A Reader’s Response to Made in America: Massacring the Innocents of Nagasaki:
As much as I respect the sentiments driving such writings—and certainly in spite of the respect in which I hold both you and Dr. Kirk—the act of ending the war swiftly through the bombings instead of drawing the brutalities of war into the very homes of the entire Japanese island, instead of only constraining it to two prominent cities, seems to me more merciful amidst the gritty reality of a world torn by war and fanatical execution of fatalistic philosophies through the “sword.” I’ve always found it intriguing that much is made of the atomic bombing of these two nuclear warheads, yet virtually nothing is ever said of the far greater carnage wreaked upon the Japanese mainland by weeks and weeks of firebombing, which killed many more people, to the measure of several orders of magnitude.
Is it the sheer power of the single weapon that draws such a visceral reaction? Certainly the principle of application between the atomic and conventional weaponry was very similar, if not identical. And the added corollary of the entire argument, a corollary almost as untouched, is the extent to which the concept of total war affects our thinking of who is and is not properly considered a combatant. Who is more responsible? Those who make the bullets with the intent of their being used to kill or those who shoot them and actually do the killing? It is a simple fact that in warfare (and to an extent also in politics, as I am learning through campaign management) the effort is fed primarily by the economic capacity of a country. That is not a savory thought, but it is certainly a very real one, and ignored at the peril of sanity.
The economy of the United States was certainly its more powerful weapon in the war against both Germany and Japan. With its capacity to maintain its own civilization—and several besides—at the same time as sustain a worldwide war effort, the United States turned its entire populace into a warmaking machine. The small businesses provided the economic understructure upon which and along with which the large businesses manufactured materiel, and this led to the arming of an entire worldwide army, an army which would not have existed without the economy of the civilian. We no longer live in those romanticized times when warfare was one king and his hundred knights marching out to match another king and his hundred knights on a battlefield isolated from the civilian population and immune to its need for economy. When wars were battles and lasted a day—or even when an entire campaign lasted a year and could be maintained by the personal finances of a lord—then warfare was isolated, simple, and unencumbered with the brutal and undesired reality that is the mix of high-powered and long-range armaments arrayed through millions of troops across a thousand mile front.
In the latter, it is impossible to isolate the war from its civilian surroundings or the facts of technology. Churchill lamented this new warfare in his observations of battles in the Sudan (The River War)—but he recognized with characteristic pragmatism the fact of its emergence and the passing of his preferred older, chivalric way. We are left wondering, then, how to prosecute a just war in the world in which we live instead of one in the world in which we wished we lived. I certainly have not answered this question satisfactorily in my own mind on a theoretical level. At best—maybe this is the best we may attain?—I am left with the very Kirkian notion of relying upon the wisdom of our ancestors in dealing with situations as they arise, applying our principles as best as may be done to the situation that is forced upon us by the dictates of unthinking war and human strife, having mercy where possible and enforcing decisions of life and death where principles of mercy and justice or mercy and mercy conflict in necessary reality.
When you are left with the decision between destroying two cities at once on the one hand, or on the other systematically destroying an entire island, city by city, house by house, soldier by soldier, and—yes—civilian by civilian (as most certainly would have happened, given our experiences on Okinawa and other Japanese-maintained islands), which is the more righteous choice? Is there even a righteous choice? Or are we simply to believe by faith in the righteousness of God while recognizing the terrible reality of sin on earth played out through human struggle? I would welcome your thoughts if you have time to offer them. This has turned into a much longer piece than the two paragraphs that were intended, but Nagasaki bombing is a subject that I’ve thought on often yet not ever discussed with much depth or precision. And, as so often happened, the origins of the internal debate arose through a combination of classes at Hillsdale, including your own on Kirk, as well as those of Victor Davis Hansen and others.
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Ryan sent this reply to me privately. I have his permission to reprint it, as it’s very much worth reprinting. Ryan was, simply put, an excellent student at Hillsdale. He’s now an equally excellent citizen of this republic and a fine Texan. He’s currently the campaign manager for Erwin Cain, Republican candidate from Sulphur Springs for the Texas State House. Ryan is just also a truly great guy, and I’m proud to be his friend.
Again, please note: I’m reprinting this—again, with Ryan’s permission—but without copy-editing it. If there are typos, please blame me (Brad) and not Ryan. Additionally, Ryan’s views DO NOT necessarily reflect those of Erwin Cain. —Brad Birzer