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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012

Hiroshima: a turning point on how we think about war

Special to The Japan Times

DENVER — Aug. 15 marks the 67th anniversary of the end of the war between the United States and Japan. Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers on that date in 1945, just nine days after the city of Hiroshima, along with 60,000 inhabitants of that city, was destroyed by an atomic bomb.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima represented the single most violent act in the history of mankind. Those 60,000 people were killed almost instantly by the push of a button on an aircraft flying over the city. The killing of that many people; by the numbers — per second and per minute — has never been equaled before or after.

Although all human atrocities pale in comparison with the holocaust, the instantaneous destruction of Hiroshima, along with a good portion of its population, stands alone as the most hideous example of the use of technology in modern warfare.

Pope Pius XII condemned the bombing, in keeping with the traditional Catholic position that "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man."

Others questioned the necessity of destroying the population of an entire city in order to end the war.

The rationale most often presented to justify the bombing is the theory that the entire civilian population of Japan would have fought to the death in defense of their homeland and that the numbers killed at Hiroshima were negligible when compared with the millions of lives that would be saved by ending the war quickly. That strategy of killing people for what they might do has become an integral part of the rhetoric of our foreign policy today.

Over time, the annihilation of 60,000 civilians, instantaneously, has come to be viewed as just another unfortunate consequence of war. In all of this mitigating rationalization, the moral and ethical problems that Hiroshima represents are still left dangling.

Are wars amoral? Does humanity get a free pass for mass murder during times of war? Are established rules of warfare irrelevant because they are always ignored? Are we all Darwinian at heart and use morality as a disguise? Was Nietzsche right in advocating for a superior man, who would exist beyond the constraints of good and evil?

I was approaching my 18th birthday toward the end of World War II. At that time I was living with the haunting fear of facing military combat in a protracted land war that was expected if the bomb had not been dropped. Over the years I have developed a strong feeling of indebtedness to the people who died in Hiroshima.

The draft was still in effect when I enlisted in the Army Air Corps four months later and the only hardship that I experienced was standing in lines, taking orders, and being away from home. I was released early but was called back to duty during the Korean war.

Even though I may have personally benefitted from the shortening of the war, I have always been uneasy about the rationale which tries to justify the killing of civilians in order to save the lives of soldiers. The trading of the lives of the civilians at Hiroshima for the lives of soldiers in the battlefield never sat well with me. I would cancel the deal if I could. Since I cannot, I am committed to the idea that those of us who were not killed in that war owe something to those who were.

The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, in his 1958 book, "The Atom Bomb and The Future of Man," states that "Our age must learn that some things are beyond doing."

Albert Einstein said, "The unleashed power of the atomic bomb has changed everything but our way of thinking. We need a new way of thinking ... to survive."

Hans Jonas a former professor of philosophy at The New School in New York city and author of the book, "The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age," makes a compelling case for preserving the dignity and essence of man in accordance with our actions when he states: "Never must the existence or the essence of man as a whole be put at stake in the hazards of action. ... The policy of survival must beware lest the existence saved will have ceased to be human." Would the new man, devoid of a sense of responsibility be worth saving?

British philosopher, A.C. Grayling, author of the book "Among the Dead Cities," closes his book with a quote from U.S. Vice Admiral Ralph Ofstie. Testifying before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee and referring to the destruction of entire cities in World War II, he stated, "As the allied bombing campaigns of the war had shown, ... it inevitably involved mass slaughter of men, women and children in the enemy country. It was not only militarily ineffective but with its 'ruthless, barbaric methods' it lowered the moral standards of the society whose forces carried it out."

With the advent of sophisticated weapons of war and with layers of technology and complicity standing between the act and the results, killing in wars has become less personal and more dispassionate.

Twenty-five centuries ago, Hector and Achilles faced each other with swords and spears under the walls of Troy. Now we destroy our enemies antiseptically with remotely controlled drones.

Mankind is becoming inured to violence by eliminating the emotional component of his actions.

What we can do has taken precedence over who we should be. A sense of awareness should be created about the fact that there exists the deliberate killing of civilians as a strategy of warfare and the growing tendency to accept it as a natural and normal consequence of war.

No country involved in World War II gets a free pass for violence committed against civilians in that war. Civilian deaths in that war were three times that of soldiers. If the Greek philosopher Aristotle was right when he said, "we become what we repeatedly do," a new way of thinking about what we do is long overdue.

The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima was not just another act of war perpetrated by one nation against another. The dignity and the essence of mankind were diminished and tarnished that day and should be acknowledged as such. It would be a giant step toward Einstein's hope for a new way of thinking about ourselves and the world in which we live. Without such an acknowledgement, the entire concept of responsibility dissipates into thin air along with the mushroom cloud that rose over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

Walter L. Young, an artist and a freelance writer, may be contacted by email at: walterleeyoung@msn.com

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