President Obama has become the first sitting US President to visit “ground zero” Japan. Hiroshima, where the first nuclear bomb was dropped, now stands symbolically as living reminder of the cruel power of nuclear weapons. The President used the occasion to remind the world what nuclear weapon use can do to mankind.
The President did not, however, apologize for America’s decision to use the bomb in 1945. Some think he should have while others think he should not have gone there in the first place.
The need to use the atomic bomb, historians claim, resulted from Japan’s refusal to surrender “unconditionally”. The US military estimated a dreadful number of casualties would occur if American forces needed to invade the Japanese mainland. No one disputes the horror of the bomb but when placed in comparison to an invasion, for many the bomb’s use is justified.
But there is more.
Many supporters of the bomb’s use remind others that Japanese soldiers committed atrocities through out the war and treated prisoners in brutal ways. In essence, these people think the Japanese “earned” the opportunity to be atomic bombed.
Still others wondered simply whether the atomic bomb would work in actual combat and how much damage would result. These scientific and military leaders were also thinking of how to deal with the communist threat emerging from the Soviet Union.
The Japanese reluctance to accept unconditional surrender was tied largely to a lack of understanding what would follow such a surrender. In the past, surrenders were negotiated and the subsequent conditions, like the Emperor’s future, or the top military and civil official’s fates, were decided before the surrender was official.
Through out history collateral civilian casualties have happened. By the time World War II was in full swing, targeting civilian populations, while prohibited but the Geneva Convention, was practiced under a thin vail, proximity to military industrial targets. The fire bombing of Dresden or Tokyo killed proportionally as many or more than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Dead civilians are dead civilians.
Of course there is the little problem of radioactivity. Atomic weapons, in addition to killing civilians outright, also leaves radioactivity which can lead to health hazards years into the future. So, is radioactivity the Hiroshima message?
American planners are said to have contemplated dropping the first atomic bomb on Mount Fuji instead of Hiroshima. Mount Fuji holds an extremely special place in Japanese minds and the thought that the bomb might visibly destroy or alter Fuji both appealed to and concerned American officials. The Mt Fuji alternative would have resulted in negligible loss of life but the visible damage probably would not have been as persuasive as the massive destruction and loss of life that bombing Hiroshima offered. Targeting civilians won the day.
Back to President Obama’s Hiroshima visit.
IMO the visit was awkward not just because of the massive power of atomic weapons, but the choice of targeting civilians over military fortifications. Today’s warfare features asymmetrical tactics such as suicide bombing, terrorizing civilian populations, and shootings/beheadings of non-combatants. Traditional war must be fought on a much more confused battlefield where combatants and non-combatants live together. Killing civilians happens.
In telling the story of why nuclear weapons are dangerous, President Obama was also calling attention to all use of force and what the consequences might be.