Hiroshima and C S Lewis

Wars will always raise ethical questions, both in terms of when it is justified, and for actions taken during a conflict, justified or not. One of the most prolifically questioned actions during war was the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two events have raised numerous arguments and defenses over the years, and the questions are not as easily answered as they might appear at first. For example, Japan was actively training its civilian populace to attack American troops upon an invasion of the home islands,[1] and it is often noted that more Japanese lives[2] would have been lost without the dropping of Atomic weapons (and certainly there would have been more American casualties in such a scenario), but does this justify the action? How does a nation weigh decision between protecting one’s own troops and avoiding harm to civilians? Is there a distinction between the bombing of Hiroshima (the site of a major Japanese army base) and Nagasaki (a purely industrial city)? Does the possibility that this was about revenge for the numerous war crimes committed by the Japanese against allied servicemen and Chinese civilians change the moral and ethical dimensions of the discussion? While these are important questions, I think there is a more interesting one: would we be having the same discussion if Japan won the war by dropping a weapon of mass destruction on San Francisco?

This is not an arbitrary question; Japan did have an active atomic weapons program that was somewhat hampered by problems in needed materials; the Japanese military was actively seeking Uranium for its nuclear program, including requests to its ally Germany.[3] While it’s atomic program was not successful, the Japanese biological warfare program was quite effective. During the war, Japanese units (particularly the notorious unit 731) infected human beings with various pathogens, and then performed autopsy’s without anesthetic on the infected to understand the mechanisms of the diseases. Japan also used biological weapons against China, and did in fact have a plan to drop rats with infected fleas onto San Francisco in hopes that it would kill tens of thousands of American civilians later in 1945 (a plan known as “Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night”), a plan that was at the least foiled by the end of the war (and Japan might not have had the resources to carry out the attack by this point anyway).

While we cannot know precisely what might have been, or what ethical questions might have been raised given such a scenario, we do have a good idea about the matter. Japan, as a matter of policy, still denies or refuses to apologize for war crimes committed during the second world war,[4] much to the irritation of her Asian neighbors. These include not only the possibly hundreds of thousands of Chinese killed by biological weapons, but also comfort women, the rape of Nanking, abuse of POWs, etc. There have even been controversies involving Japanese governments suppressing facts about atrocities in Japanese history textbooks. Whatever else might be true, the Shinto/Buddhist worldview does not seem to produce openly the same questions about war conduct that the West, under the influence of Christianity’s discussions of a just war and just conduct in war find themselves compelled to ask. Or rather, the Shinto/Buddhist tradition means those questions get resisted – after all, Japan continues to find it necessary to deny the allegations not only to those abroad, but to its own people, which sounds a bit like guilt, albeit misplaced guilt.[5]

C S Lewis, in discussing the objectivity of morality in Mere Christianity, notes that subjectivist moral systems may work in theory, but we cannot help treat morality as objective, at least when we are on the receiving end. The Japanese government demonstrates this when they note their own victimization of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but will not admit to victimizing Chinese laborers, soldiers, women and children. This is not unique, the nations of the world and people in general are always ready to proclaim their victimhood or the victimhood of their ancestors, but rarely do they take responsibilities for their own aggressors, the natural response is to justify actions out of personal protection or tribal loyalty. This is in fact an unusual moral contribution of Christianity, Christians question not only the behavior of others for perceived gain or restitution, but that of ourselves, as well.


[1]This raises to my own mind a question I don’t see asked, does this mean that the civilian populace were still civilians, or were they transformed into a militia?

[2]One additional difficulty, of course, is that it is unknowable whether it is true or not; while the battle of Okinawa suggests this might have been the case, as does the philosophy of Japanese militarists, it is hard to say precisely what would have happened.

[3]There is a famous incident involving the surrender of a German Sub, U-234 which was carrying Uranium Oxide along with other weapons between a nearly defeated Germany and her ally in Japan.

[4]To be clear, this is neither an indictment of the Japanese government nor an attempt to dismiss ethical questions about the atomic bombs, questions I am uncertain how to answer from a Biblical ethic; questions of how to wage war appear far more complex during the conflict then afterwards when historians can evaluate matters with more facts at hand. Moderns, for example, have a grasp on the horrors of radiation poisoning that the generals and politicians in 1945 were unaware of at the time. Nor, in point of fact is the US innocent in the cover-up of Japanese biological weapons, the US government appears to have protected war criminals involved in the Japanese biological warfare in exchange for knowledge of that program, just as various narratives limiting guilt of Imperial Japan to key military officials were useful fictions for the rebuilding of the nation.

[5]To be clear, this guilt is misplaced; there may be shame in an ancestors sin, or the dismay that always disappoints us when those we love profoundly disappoint us, but this is not guilt, as the Old Testament defines so clearly, we are not to punish the children for the guilt of the fathers.