Sunday, 9 August 2009

Unhappy Anniversary

Three days ago, 6 August, was the sixty-fourth anniversary of the first use of nuclear weapons, the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Today, the 9th, is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

It’s a good time for a little of a practice that’s regarded with deep disfavour in many quarters today: moral relativism.

Those bombs were dropped from US planes, and the decision to drop them was taken by the US alone. But the US was acting with the declared or covert support of most people of the Western nations – principally Britain, France, the returning democracy of Germany, and generally the countries that would later form NATO. And I really mean the support of peoples, not just of governments: in the mid-seventies, I met a British veteran of the Pacific campaign who at the time of the nuclear attacks, was already on his way to invade the Japanese main islands and was terrified by the prospect. He knew what the fighting had been like in the territories captured by the Japanese, and suspected that on Japan’s own soil, it would be ten times worse. Then the bombs came down and Japan surrendered; he never had to disembark by force on a Japanese beach. Thirty years on, he was as grateful as ever for the A-bombs.

Isn’t it difficult not to feel sympathy for a man in that position? Who could wish on anyone the horrors that an invasion of Japan would have entailed? And yet relief for him, and for the tens of thousands of other lives spared as a result of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was bought at the price of two of the most brutal acts of aggression against civilians in history.

It’s salutary to remember that fact when we’re tempted to sound off about terrorism. What can have been more terrorising than the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And we showed that terrorism of that kind works: within six days of the second bomb, Japan had surrendered. It’s as repugnant as ever, and painful that we’re the intended targets, but with that example it’s at least easy to understand why those who hate the West resort to terrorism against us.

And when we lecture the world about the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, about how Iraq had to be invaded to stop them deploying the ones they didn’t have, about how Iran should be prevented developing the ones they may be working on now, let’s just remember that the civilised democracies of the West are still (thankfully) the only ones ever to have actually used them.

None of this makes terrorism or weapons of mass destruction any less vile. On the other hand, it ought perhaps to teach us a little humility in denouncing others who resort to them.

But it won’t.


Anonymous said...

Lately I have been thinking about the ongoing controversy about people who supported Nazi Germany- Knut Hamsun was featured in a Guardian analysis a week or so ago; Carl Orff is being daily arraigned for his tacit support of Hitler on Composer of the week, as we speak. We all know about the plays of Ronald Harwood about collaboration, Karajan and Furtwangler. My point is not that these people did not deserve the obloquy aimed at them, but what about the bulk of the British intelligentsia who did not dissociate themselves from Hiroshima/Ngasaki?

David Beeson said...

To say nothing of Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne. But there is good destruction of civilian life and bad - or rather when we wipe out civilians, what we're doing is engaging in a 'strategic bombing campaign', which is good, unlike an IRA 'bombing campaign', which is bad.

Perhaps it's strategy that makes the difference?