British navy. The High Seas Fleet simply could not stand up to the Royal Navy in a head-to-head fight. Britain itself was a fortress defended by a wide, well-patrolled moat. The only answer, then was to avoid Britain’s strength and strike it where it was weak. Go below or above, not through.
It’s also important to realize that in 1914 there was no radar, there was no sonar. The notion of aerial combat was basically nonexistent. We may look back on those primitive U-Boats and scoff. We may shake our heads at the idea of floating into combat in a big, flammable balloon. It wasn’t that outlandish to think of those as weapons of war when you realize that at the outset of World War I there were literally no countermeasures to U-Boats or Zeppelins.
In early 1915 the Germans made their first Zeppelin raid over England. The attack itself was a massive failure. The Zeppelins didn’t hit their targets. Instead the bombs missed and struck civilian buildings. They tried again with similar results. Kaiser Wilhelm was not a fan, as that sort of thing simply wasn’t civilized. His war planners saw something different, however. They saw a way to take the British population out of the war and force Britain to sue for peace.
At roughly the same time the Germans were realizing that their original plans for the U-Boats were lacking. Sinking a ship without showing yourself was simply ungentlemanly, so in the early days of the war the U-Boats would surface and warn their targets. This maneuver basically ruins every advantage the submarine has over a surface ship so it was quickly abandoned. By May of 1915 the Germans had already settled on a policy of indiscriminate warfare. Even that still had some trappings of the gentlemanly style of old in that the Germans took out newspaper ads warning the world that they intended to take out any ships headed for Britain. Woodrow Wilson considered banning Americans from traveling to Britain but decided against it. That’s Germans ended up taking American lives in the sinking of the Lusitania, an action that would eventually bring the United States into the war.
The third German innovation of the war was, by far, the scariest. In the early days of that war both sides engaged in low-grade chemical warfare. The French were the first, using tear gas during an early battle to try to break the stalemate on the Western Front. The Germans soon started doing the same, using non-lethal gases on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Then in April of 1915 they stepped up the use of gas, releasing deadly chlorine gas in advance of attacks on British positions near Ypres. Both sides were soon lobbing tons of chemicals at each other, each more deadly than the last.
By the end of World War I the Zeppelins had been replaced by the long range Gotha bombers and the idea attacking specifically to destroy civilian areas was normal. By the end of World War I the notion that all shipping, military or civilian, was fair game for submarines was normal. By the end of World War I gas masks were a common sight. The thin veneer of civility that had always allowed man to war with man was wiped away.
In the inter-war years there were attempts to pull back from the extreme barbarity of World War I. They didn’t take. As soon as France fell the German Luftwaffe began their night raids over London. As soon as the British had the Lancaster bomber they began bombing civilian targets all across Germany. America joined in, sending B-17s by the hundreds to drop bombs on Berlin.
The Pacific theater had its own acts of extreme barbarism. The Japanese perpetrated the infamous Rape of Nanking directed at Chinese civilians. In the first days of their war against the United States they marched surrendered American soldiers to work camps in an action that would become known as the Bataan Death March. For its part when the United States gained the ability to reach the Japanese Home Islands they filled the bellies of their B-29 Superfortresses with incendiary bombs and set the wooden Japanese cities on fire.
It was against this backdrop that Harry Truman gave the okay to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. There was no question of civility. I don’t know that there was even a question of expediency. I think that the world had just spent thirty years losing its collective mind, stacking one atrocity atop another. I find it amazing, in retrospect, that we as a human race survived the 1940s.
I think, however, that in the moments following the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki we finally realized that we had gone too far. It didn’t happen all at once. Douglas MacArthur, for one, wanted to use atomic weapons against North Korea and the Chinese. The US and USSR engaged in a protracted nuclear arms race that could have destroyed the whole world at the drop of a hat. I believe that in the worst moments of the Cold War those images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunted the dreams of the decision makers.
We cannot, I do not think, judge those horrible days in August of 1945 without context. We cannot debate the merits of dropping the bomb without realizing that for the first half of the 20th Century human life was cheap. A few thousand here, a million there. It was all just numbers. If more of them died than us we won. The atomic bomb was just a bigger, better, more efficient way to do it.
I also think that the act of dropping the bomb was the moment we all woke up. We realized that our ability to kill had, in the course of just a few years, far outstripped our ability to comprehend death. We had become death, destroyer of worlds. For the first time we realized that the world we were destroying was ours.
I still can’t explain it. I can’t really wrap my mind around any of it. It’s an awful thing to have to try to comprehend.