06 August 2006

Hiroshima Day

In a mailing list email today, I marked (as I do every year) Hiroshima Day. A group of friends within that list, of whom Jim Putnam is one, followed up with a discussion of the decision to drop Little Boy and, a few days later, its sibling Fat Man.

Another of those friends, Mac, commented that it was a "...day that in many respects should go down in infamy - although perhaps Nagasaki day was worse...". Jim, for his part, observed that:

We can get our thought processes twisted about when we try to either justify of deny the need for such an action from the perspective of all these years. It's very likely that the use of the atomic bomb was not absolutely necessary, but then again, perhaps we need to look into the hearts of Truman and his advisors and understand them as well. I find it extremely difficult to ascribe to them a complete disregard for the facts such as the article lists. It was, after all, 1945, at the end of a long war, with the history of the battles to that time.

Personally, I believe it was a mistake, but not the criminal action it is often portrayed. I believe they acted with the best knowledge available at the time, and though I think it was a bad decision to use the bomb, they did what they thought was right at the time, and for them, I think it was the right decision.

It's done. We need to learn from it, but not allow ourselves to wish that history could be changed. We need to act to force our present administration to make better decisions today. It's good to note the anniversary, but not good to focus us on the past when equally bad decisions are being made today.

In large measure, I agree with both Mac and Jim; this is only to add some twiddly bits of expansion and reserve around the edge.

Mac, to my mind, is right about the Nagasaki bomb being more morally reprehensible than the first. C P Snow, who spent the war as a civil servant in close contact with the British end of the research effort which led to the atomic bomb, dramatised and fictionalised the experience in the novel The New Men[bib] (part of his Strangers and Brothers sequence), and it's a good way to get a readable glimpse into ways of thinking in a very different world. Snow's scientists at Barford (for which read real world fast breeder site Harwell) observe that, while the Hiroshima might have been an understandable politicomilitary decision from which they dissented, the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki was dropped as an experiment in comparative effectiveness: "It had to be dropped in a hurry ...because the war will be over and there won’t be another chance." Broadly speaking (not unanimously, but by vast majority consensus) that's the view of most scientists and soldiers whose private views I've heard on the subject.

I agree with Jim that Hiroshima was a mistake; I would personally say a terrible and appalling mistake; but I also understand those (particularly veterans of the Asian/Pacific war, or those about to be shipped across from Europe for a vicious amphibious campaign through the islands) who feel otherwise. More to the point, I agree with Jim that trying to avoid mistakes today is more important than picking over the dead bones of mistakes which (or our parents) made six decades ago.

Whether or not my reasoning is the same as Jim's, I don't know; I'll try to lay it out in some semblance of coherent order here, where I have time and space and quiet, rather than in the hubbub of discussion.

I have always argued that the bogeyman of Adolf Hitler, intended (quite rightly) to serve as a warning against evil, actually tends to obscure our view of that evil. We come to believe that such levels of evil only exist in a small number of monsters and, ultimately, only in that one monster. We compare genocides such as Rwanda and Bosnia to Germany's holocaust but, in the comparison, miss the fact that those genocides are a new, contemporary manifestation of the same thing. More important, we miss the fact that any genocide is only a large scale replication of the same thing, the evil which can appear in any one of us and which happens all the time.

Hitler's degradation and extermination of twelve million or more communists, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Slav 'untermenschen', trade unionists, etc, relied on conjunction of three things.

First comes the willingness of almost any human being to do unspeakable things in the right circumstances. Which of us can honestly say, for example, that we would not torture the person who had kidnapped our spouse or offspring if that was the only way to save the victim? As a civilised and gentle Arab friend pointed out to me, we regularly accept as heroes TV or movie characters who employ such methods. And it gets easier if the consequences of our decision and action are separated from us by distance. Push this button and your family will live, but someone far away whom you have never met will die; how many "people far away" would it take to make you refuse?

Second is the categorisation of human beings under those labels, until perception of the label replaced perception of the humanity. This happens all the time (nigger, yid, gyppo, round eye, paki, chink, frog...) and is rapidly institutionalised in war (jap, jerry, gook ... in 1982, once British troops had been committed to the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, it took less than 24 hours, for Argentinean human beings to become Argie cartoon ciphers). In civil war, one elides easily into the other: yesterday's barely noticed racial, ethnic or socioeconomic slur becomes today's inhuman enemy without even thinking about it.

Third we have the slow social process of piecemeal displacement of responsibility which Hannah Arendt has called "the bureaucratization of homicide"[bib]. This may seem uniquely of its time and place, but is not. Citizens of Duluth or Yeovil, working as ordinary engineers to feed their families, are not directly responsible for the deaths of civilians in a third world combat zone when the products of their factories come together in the purchaser's hands to "collaterally damage" a city block. The people responsible for that are ... who, exactly? Only the pilot of the Yeovil built helicopter who releases the Duluth built bomb? Or the targettng officer who ordered the strike? Or the general who initiated the strategic order which led to the tactical target decision? Or the US/UK politician who signed the end user certificates for delivery of the weapons, in full knowledge of how they were to be used? Or...?

Sorry to have spent so long on Hitler, genocide and other stories - but they illustrate a principle which also applies, I believe, to what my generation called "The Bomb". We were born at, or around, the same time as the bomb itself; we grew up in a social psychology shaped by it; and we came to accept without real question that it had wrought a paradigm shift in the nature of war. But we were wrong. If there was a paradigm shift in warfare (I'm not sure there was; but I'm not sure there wasn't) it occurred earlier - and The Bomb simply came along to represent it.

Throughout the history of warfare, the proportion of casualties who are military has tended downwards, the proportion who are noncombatant correspondingly rising. Those two curves (their rates of change accelerating) crossed somewhere in the early to middle 20th century. That crossing could be seen as an arbitrary point of shift.

Then again, advent of the counter city war concept, where populations were targetted (first in the mistaken belief that morale would be undermined, then because delivery systems were too imprecise for any other mass destructive option, and finally in balance of terror deterrence strategies such as "mutually assured destruction") could also be seen as a paradigmatic pivot.

Whichever of those two options you choose, it doesn't matter much because the really important point is the chronology. The casualty trend from military to noncombatant was well established; counter city warfare was part of the increasing rate of change in that trend; the nuclear weapon was a more efficient means of waging counter city war.

When I ask people why nuclear weapons are qualitatively different from what went before, I get three types of answer: scale, radiation sickness, or persistence and unpredictable extent of contamination. Let's take them in turn.

Scale first. Two nights of firebombing in February 1945 destroyed 88% of houses in Dresden. A single night's conventional bombing of Tokyo killed more people than the Nagasaki death toll, and the total Tokyo casualty toll was greater than Hiroshima's. The only difference here is efficiency of means: what took a sky full of bombers, crews, explosives and incendiaries in Dresden or Tokyo was achieved by one aircraft and one weapon in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. (As an aside, the physics of explosives[1] mean than a single large weapon is less efficient than a lot of small ones spaced out.)

Radiation sickness is certainly different. But if you are the person who's dying it doesn't make a lot of difference whether you die horribly from conventional burns or from radiation sickness. Much the same applies to unpredictable extent of contamination - all aerial bombing goes wrong, and conventional warfare from the 1930s onwards is full of people getting killed in areas which nobody intended to attack.

Persistence of contamination is the real difference. The chemical pollution which follows conventional explosives can be cleared and life can go on ... radioactive fallout persists, poisoning the survivors long after hostilities cease. This is a very good argument against using nuclear weapons, but not a knockout reason for seeing them as a qualitatively different mode of warfare.

By now, if you're still reading, you are wondering whether I've completely lost the plot and whether I'll ever get back to my original point. Here it is

For the most part, The Bomb is not a new paradigm, nor instigator of new evils, but the latest technological form of both - and also a powerful symbol of both. Just as with Hitler, we have taken one instance and set it up as a memorial example ... but have then allowed it to obscure exactly what it is supposed to memorialise.

Like Jim, I believe that noting Hiroshima Day is important ... not because that day is important, but because it encapsulates the idea of war waged against civilian populations. It cold have been Dresden Day, or London Blitz Day, or Grozny Day - the purpose would have been the same.

Like Jim, I believe that if we spend too much time turning over the specifics to which Hiroshima Day is attached, losing site of the fact that we continue to make the same mistakes and espouse the same evils, then we might as well forget it altogether.

One of the better known (to the point of platitude) sayings about history is George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"[bib]. We can't learn from what we forget, so Hiroshima Day is important. We can't learn from what we don't understand, so discussing the events and decisions of August 1945 is important. But nor can learn by burying ourselves in obsessive recrimination over a dead past which we can't change, forgetting our living surroundings which we can, perhaps, just maybe, influence for the better.

Bibliographic notes

  • Arendt, H., The Life of the Mind. 1978, New York & London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 2v.
  • Santayana, G., Introduction, and Reason in Common Sense. 1905, New York, Dover Publications.
  • Snow, C. P., The New Men. 1954, London, Macmillan & Co.

Explanatory text note

  1. For anyone who is curious, blast overpressure (P) from an explosion is inversely proportional to the distance (D) from point of detonation. Formally (where W is the weight of a given explosive, for example "5 megatons", and k is a constant for that type of explosive):

So, if the distance from the explosion is doubled, the blast overpressure (which is what does most of the damage) is reduced to one eighth. There is a critical overpressure value below which damage is not sustained at the level intended by whoever detonated the bomb. Beyond the critical distance at which that pressure value occurs, therefore, the intended results of the explosion effectively cease. For this reason, six explosions, each of one megaton, spaced apart, will have much greater destructive effect than a single explosion of six megatons - in an ideal configuration (in a circle whose radius is double the critical distance), sixteen times greater.

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