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Personal Thanks for Hiroshima

By July 10, 2001 No Comments

With the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in the Second World War, many people are apologetic or sorry that the attacks occurred. Not me.

The bombings have been mythologized, and many only think of WW-II in terms of the Nazi Death camps and the dropping of the Atomic bombs. This can give the impression that they are matched in terms of morality.

The 20.9 million civilians and POWs murdered by the Nazis were innocent victims. The same cannot be said of the Japanese; who still often refuse to acknowledge their crimes of 1931-45. Professor R.J. Rummel, the scholar on mass murder whose statistic is cited above, found that the Imperial Japanese murdered at least 5.9 million people — and believes the real toll is much higher. Nobody can say that the civilians of Nagasaki and Hiroshima deserved to die; but why remember them more than the millions of people who were beheaded, bayoneted, gang-raped, starved and brutalized by their husbands, fathers and sons?

Those who criticize the nuclear attacks often declare that Hiroshima was not a military target. However, the city was used to marshal the Japanese fleets that sallied out to attack Midway in 1942, and to attempt to stop the liberation of the Philippines in 1944. Of course, by August 1945, Japan’s Navy was almost destroyed but this concedes another point.

We often assume that all people think like us — which defies experience and history. The Japanese militarists who began the Pacific War were not rational in any modern liberal sense. The ideology they constructed insisted that willpower and courage could compensate for material shortfalls — and the Japanese military was short of much when they began the war. Admiral Yamamoto, who led the Imperial Japanese Navy to Pearl Harbor, warned his colleagues that attacking the Allies would be a losing proposition unless they could force a ceasefire within six months. Japan had low fuel reserves, inadequate military technology, and could not replace ships faster than they were sunk. But they attacked anyway, and from mid-1942 onwards were inevitably crushed by the material superiority that Yamamoto feared.

The Pacific War covered a sixth of the planet, but one feature on every front was that of Japanese soldiers trying to use grit and naked courage to compensate for other shortcomings. From Attu to Guadalcanal to Burma, Allied soldiers learned that Japanese, drilled in a merciless ideology, seldom surrendered. The British novelist George MacDonald Fraser, in his autobiographical account of his time as an infantryman in Burma recounted seeing a near-naked and emaciated Japanese soldier come after him with a bamboo spear. Another soldier in much the same state charged the future author while clutching a land mine.

A few in the Japanese government hoped to negotiate a peace in 1945, but too many civilian leaders had been assassinated by the militarists for them to hope to succeed, and the Military was gearing up to defend the Home Islands. They had not been dissuaded from this course by conventional bombings (including a Tokyo raid that killed more people than either atomic bomb did), and Allied planners knew an invasion would be met with the usual fanatical resistance.

Japan’s defiance was vaporized by the atom bombs. The ease with which Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed provided undeniable evidence that defeat could not be prevented by individual heroics. Japan’s surrender spelled life for hundreds of thousands of Japanese, and tens of thousands of Allied troops that were gearing up for the invasion.

Among the Canadian infantry preparing to invade Japan was my father. Unlike his older brothers, he was too short to lie about his age and could not be shipped overseas until after his 19th Birthday — in May 1945. No war in Europe and, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no war in Japan.

Initially, he felt disappointed on missing the great adventure. Only in retrospect did he realize his fortune. One brother flew anti-submarine missions for six years. The other also beat the odds by surviving from Normandy to Holland in an infantry battalion. The family’s luck would not have covered a third son in combat.

On August 6th and 9th, I wonder how many millions of people – in Japan and around the world –owe their existence to the atom bomb. I know I do.