72 years ago, the US advanced the state of the art in war atrocities by detonating a 20 kiloton nuclear weapon in the air over the city of Hiroshima.
There are many accounts from survivors, who instantly were shifted from “having a fairly ordinary day” to “dying of third degree burns or worse” if they were within 1/2 mile of the epicenter. Three things horrify any thinking person when it comes to nuclear weapons: 1) the suddenness, 2) the indiscriminate destruction, 3) the effects on the survivors. In milliseconds, and for milliseconds, your body is exposed to temperatures that would melt lead, like a strobe-flash going off – and then you’ve gone from healthy to wounded or dying. In an air attack like at Dresden, at least you could try to run or hide and survive. I think there’s some cognitive bias in effect; the same one that makes people feel they have a better chance of winning the lottery if they get to pick the number: nuclear weapons are a lottery where someone else picks the numbers, instantly, and they’re almost all zero.
Today is a day we can pause and reflect that political leaders around the world have this in store for us. If one or another of them fails in their threat-display games, they will solemnly convince themselves – as they did before they killed 70,000 in a flash at Hiroshima (many more died over weeks, months, and years later) – that it’s necessary. Of course, they have great deeply-buried bunkers and escorts that will get them safely underground so that it’s only the rest of us that have to pay the consequences for their mistakes. It’s necessary!
Hiroshima was perhaps a factor in getting Stalin to rein in The Red Army at the end of WWII – he might not have stopped, and it may have been necessary to threat-display Stalin with the immolation of a few cities of Japanese. But we now know for a fact that the Japanese Empire had been making surrender overtures in May prior to the August use of the nuclear weapons. Alan Dulles even reported to the gathering at the Potsdam Conference (so: Stalin, Churchill, and Truman all knew) in July that the Japanese were asking to surrender as long as they could keep the Emperor in power as a transitional head of state and there would not be war crimes trials like there were in Germany. [amazon] At Potsdam, Truman did not mention the secret weapon at the meeting, but presumably Stalin began preparing for a land-grab in Manchuria and Korea around that time [stderr]. Churchill actually knew more about the US’ atomic weapons program than Truman did; he had been quite close to Roosevelt through the war years. In fact, Churchill concocted “Operation Unthinkable” in June of 1945, which was a set of plans for a surprise attack against Soviet forces in Germany. [wikipedia] At the time the plan was considered fanciful, because the planners didn’t know about nuclear weapons – but Churchill did.
Apologists for the use of nuclear weapons also say things to the effect that the Japanese had decentralized manufacturing and cottage industries in their cities, and there were no other viable military targets. That’s also wrong: the Japanese were expecting an air/sea assault like D-Day or Iwo Jima, and were preparing for it – and so was everyone else. The US battle plan for invading Japan (“Operation Downfall”) [wikipedia] called for a landing in Kyushu, in the south, to draw down the Japanese forces that were digging into the Kanto plain below Tokyo, followed by a second landing in the Kanto, to cut them off and destroy them. Had the Americans been interested in using their nuclear weapons on a military target, there were large military bases in Kanto and Kyushu, where the Japanese were preparing to defend. The truth is that the allies, after the strategic bombing campaign in Europe, had produced a set of commanders who were simply interested in bombing the enemy into oblivion. Curtis Le May was the most notable; he led the bombing of Germany, Italy, Japan, and eventually Korea in the 1950s. By the time he was bombing Italy, Le May had abandoned any pretense of military targeting or even strategic usefulness: he was out to destroy. It tells you everything you need to know about the US’ leadership that they put Le May in charge of the bombing war over Korea and then put him in charge of the Strategic Air Command – the bombers full of nuclear weapons that Le May tried to talk John Kennedy into releasing during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The propaganda around the use of nuclear weapons on Japan is particularly galling, to me, because there are a lot of well-meaning people who – for obvious reasons – believed it. Because they trusted that their leaders shared their interests and values, mostly.
“‘Ey, Grandarse, ‘ear w’at they’re sayin’ on’t wireless? The Yanks ‘ave dropped a bomb the size of a pencil on Tokyo an’ it’s blown the whole fookin’ place tae bits!”
“Oh, aye. W’at were they aimin’ at? ‘Ong Kong?”
“Ah’m tellin’ ye! Joost one lal bomb, an they reckon ‘alf Japan’s in gookin’ flames. That’s W’at they’re sayin’!”
“Ivverybody, man! Ah’m tellin’ ye, it’s on’t wireless! ‘Ey they reckon Jap’ll pack in. It’ll be th’ end o’ the war!”
“Girraway! Do them yeller-skinned boogers oot theer knaw that?”
“Aw bloody ‘ell! ‘Oo can they, ye daft booger! They ‘even’t got the fookin’ wireless ‘ev they?”
It was a fine sunny morning when the news, in its garbled form, ran round the battalion, and if it changed the world, it didn’t change Nine Section. They sat on the floor of the basha, backs to the wall, sipping chah and being skeptical. “Secret weapon” was an expression bandied about with cynical humor all through the war; Foshie’s socks and Grandarse’s flatulence, those were secret weapons, and super-bombs were the stuff of fantasy. I didn’t believe it, that first day, although from the talk at Company H.Q. it was fairly clear that something big had happened, or was about to happen. And even when it was confirmed, and unheard of expressions like “atomic bomb” and “Hiroshima” (Then pronounced “Hirosheema”) were bandied about, it all seemed very distant and unlikely. Three days after the first rumor, on the very day that the second bomb fell on Nagasaki, one of the battalion’s companies was duffying with a Jap force on the Sittang bank and killing 21 of them – that was the war, not what was happening hundreds of miles away. As Grandarse so sagely observed: “They want tae drop their fookin’ atoms on the Pegu Yomas, then we’ll git the bleedin’ war ower.” Even then, Nick wasn’t prepared to bet we wouldn’t be going into Malaya with mules; we would all, he prophesied, get killed.
The war ended in mid-August and even before Nine Section had decided that the fight, if not necessarily done, had reached a stage where celebration was permissible. I joined them in the makeshift canteen, quantities of beer were shifted, Forster sang “Cumberland Way” and “The Horn of the Hunter” in an excruciating nasal croak with his eyes closed, Wedge wept and was sick, Wattie passed out, Morton became bellicose because, he alleged, Forster had pinched his pint, Parker and Stanley separated them, and harmony of a sort was restored with a thunderous rendering of “John Peel” , all verses, from Denton Holme to Scratchmere Scar with Peel’s view-halloo awakening the dead – Cumbrians may be among the world’s worst vocalists but they alone can sing that rousing anthem of pursuit as it should be sung, with a wild primitive violence that makes the Horse Wessel sound like a lullaby, Grandarse red-faced and roaring and Nick pounding the time and somehow managing to sing with his pipe in his teeth.
Like everyone else, we were glad it was over, brought to a sudden, devastating stop by those two bombs that fell on Japan. We had no slightest thought of what it would mean for our future, or even what it meant at the time; we did not know what the immediate effect of those bombs had been on their targets and we didn’t much care. We were of a generation to whom Coventry and the London Blitz and Clydebank and Liverpool and Plymouth were more than just names; our country had been hammered mercilessly from the sky, and so had Germany; we had seen the pictures of Belsen and the frozen horror of the Russian front; part of our higher education had been devoted to techniques of killing and destruction; we were not going to lose sleep because the Japanese homeland had taken its turn. If anything, at the time, remembering the kind of war it had been, and the kind of people we, personally, had been up against, we probably felt that justice had been done. But it was of small importance when weighed against the glorious fact that the war was over at last.
There was certainly no moralising, no feeling at all of the guilt which some thinkers nowaday seem to want to attach to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And because so many myths have carefully been fostered about it, and so much emotion generated, all on one side, with no real thought for how those most affected by it on the allied side, I would like just to look at it, briefly, from our minority point of view. And not only ours, but perhaps yours, too.
Some years ago I heard a man denounce the nuclear bombing of Japan as an obscenity; it was monstrous, barbarous, and no civilized people could even have contemplated it; we should all be thoroughly ashamed of it.
I couldn’t argue with him, or deny the obscenity, monstrosity, and barbarism,. I could only ask him questions such as:
“Where were you when the war ended?”
“Will you answer a hypothetical question: if it were possible, would you give your life now, to restore one of the lives of Hiroshima?”
He wriggled a good deal, said it wasn’t relevant, or logical, or whatever, but in the end, to do him justice, he admitted that he wouldn’t.
So I asked him: “By what right, then, do you say that allied lives should have been sacrificed to save the victims of Hiroshima? Because what you’re saying is that, while you’re not willing to give your life, Allied soldiers should have given theirs. Mine for one, possibly.”
[… much discussion ensues …]
“Well!” he said, looking aggrieved. “Where do you stand?”
“None of your goddam business,” I said, sweetly reasonable as always, “but wherever it is, or was, it’s somewhere you have never been, among people you wouldn’t understand.”
You see, I have a feeling that if – and I know it’s an impossible if – but if, on that sunny August morning, Nine Section had known all that we now know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and could have been shown the effect of that bombing, and if some voice from on high had said: “There – that can end the war for you, if you want. But it doesn’t have to happen; the alternative is that this war, as you’ve known it, goes on to a normal victorious conclusion, which may take some time, and if the past is anything to go by, some of you won’t reach the end of the road. Anyway, Malaya’s down that way … it’s up to you.” I think I know what would have happened. They would have cried, “Aw, fook that!” with one voice, and they would have sat about, snarling, and lapsed into silence, and then someone would have said heavily, “Aye, weel,” and got to his feet, and been asked, “W’eer th’ ‘ell you gan, then?” and given no reply, and at last the rest would have got up, too, gathering their gear and moaning and foul language and ill-tempered harking back to the long dirty bloody miles from the Imphal boxes to the Sittang Bend and the iniquity of having to do it again, slinging their rifles and bickering about who was to go on point, and “Ah’s aboot ‘ed it, me!” and “You, ye bugger, ye’re knackered afower ye start, you!” and “We’ll a’ git killed!”, and then they would have been moving south. Because that is the kind of men they were. And that is why I have written this book.
That, of course, is George Mac Donald Fraser, from Quartered Safe Out Here.
I left some bits out of Fraser’s story, because I didn’t want to type in the entire piece, which is large. Fraser goes into more detailed arguments, but they’re mostly just word-play. I’ve made sure to leave the important parts. By the way, editing a writer like Fraser is a) scary and b) humbling – his thoughts are broken out so cleanly that it’s remarkably easy to find places where you can fast-forward a bit, almost as if he knew that someone would want to do that.
Operation Unthinkable was roundly criticized by military analysts at the time, because it was hopeless: The Red Army would have flattened anything the British, French, and Americans could have fielded at that time. Unless nuclear weapons were involved.
I’ll never forget the look on Sazz’ face when I told him the pretext of the Vietnam War was a lie. [stderr] and I would not want to have had a similar discussion with Fraser. In the full version of his conversation with the philosopher, he touches on more of the standard talking-points around the issue. The important moment, for me, is where he misses the point and has Grandarse say: “They want tae drop their fookin’ atoms on the Pegu Yomas, then we’ll git the bleedin’ war ower.” – they knew, and know, that the bombs were not being used in a militarily useful way. If the US had used atomic weapons on the military forces in the Kanto plain or Kyushu, we would not be having this discussion, I think. And that is what I always have thought. The premise I’ve often heard (even from Fraser) is that hundreds of thousands of allied troops would have died in a seaborne assault. Well, if the beaches had been cleared with nuclear weapons, not so.
I have only ever stolen a few things in my life. In the case of the DA-PAM 39-3, it was in the post library at New Cumberland Army Depot when I visited it, one hot summer around 1986. I stole it. I was probably the only person who ever touched it, so I considered it an act of liberation.