This year marks the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is reason enough to mull over its meaning and its implications. In a recent article for Fair Observer, Peter Isackson has made a strong case that the annihilation of the two Japanese cities by American bombers represents the “mother of all war crimes.” Given the long history of atrocities committed during times of war, I find this a rather bold statement that should not go unchallenged.
The Mother of All War Crimes
The case for the defense rests on two claims. First, the demonstration of American nuclear capabilities heralded in a period of stability, which quite likely saved Western Europe’s nations from being overrun and conquered by the Soviet Union and subjected to its rule. Second, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are far from exceptional as war crimes go, if indeed the bombing of the two cities was a war crime at all.
Balance of Terror
In my younger years, in a very different world, I served for a couple of years in the German air force. I never flew a plane. I spent most of my time on duty in a tower close to the border to what at the time was the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic (CSSR), a member of the Warsaw Pact and a satellite of the Soviet Union. We did electronic surveyance of the CSSR airspace, following Czech and Slovakian fighter planes as they performed their exercises as best as they could (more often than not they couldn’t, lacking basic motivation). It was a tedious job, boring as hell, particularly when the weather was bad and the pilots were grounded.
Excitement, however, surged once a month, when we waited for the arrival of Russian long-range bombers. They took off from Minsk in what at the time was the capital of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Their mission: attack the towers along the West German border with the CSSR and the German Democratic Republic. We saw them coming, small dots on our radar screens. When they were in front of our tower, there was a small red blip, a fleeting flicker, and we knew if this had been der Ernstfall — an actual real-life attack — we would all be dead, gone up in smoke in a small nuclear mushroom.
At the time, we did not think much of what had just happened. It was part of a game, along the lines of MAD magazine’s “Spy vs Spy” — inane, a waste of time, and somehow not very real. It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the regime in Prague and the unraveling of the Soviet empire that we learned that the game had been much more serious and potentially deadly than what we suspected. There were plans on the other side of the border to overrun West Germany, conquer Western Europe and subject it to Soviet rule. Among the scenarios was a nuclear attack on Bonn, West Germany’s sleepy capital, designed to decapitate West Germany’s political elite.
What prevented the Soviets and their toadies from carrying out their plans was not human compassion but a realist assessment of the distribution of military forces and the resolve of the Western allies to use them. At the time, this was called MAD — mutually assured destruction. It was grounded in the notion that any attack on the part of the Soviets would immediately trigger a full response of Western nuclear forces, resulting in the complete annihilation of the Soviet Union. The leadership in Moscow was fully aware of this logic. They did not like this “balance of terror,” but they ultimately submitted to its logic. Others, by the way, did not.
Andrey Gromyko, the Soviet Union’s long-term foreign minister, claims in his memoirs that at one time, Chinese leader Mao Zedong tried to get the Soviet Union to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, arguing that “his country could survive a nuclear war, even if it lost 300 million people, and finish off the capitalists with conventional weapons,” thus guaranteeing the triumph of communism. Unsurprisingly, the Soviets were not convinced and increasingly distanced themselves from Beijing.
The logic of mutually assured destruction fundamentally altered the behavior of great powers, at least with respect to each other. It is to be hoped that the logic of the “balance of terror” is going to be enough to keep the US and China level-headed in the future, despite rapidly growing tensions between the two.
The Breakdown of Civilization
Unfortunately enough, war crimes are the norm rather than the exception when it comes to armed conflict. The claim that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are ontologically different rests on a technological assumption. For some reason, nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from conventional ones. I am not sure what constitutes the basis of this assumption. Take the firebombings of the German cities of Dresden and Hamburg during the Second World War, which cost the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary people — women, children, the elderly. Take the massacre of Babi Yar, in Ukraine, where in two days nearly 34,000 Jews were killed by German Einstazgruppen. Or, going back further in history, take the death toll during the Thirty Years War, which cost the lives of half of the population of what is today Germany.
Massacres of the most atrocious form are hardly an invention of the 20th century, as Goya’s renditions of the barbarities visited on his fellow countrymen during the war against the French between 1808 and 1814, depicted in most horrifying detail. This was a war against an enemy that invaded the country in the name of the Enlightenment and revolutionary fervor. Or, as the Germans would say, Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein, so schlag ich dir den Schädel ein — If you don’t want to be my brother, I will smash your skull.
For the victims of war crimes — more often than not civilians — it probably does not really matter how they were killed and why they were killed. It is quite understandable — human all too human, as Nietzsche would say — that horrendous deeds provoke retribution. The firebombing of German cities, the rape of German women caught be advancing Soviet armies — both are understandable given the atrocities committed by Germans during the war, in the name of Hitler and the Third Reich. Most Germans, or so most recent research suggests, were more than comfortable supporting a regime that guaranteed them a modicum of prosperity. Few asked where it came from.
For that, Germans were punished in the most horrendous fashion. Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden and Cologne and many other towns and cities went up in flames, leaving behind a landscape hardly different from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombing of Hamburg was named Operation Gomorrah, after the Biblical city destroyed by “sulfur and fire” for its sins, and, according to historian Keith Lowe, was on completely different level than the German raids on Coventry and London, “comparable with what happened in Nagasaki.” It was a just retribution for the crimes committed in their name, a retribution for the tens of millions of victims who paid with their lives for Hitler’s ambitions to conquer the world.
I would suggest that the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the retribution for the crimes committed by Japanese forces, in the name of racial superiority hardly different from Nazi ideology, against the peoples subjugated during the war. I have grave doubts that the victims of the Nanjing massacre or of the hundreds of young Asian “comfort women” pressed into sexual slavery by Japanese forces would consider the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a war crime, but rather than an act of just retribution for Japanese atrocities committed during the war.
Whether or not the United States was justified in meting out redistribution is a different question. After all, given America’s self-declared status as a leading Christian nation, it should perhaps have heeded the words of the Bible exhorting believers not to take revenge, “but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). But then, Americans have a tendency to pay lip service to the scripture while doing the opposite in real life.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was one of these turning points in history that define a whole epoch. It demonstrated, once and for all, humanity’s ability to destroy itself. Had Hitler been in a position to get hold of “the bomb,” he surely would have used it to obliterate London, Moscow, perhaps even New York. The same goes for Stalin, only this time it would have been Berlin that would have gone up in a mushroom. If the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime, it was nothing more than another episode in a long history of atrocities committed in the course of wars, not more, not less — an episode which reaffirms once again the sad reality that the veneer of civilization is merely skin deep.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.