Soldiers of Conscience

.. and doctrinaires without

“The true vessel of remorse and guilt belonged to the Japanese nation, which could and should call to account the warlords who so willingly offered up their own people to achieve their visions of greatness.”

[Charles Sweeney, Pilot of USAF B-29 Bockscar (Bock’s Car) bomber of Nagasaki ]
It was a hot August day in Detroit .. a streetcar rattling by on the tracks as I read the headline: A single American bomb had destroyed a Japanese city. .. It was the U-235 bomb we had discussed in school and written papers about, the previous fall. I thought: “We got it first. And we used it. On a city.”

I had a sense of dread, a feeling that something very ominous for humanity had just happened. A feeling, new to me as an American, at 14 [years of age], that my country might have made a terrible mistake.

~ Daniel Ellsberg

After wars we play cruel and self-deceiving games of cause and effect, blame and victim. No-one, however, escapes the guilt.

Whichever side God supports, however evil and megalomaniac the leader, if no soldier killed, war would cease.

A simple, if impossible, hope.

Major Sweeney, after the horrendous events that destroyed in heartbeats 75,000 souls, and ultimately, agonizingly, a further 250,000 miserable survivors, lived his remaining life with reasonable dignity, pragmatism and eloquence.

His comment leading this letter is as sound an assessment of holocaust as any uttered by a soldier in the sad history of conflict on this self-deceiving little planet.

Every soldier who justified killing, on any scale, claimed validity – at least within the narrow context of the moment. Yet such claims reveal an implicit lack of moral conviction.

Universal decency insists, no matter how devious or quixotic the prologue, nothing less than the sacrifice of one’s own life refusing to kill another can prevent the curse of war.

I know… words easily said.

And perhaps words unduly harsh of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Yet isn’t this what our ancient Christian messiah meant by ‘turn the other cheek’?

An ethic seems missing

The stance, for what follows, contests the moral superiority of history written by World War 2 “allied” victors, and takes as an obvious given the barbarity of the “axis” enemy. It understands what six years of vicious relentless battle does to the minds of any sane peoples. So…

The first lessons children of rational age need, if civilization will ever rise above barbarity, are purity of spirit, nobility, and courageous self-sacrifice – principles to at least offer humanity hope, to stop destroying its planet, to tame the rampant greedy civilization consuming it.

Soldiers might then behave as the valiant, humane, reluctant and noble heroes of legend. War would be harder to fight and – should the novelty of statesmanlike behavior pervade Washington, London, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, Paris and Beijing – be much harder to start.

Sounding like a pathetic utopian rant? Of course it is, but Cynic, make your choice. Endorse change, or suffer the festering quagmire of your status quo.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in isolation, were immoral massacres, as were the macabre Dresden and Tokyo firestorms. The servicemen who crystallized the moment were (though maybe, simplistically, from morally too lofty a viewpoint) ultimately as criminal as their leaders.

Each man pictured on that incongruous Pacific runway was a fine father, brother or neighbor pressed into military service under a state of emergency. Their work unrewarding, the sacrifice gallant, the times difficult and frightening, each moment lived at death’s door. Insulated from the eventual evil of their leaders’ atomic stumble by layers of camaraderie and technology they are, at any given moment of that terrible war, essentially blameless, indeed heroic.

At, however, the moment of release of the bomb – or the instant of ignition – the incorruptibly sane and ruthlessly self-honest among them would admit to their own temporary insanity and personal criminality, and be consumed by remorse … if any shred of our noble hero lay within.

From Captain Bob Lewis, Enola Gay co-pilot’s original letter:

Just how many Japs did we kill? My God, what have we done?”

In the spirit of ‘without sin’ and ‘casting stones’ what can be said about the United States or its leadership in 1945?

With more than fifty million people dead, six years into an international conflagration, every country in the world at tether’s end, it was, in that torrid era, surely time to put an end to the killing. Niceties irrelevant, negotiation jaded, faded.

Superficially it might seem reasonable to frame out guilt, to blame “the times such as they were” as though any sane person would have done the same, and bombed those heedless doomed civilians as a lesson to Japanese leadership. [Henry Stimson’s account written in 1947]

Rather grotesque logic?

And with the war thankfully done and gone, a good dose of national amnesia was in order.

Hollywood wove a carpet of clichéd war films, swept beneath which lay the dusty moral of that dark period, and, though at least portraying heroes whose worthy stories needed telling, it sidestepped the fetid truth that the studios sensed their audience was too weak-minded to face.

Those details still await discovery by popular historians, school curricula, and the tranquillized populace, laid like old newspapers beneath that frayed neglected carpet, to be read any time they wish.

Though each moment of our curious history locks so-called historians in opinionated conflict – to the point of denying the Jewish Holocaust, let alone decisively concluding why the bomb fell – we can bypass these time-wasters and review recorded evidence:

General and former President Dwight Eisenhower felt:

.. there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act … Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

General Douglas MacArthur said he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.

Some interpret MacArthur’s support for the invasion of Japan as evidence he thought they were not ready to surrender by August 7, 1945. MacArthur did, frightfully, suggest to Eisenhower he deploy atomics against Chinese targets in 1952.

Admiral William Leahy, Chief of Staff to war Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, stated clearly:

.. the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. .. in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages”

Former President Herbert Hoover was unequivocal:

The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul. Use of the bomb had besmirched America’s reputation.”

Edward Teller, Manhattan Project nuclear physicist known colloquially as the father of the hydrogen bomb, stated bluntly:

I believe we should have demonstrated it to the Japanese before using it [and] a new age would have started in which the power of human knowledge had stopped a war without killing a single individual.

As it happened we killed a great number of Japanese, and people all over the world were convinced that nuclear explosives instead of being potential instruments of peace are weapons for terror and destruction.

I think that in 1945 we made a great mistake. It was war and the mistake was understandable. Yet, I’m sure it was a mistake.”

Eugene Rabinowitch, founder and editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists , considered breaking ranks and alerting the American public to the existence of the Bomb, the plans to use it against Japan, and the moral issues and dangers of so doing. In a letter to The New York Times, June 28, 1971:

Before the atom bomb-drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I had spent sleepless nights thinking that I should reveal to the American people, perhaps through a reputable news organ, the fateful act—the first introduction of atomic weapons—which the U.S. Government planned to carry out without consultation with its people.

Twenty-five years later, I feel I would have been right if I had done so.”

Robert McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, was closer than most to the source during his U.S. Army stint at the time:

Any military commander who is honest with himself .. will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily .. through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand .. “

McNamara continues:

Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan?

Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.

I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S.-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history.”

LeMay stated, adds McNamara, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

And I think he’s right. He, and I, would say we were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

Image: Controversial “LeMay Bombing Leaflet”

What is going on here?

The cream of America’s war effort decrying their own government’s prima facie ‘heinous’ action – in both fire and atomic bombing – is rather more than mere dissenting academics or liberal polemics, and certainly no motley array of bleeding hearts.

Did Teller reluctantly suspect, much to his confused horror, what fifty years of post-atomic foreign intervention would confirm – that that the directive of July 1945 was neither mistake nor strategy, that the United States of America is demonstrably capable of selfish evil?

Albert Einstein confirmed one year later the enormous cynicism of bombing Japan, saying he was sure that President Roosevelt would have forbidden the atomic bombing of Hiroshima had he been alive and that it was probably carried out to end the Pacific war before Russia could participate.

To imagine or believe American strategists of the time read Stalin so well they were prepared to obliterate two Japanese cities to show him, and all future enemies, that America would really use its (future) nuclear arsenal, is giving them too much credit. Truman, after all, believed Stalin did not even understand what he was talking about when he (in person, at Potsdam) told Stalin the U.S. had a “new weapon of great explosive power.”

A wealth of intelligence intercepts paint a dogged Japanese military’s refusal to surrender, instead electing to fight to the end. The Japanese imperials did not consider their situation hopeless, were not seriously seeking surrender, sought to preserve the imperial order undiluted, and seriously prepared to fight invasion at Kyushu where they correctly anticipated America would land.

The grisly equation confronting strategists in the summer of 1945 was that several hundred thousand Asian-Pacific people were dying each month the war continued, while the invasion of Japan had become unacceptable in terms of likely casualties. Five million Japanese army troops were active in Japan and South East Asia, and would – as they already were doing – fight to the death. A grisly likelihood of one million allied deaths would be the cost to defeat them.

The arguments, reasoning, and terrible inevitability of the use of atomic weapons are presented with a heavy heart in Henry Stimson’s post-war Harper’s article.

I’m glad it was not my decision. And any grunt surveying Japan from a landing party would consider the bomb a savior.

Asleep at the atomic wheel?

To deploy atomics against an enemy for the first time in history would, one hopes, elicit some caution, if not sound great alarms in the corridors of morality.

A committed Truman wrote in his diary, July 25th, 1945:

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10. I have told the secretary of war, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.

Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. ”

It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.”

A purely military target? Issue a warning? Who changed the mission?

We are fortunate indeed to have a witness to those days of the American mindset at the close of the war. An astute, independent, strong-minded thinker, Daniel Ellsberg, who dared think against the tribal instinct reflecting on Truman immediately after the bomb fell.

From Ellsberg's article at Truthdig]

I remember that I was uneasy, on that first day and in the days ahead, about the tone in President Harry Truman’s voice on the radio as he exulted over our success in the race for the Bomb and its effectiveness against Japan.

I generally admired Truman, then and later, but in hearing his announcements I was put off by the lack of concern in his voice, the absence of a sense of tragedy, of desperation or fear for the future.

It seemed to me that this was a decision best made in anguish; and both Truman’s manner and the tone of the official communiqués made unmistakably clear that this hadn’t been the case.

Which meant for me that our leaders didn’t have the picture, didn’t grasp the significance of the precedent they had set and the sinister implications for the future.

And that evident unawareness was itself scary.

I believed that something ominous had happened; that it was bad for humanity that the Bomb was feasible, and that its use would have bad long-term consequences, whether or not those negatives were balanced or even outweighed by short-run benefits.

Looking back, it seems clear to me my reactions then were right.

Within a year, Ellsberg’s mother and sister died in a car accident when his father fell asleep whilst driving, leading him to conclude:

I loved my father, and I respected Truman. But you couldn’t rely entirely on a trusted authority—no matter how well-intentioned he was, however much you admired him—to protect you, and your family, from disaster.

You couldn’t safely leave events entirely to the care of authorities .. They could be asleep at the wheel, heading for a wall or a cliff. I saw that later in Lyndon Johnson and in his successor, and I’ve seen it since.

But I sensed almost right away, in August 1945 as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated, that such feelings - about our president, and our Bomb - separated me from nearly everyone around me, from my parents and friends and from most other Americans.

They were not to be mentioned. They could only sound unpatriotic. And in World War II, that was about the last way one wanted to sound. These were thoughts to be kept to myself.



Self-sacrificial zeal bespoke the entire Japanese military’s approach.

This was a different type of enemy to that collapsing in Europe, and a very tough nut to crack, indeed. It would require a very large hammer, and fortuitously – or disastrously – America possessed an unspeakably horrendous hammer.

But, in the name of humanity, they were not supposed to use it!

A specious argument loiters here.

Robert McNamara rhetorically asks and answers the perennial question since the bomb was used. You will wearily recognize this universal, self-evident contention of brutal soldiering, even as you see the futility of opposing it:

McNamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing 100,000, burning to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number or none?

And then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you’re proposing? Is that moral? Is that wise?”

Yet despite the genocidal swathe by which the Japanese military viciously scarred Asia, aspects of their warrior culture was pure bravery. ‘Westerners’ greeted with uncomprehending horror Kamikaze suicide attacks. Dismayed Allied servicemen knew in their hearts they could not fight that way – our culture leads its soldiers to hide beneath the skirts of technology – and had they time to reflect would only concede respect for such heroic attack.


Such fighters were attacking with pin-point precision the enemy’s military. In contrast, to save the necks of our fighting men we would cowardly murder innocents of cities?

Such dark accusation is a thorny duality reaching back to the dawn of war technology, whose aim is always to maximize enemy casualties, minimize one’s own, and speedily end conflict.

The degree to which a general would pervert this tactical mix has always been proportional to the moral heart of a warring nation. Dismissively, I might blanket, few Christian armies have ever respected the sentiments of Christ, though nobler generals agonize over them.

What is going on? Nothing?

Nothing new, anyway. Just an unfettered executive hijacking of the heart of democracy, facilitated by an obsequious media, powered by mindless commercial logic, a sickening free-for-all where the needs of the nation are translated into a political trading pit.

And not a statesman in sight.

Why and how do great nations morally stumble?

Too many doctrinaires, too many power brokers, too many lobbyists, attracted like gorging pig-moths to that large white building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The outcome of their deadly, selfish, greedy game .. continues to this day.

Inevitably, firstly, the death of patriotic-minded American soldiers with no intimation they are tools of conspiring avarice, or victims of clashing egos. Right-minded martyrs whose lives, and those of their families, are ruined whilst they in turn devastate the innocents of yet another country standing in the way of U.S. foreign policy which, history – and the self-doubting memoirs of numerous Presidents – shows with nauseating repetition, second-guesses itself to the point of comic futility.

Then, usually, a hastily-contrived war strategy that hog-ties the military to ensure the worst possible outcome. Fueled by over-educated, over-smart, legions of analysts in self-serving bureaucracies whose opinions, judgment and intelligence might hone to an occasional valid policy – it succumbs yet again to the ideologue with the shrewdest maneuvering, strongest lobby, and largest testicles.

Each escapade, progressively more cynical, ratifies opinion that US foreign policy is increasingly transparent as an agent of greed.

And these are just wheels within wheels turned by money, a mere smoke screen to cover the real players.

While armies of intelligence-sifters apply armories of think tanks to superfluity of minutiae – all to no avail – the smirking puppet masters wryly work their wily ways in a moral vacuum.

Such was the ethical void pervading darker shadows of the Pentagon in 1945 when it chose to scorch two cities with the most unspeakable weapon – ostensibly to end a finished war, to save American soldiers’ lives, or purportedly to make a political point to Stalin.

Given that truth is usually stranger than fiction, and that Occam’s is as good a way to cut the cards as any, might not a student of history validly deduce Hiroshima and Nagasaki fell sacrifice for no other reason than to satisfy the morbid curiosity of cruel little boys who burn ants’ nests in sadistic ecstasy?

A consensus was afoot in the corridors of American power in that final year of war – freed by Roosevelt’s death to run its revengeful doctrine in the face of all facts.

Allied to these moral dwarfs – eerily similar to a mindset that begat it all ten years earlier in Berlin – we might imagine a totally amoral military and scientific intelligentsia watching coldly and curiously from the shadowed wings, waiting for the sun to break cloud and strike the lens …

Evan Thomas, Newsweek Magazine:

If there was little debate over the moral rights and wrongs of atomizing Hiroshima, there was even less over Nagasaki; indeed, no debate at all.

The operation was left to Groves, who was eager to show that an “implosion” bomb, which had cost $400 million to develop, could work as well as the “gun-type” bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima.

Exploding over the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the Far East, the Nagasaki bomb killed an additional 70,000 people. The victims included as many Allied prisoners of war as Japanese soldiers – about 250.

Emperor Hirohito had already decided to surrender before Nagasaki.

General Groves tried to put a benign face on the bomb. He told a congressional committee that he had been told by doctors that radiation poisoning did not cause undue suffering.

In fact, he ventured, it was “a very pleasant way to die.”


Little has changed

Ultimately, at any level from grunt to general, from senator to commander-in-chief, there are men for whom ego, career, or outcome, outweigh the details, or even the fact, of human suffering. Every 20th century conflict is testimony to choices placing expedience or personal and corporate gain above suffering innocents.

Too often will the subservient do the dirty work, take moral shortcuts and obey cowards of doctrine – those licentious henchmen who would kill one hundred thousand souls to profit their ego, pockets, or (frighteningly) no more than their blind beliefs.

It is Humanity’s tragedy that a stampede of avarice, ego, and dogma, should demolish a rose bush that might prick its conscience – when a little thought, care, or compromise, could blunt the thorn and spare the bloom.

History, given time, might précis World War Two as “the unfolding of a great Greek tragedy” by political foreign fumbling on an international scale, followed by a six-year nightmare, and ending in a cynical atomic lie.

The first conflict of the 21st century continues the pattern.

Slow learners, indeed.



I am not touting a revisionist view of the atomic bombing of Japan, simply posing timeless moral dilemmas of soldiering: should armies brutally slaughter to shorten conflict, nobly risk themselves to minimize “collateral,” or universally refuse to fight in an ethical extreme?

Why this pivotal historic incident provokes endless controversy about what ought be the most black and white decision in the annals of war makes one question not the facts of it, but the honesty and decency of our human race.

Seven decades later social archaeologists continue fanning smoldering tribal embers in petty semantics that – rather than uncovering the “truth” – demean the memories, cloak the horror, and taint the poignancy of this seminal moment – one that should have changed us forever.

It would have, were we to simply revere it.

We cannot even, with empathy, compassion, and respect, agree to disagree, to dip our heads in humility and regret .. and silence!

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