Nagasaki August 9, 2006

Sixty-one years ago today, my country dropped an atomic bomb on a nonmilitary target:

In the closing days of World War Two, the United States dropped a 10,000-pound plutonium-239 bomb, nicknamed "Fat Man," on Nagasaki.

It exploded about 500 meters (1,600 feet) above the ground, instantly killing about 27,000 of the city's estimated population of around 200,000. By the end of 1945, the number of dead due to acute radiation exposure reached about 70,000.

The names of 2,831 people who died recently were added to the list of victims, bringing the total number recognized by the city to 140,144. A few thousand names are added each year.

You're not allowed to do that. You're not allowed to kill civilians.

The usual excuse for the attack on Nagasaki, and on Hiroshima three days earlier, is that the United States "had to" do this because it was the only way to end the war in Asia without launching a full-scale invasion of Japan.

I've written about this earlier at greater length, but let's just review the outlines of this argument.

The United States' goal at the time was the complete and unconditional surrender of Japan. For short, we'll call this "Goal X."

In order to achieve Goal X, the U.S. saw only two possible courses of action:

1. Full-scale invasion of Japan, resulting in massive civilian casualties and heavy loss of life for American forces.


2. Dropping a couple of atomic bombs on major population centers, killing roughly 370,000 noncombatants.

Defenders of the indefensible want to say that these were the only choices available. Thus, they say, any objection to this indiscriminate slaughter entails the acceptance of unacceptably massive loss of life for American forces.

Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that the choices really were this limited — that these were the only possible ways to achieve Goal X. Does my refusal of Option 2 therefore mean I accept Option 1? No. It means that Goal X cannot be achieved by any acceptable means and therefore Goal X ought not to be pursued.

The complete and unconditional surrender of Japan was not morally, tactically, strategically, economically or politically necessary. It was not necessary for victory.

If we could not imagine any way of achieving this goal without committing the unimaginable, if the only options for securing it were either unacceptable or unthinkable, then our only choice was to pursue something else, something other than Goal X. Containing a chastened, weakened and thoroughly whipped Japan could have been achieved without recourse to either Option 1 or 2 above. (If you've bought into the objectively anti-history sophistry that says containment-or-anything-else-short-of-invasion=appeasement, then you'll have to explain to me why you don't think the United States should nuke Havana.)

All of which is to say, You're not allowed to kill civilians.

Or, to paraphrase from that earlier post: You may not both 1) intentionally target and incinerate 140,000 noncombatants and 2) not be a monster.

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  • Jeff

    LL (and bulbul): I got the joke. I don’t know if that means you’re not a raging psychopath, or just that I’m as much a raging psychpath as you. (grin)
    I don’t think the moon is safe, either. If civiliians don’t want to be killed, they be born in Omelas.

  • Hagsrus

    *If civiliians don’t want to be killed, they be born in Omelas*
    And never walk away…
    I suppose the protection would extend to war and terrorism.

  • Jesurgislac

    Sigh, you argued; How does it locically translate that forcing a person, picked due to essentially spurious qualifications such as belonging to a particular age group and being a particular gender, to wear a uniform makes him an acceptable target?
    If soldiers are no more an acceptable target than civilians, then civilians are as an acceptable target as soldiers. If the goal is to kill more of Them and less of Us – the moral value your argument rests on – then terrorists are justified.
    Trying to make a distinction between “aggressor” and “victim” is rarely possible – and, specifically, especially not in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
    There are exceptions, of course: the US attack on Iraq made the US unquestionably the aggressor, and I suppose, by your reasoning, made US civilians acceptable casualties.
    It should hardly need to be said that I disagree. As Fred says: you’re not allowed to kill civilians.

  • bulbul

    Japan attacked the US – thus wiping out the entire Japanese population in order to save one american (or chinese, korean etc) life is morally justified.
    Ah, this is obviously some strange usage of the word “morally” that I wasn’t previously aware of.

  • Toby

    Sigh: Japan attacked the US – thus wiping out the entire Japanese population in order to save one american (or chinese, korean etc) life is morally justified.
    Let’s start with baby steps: What proportion of the Japanese civillian population had any control at all over the decision to attack Pearl Harbour?

  • Beth

    Two problems.
    1. The issue is not whether a civilian’s life is worth more than a soldier’s, but whose life the commander is permitted to endanger. Now clearly the commander is permitted to send troops into battle, even though that endangers their lives. (Otherwise, we couldn’t have wars at all and that wouldn’t be any fun.) He’s also allowed to order them to kill enemy troops because otherwise, the enemy troops would kill them. None of that, however, gives him the right to order the killing of civilians.
    2. You’re making the mistake that Fred describes in “Perverse arithmetic.” A just war is a moral prerequisite for any military action, but it does not by itself justify all military action. Let’s take Jesurgislac’s example, and assume that the Palestinians are entirely in the right. Let’s further assume that the number of combatant lives saved does indeed justify the civilian deaths and ignore the prohibition against targeting civilians. Even after all of that, the suicide bombings are still unconscionable. Why? Because there is no benefit. Suicide bombings have not liberated the Palestinians or lightened the occupation. If anything, they’ve created ongoing support for it on security grounds. Its supporters may argue that if it goes on long enough it could eventually achieve its goals, but such a vague, unsupported hope cannot possibly justify even a single death.
    To be fair and balanced, let’s also consider targeted assassination, this time giving all the moral weight to Israel. In this situation there is a legitimate military target, and killing the targetted combatant is justified by removing him — and the threat he poses to civilians — from the field. But that alone doesn’t justify even a single collateral death, and targeted assassinations inevitably cause many. These assasinations haven’t slowed Palestinian attacks even temporarily, and they’re not reducing the number of militant leaders. If anything, they inspire even more Palestinians to take up arms and aspire to leadership positions. Again, supporters of the tactic will argue “if it goes on long enough”, but again the argument is too vague and unsupported to justify the deaths.

  • Michael

    God, this is hard to talk about. On the one hand, I’m in complete agreement with Fred here: you can’t kill civilians. On the other hand, though, my grandfather was slated to be one of the first into Japan in the case of a major invasion. There was a very high chance that in that situation, he would not have survived. First landing units in WWII had, if I remember correctly, an average 75% mortality rate. 3 out of every 4 men dead on the beaches. So this discussion is difficult for me to have. I think, however, that the point of the atomic bombs could have been made elsewhere, without the massive civilian casualties. I’m not exactly a student of the matter, and I don’t know all the specifics, so all I can really go on is gut feeling but…damn. This is tough.

  • Bettty Sue

    I know i probably shouldn’t be commenting on such a contraversial topic but i just couldn’t resist, i am currently doing a school essay on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their ability to be considered a turning point in history. Sorry to say but i disagree, i know that the amount of damage was shocking and the amount of people that suffered were in pain from immense radiation poisoning. However, if we didn’t bomb the two cities then what would have happened? America and Britain and Australia would have lost MILLIONS of men in battle and kamekaze would have killed just about the equivalent for innocent men, women and children not fighting within the war. Warnings were given, leaflets were showered and radio stations warned across the cities stating ‘Get out of this city as plans to bomb it are under consideration’. We didn’t want to attack the innocent people of the city, they both held military significance and have influenced many descisions and debates ever since the bombs were dropped.
    Betty Sue

  • Ray

    Betty Sue, you’re assuming several things. First, that there were no alternatives to bombing or invasion. Many people have argued that Japan was on the brink of surrender anyway, because of the Russians joining the war. The Japanese Navy had been wiped out, so a blockade would have been easy to maintain. (And even if it was necessary to use the bomb, why was it necessary to use it twice? The destruction of Hiroshima was enough to demonstrate the power of the bomb – why did Nagasaki have to be destroyed too?)
    Second, that the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had anywhere safe to go, and any way of getting there. Just last year, the inhabitants of New Orleans were warned to get out of the city, but many of them couldn’t. How much harder must it have been for people to move in a country crippled by war?

  • Jesurgislac

    Betty Sue: Warnings were given, leaflets were showered and radio stations warned across the cities stating ‘Get out of this city as plans to bomb it are under consideration’.
    Ray made a bunch of good comments, but I think you also need to remember that no one in Nagasaki or Hiroshima could possibly have known what would happen when a nuclear weapon exploded above their city. Now we know – sort of – and yet people who visit either city and see the physical evidence of nuclear devastation still come away saying that it’s real to them as it never was before.
    Only a handful of scientists and generals knew what was going to happen to the population of Nagasaki and Hiroshima when the bombs exploded. The people in Hiroshima may have expected “the usual” bombing raids, but would have expected to be able to dodge or avoid the bombs: not the inescapable mass murder which only a few scientists and generals knew was going to happen before Aug 6th, and only those who had seen Hiroshima or heard a direct report knew was going to happen by Aug 9th.
    We didn’t want to attack the innocent people of the city
    That is a use of the word “want” that makes no sense to me. The US chose to bomb Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. Therefore, the US did want to attack the innocent people of the city. (For which the US has never apologized.)

  • spencer

    We had already effectivly shut down Japanese trade, japanese imports as early as 6 months BEFORE the bomb.
    Japanese production lines were in end run stages. Food was becoming a probelm… the Army (which HAD THE POWER) was NOT willing to surrender.
    Gee, Andrew, maybe I’m just stupid, but with this passage it seems as if you are saying that we could have simply waited them out, even without an invasion – since feeding a war machine requires operational production lines, and in Japan’s case, a *lot* of imports (since they have almost no usable natural resources of their own).

  • Stephen M (Ethesis)

    I’ve never understood why dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is qualitatively any worse than firebombing every other Japanese population center. The choice of weapon shouldn’t matter in terms of a “don’t kill civilians edict.”
    Err, the bombs cost a lot more than the firebombing. In fact, the Army concluded that using nuclear weapons on anything but military targets was a waste of firepower from their analysis of the cost benefit.
    I would also note that before both bombings there were partial evacuations — just not of the civilians.
    Anyway, lots of interesting posts in this thread.

  • Jesurgislac

    Stephen: I would also note that before both bombings there were partial evacuations — just not of the civilians.
    Ah, so it’s your contention that the elementary school children who were evacuated from Hiroshima were covert military personnel? How did you penetrate this well-kept military secret?

  • Stephen M (Ethesis)

    “That elementary school children who were evacuated is a well kept secret.”
    You’ve missed context on which ones were and which ones were not, and who they were related to, but I guess I should have noted that in both cases the bulk of the population was told by the government to stay put and not to believe the warnings, but that there were partial evacuations in both cities limited to relatively small groups.
    I’m not aware of a mass evacuation of all elementary school children. Feel free to cite a source and enlighten me. I am aware that some military and high ranking civilians who were evacuated also took their families.
    None of that changes the fact that as a result of the evacuations the targets became more predominately civilian rather than less — though it appears to be your point that because a few children were evacuated it made the bombings a more moral thing?
    I’d never seen that analysis implied before, I’ll have to reflect on it.

  • Graeme Sutton

    “You’re not allowed to kill civilians”
    But it’s perfectly fine to let the enemy go on killing civilians because you’re unwilling to get you’re hands dirty stopping them? Which the Japanese were doing at a rate of thousands every week? Not to mention the fact that the Soviets at that time were already commencing an invasion of China and northern Japan that killed tens of thousands in the bare week it was allowed to continue and that, had the Japanese not surrendered and the Americans occupied Japan, the Soviets were already ready to launch an invasion of the Japanese home islands that would have resulted in a Soviet zone of occupation in Japan, which worked out oh so well for the populations of North Korea and East Germany. And I suppose that no civilians would have died in the liberation of China that would have been necessary if the Japanese had not surrendered unconditionally? Or are we just going to allow the Japanese to continue their barbaric reign of terror in the massive portion of China and Indonesia they still occupied and hope to “contain” them? And since you only seem to care about Japanese civilians and not Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Korean or any other, I suppose you’ve considered that the Japanese were already starving to death at a rate of 10s of thousands a month from starvation absent any explosives falling from the sky? At some point are you going to realize that allowing people to be killed is not morally different from killing them yourself?

  • Figs

    You know when sometimes your response to something says much more about you than it says about the thing?

  • caryjamesbond

    Well, the reason we don’t nuke Hanana is that Cuba has never demonstrated the military capability to take over half a fucking hemisphere. And that Japan HAD, what with, you know- the entire course of the 1930’s.

    Second- the only reason the Japanese went from “entire nation of psychotic mass murderers”* to “Peaceful makers of electronics and cartoons” is the complete and through ousting, shaming and destruction of the Japanese army and naval elite, who’d controlled the Emperor and thus, all power in Japan.
    Hell, it wasn’t even the “big Six”, the Japanese military leaders, that surrendered, it was the personal intervention of Hirohito, and he was only able to surrender AFTER an attempted coup d’etat.

    And, frankly- Nagasaki seems a strange place to draw the line- Firebombing Tokyo killed more people and did more destruction.

    The reason the Japanese (and the Germans) had to be broken- not just defeated, not just contained, but broken of the will to fight, was that in both cases, removing the ability to fight without removing the WILL to fight wouldn’t solve anything. This can be clearly seen in Germany from 1919-1935.

    The Japanese, like the Germans, would’ve been driven back to their homeland, but not invaded. Not occupied. And the Army, which had held power through one crushing defeat after another, would have convinced the citizenry that they had miraculously stopped the invaders- perhaps told them that the Kamikaze attacks had finally worked. The people of Japan who, even under the massive firebombing campaigns of 1945, were still stockpiling BAMBOO SPEARS to fight the invasion, probably would’ve bought it.

    And then cue the standard post-defeat-but-not-destruction rhetoric. We were betrayed from within. We were defeated by naysayers, not in the field. It would’ve been the German

    Was it nice? No, it was brutal, and fucking awful. But it was completely necessary. “You aren’t allowed to kill civilians” is a wonderful sentiment and while it speaks highly of Fred’s moral sensibilities, it doesn’t speak so highly of his understanding of warfare in general, or the situation in Japan circa 1945.

    Finally, I’d point to this article, which notes the complete and utter change effected in the Japanese mentality and situation by Hirohito’s surrender speech.

    *The Germans, while they had a freakish level of loyalty to Hitler, were losing that loyalty very rapidly by the end of the war, and by the time of the invasion were fairly happy to see us. The Japanese were still loyal to the Emperor, and all accounts of the immediate pre-nuke period I’ve read, including those written by the Japanese, indicate that the civilian population was ready to fight for every inch of the home islands. The WWII era Japanese mentality is a very interesting case study in mass psychosis.

  • Be fair. It was either let the Soviets do all the meat-grindering and get Japan as a reward, or, absent the nuclear bomb, for the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand to sacrifice upwards of a million men in 1945 and 1946 to have our own Soviet-style inch by inch takeover of the Japanese islands.

    It is ultimately, in hindsight, better that Japan was occupied by the USA than the USSR regardless of how it was achieved.

    And honestly? The brutality of the Japanese in the 1930s to the Chinese and Koreans is still not that well-known, for all that WW2 American and Australian POWs have related the horror stories of what Japanese total lack of regard to the welfare of their prisoners meant.

    I am not going to give the Japanese a pass on what they did in the 1930s and 1940s just because they were omgnuked.

  • caryjamesbond

    One of the best examples of the Japanese attitude during WWII is this-

    In the European theater of operations, Medics would wear extra armbands, even paint red crosses on themselves, because the Germans would not deliberately fire on medics. In the Pacific they would obscure or replace their armbands because the Japanese would deliberately fire on medics.

    The Germans did terrible, terrible things. But those awful things were, primarily done by either specialized units OR, the case of the Russian invasion, under considerable duress. In the Japanese army, that viciousness and cruelty was a matter of standard policy.

  • caryjamesbond

    ….wait, how’d we all end up on the six year old thread?

    BACK TO 2013, MARTY!

  • Mmmm. I would quibble with one thing. The Nazis, almost as a matter of policy, explicitly disregarded the Geneva Convention in their war with the Soviets. This is borne out by the survival rates of POWs from different nations.

  • What makes you think that it being wrong to kill civilians makes it right to “let the enemy go on killing”?

    You shoudl ask yourself why you’re so dedicated to coming up with excuses to justify killing civilians.

  • Graeme Sutton

    My argument was that refusing to kill civilians in this case would ultimately result in more civilian deaths than resulted because the Americans ruthlessly pursued victory. That’s what’s called a reason, not an excuse.

  • Graeme Sutton

    Like how this response shows you’d rather hide behind platitudes than admit your lack of anything to contribute?

  • Figs


  • mountainguy

    If someone is interested, here is David French showing how good christian he is, given his unquestioning support of his country (which is not my country):