Ethics Alarms Reflections: “The Ethics of Commemorating Hiroshima,” And Other Thoughts

There probably isn’t a more explosive ethics event, literally or figuratively, than the dropping of the first atom bomb on Hiroshima on this date in 1945.

My father attributed this date to the fact of my existence. Dad had received word that he was to be part of the first wave invasion force to take the Japan mainland, and estimated casualties were as high as 1 million. He said that he had fully expected to be killed. But on August 6, in 1945, the Enola Gay changed all of that. I suppose you could say that I have a strong bias in favor of President Truman’s decision.

Hiroshima was one of the first historical topics I wrote about on this blog. Ethics Alarms had been around for less than a year in 2010, when I wrote this post, “The Ethics of Commemorating Hiroshima”:

I missed it, but apparently the son of the commander of the Enola Gay told Fox News that for America to send a diplomatic delegation to Japan to memorialize the 65th Anniversary of the bombing was a de facto apology that for a necessary wartime action.

Over at Popehat, Patrick (some day I’ll figure out how to get these guys’ last names) offers an articulate and precise explanation of why James Tibbets is wrong, historically and ethically. An excerpt:

“…And so, to me, it seems proper that we send a representative to Japan to mark a tragedy in living Japanese history, even if it was a tragedy of the Japanese government’s making.   That government is gone.  Its leaders died on the gallows. Japan is not an enemy nation.  65 years after Hiroshima, Japan is a friend to America.

To memorialize a tragedy is not to apologize for wrongdoing.  Another American virtue, at least in the America where I live, is that we are a forgiving people.  Old enemies, such as Britain, for over a century the greatest threat to this country, become friends.  As has Japan.  As have almost a third of the American population.

If you visit the town of Gettysburg Pennsylvania, and drive a little distance into the battlefield, you will see many monuments…There is no doubt that soldiers who fought under the flags of North Carolina and the Confederacy posed a greater existential threat to the United States than the soldiers of imperial Japan ever did.  Yet the field of battle on which they were beaten contains multiple monuments to North Carolina’s war dead, as well as to those of other Confederate states.  And visitors to the Gettysburg cemetery and battlefield show those dead as much respect as they do to Union dead, even when the visitors come from Wisconsin or Massachusetts.

Similarly, though Japan isn’t part of the United States, we should respect the innocent who died or were ruined at Hiroshima, for innocent they were.  It isn’t an apology to respect the dead, and one of the ways that governments show respect is to send diplomats to memorial ceremonies.”

I can’t improve on the analysis or the post, and won’t attempt to do so. You can read Patrick’s entire post here.


  • I never did learn Patrick’s last name. Popehat, meanwhile, is dead; primary writer Ken White has succumbed to the substack siren call.
  • As I have made clear many times in the 12 years since that post was written, I believe that the decision to drop the bomb was ethical (as ethical as any fatal action during wartime can be, which is a topic by itself) and necessary. I am not so certain about the second bomb, at Nagasaki.
  • Amazing, isn’t it? Patrick’s analysis of the respect due to the Confederate dead at Gettysburg was absolutely uncontroversial in 2010. Today, he would be attacked as a racist.

7 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Reflections: “The Ethics of Commemorating Hiroshima,” And Other Thoughts

  1. We seem to have forgotten that the purpose of an armed force is to kill people and break things until the other side gives up. “War is hell,” said General Sherman, as he helped bludgeon the Confederacy into submission. Our armed forces, then and now, are not supposed to be some kind of woke group of peace keepers. When we dropped the big one on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan decided we had killed enough people and broken enough things that they had no choice but to give up. War should always be the last resort, but when it becomes necessary to fight one, then fight it tooth and nail.

  2. War is the most horrible invention of mankind. Wars occur when one or more parties want something other than peace. Once war has begun it is in the best interests of all parties, belligerents, and innocents that the war be prosecuted with the utmost efficiency and speed. Ending a war quickly saves lives on all sides. A protracted war only benefits arms merchants. The protracted wars of Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan are sterling examples of the futility of protracted wars.

    As horrific as dropping both atomic bombs was. Two bombs were necessary because Japan failed to end hostilities quickly after the first bomb and the US needed to demonstrate it had more than one atomic bomb and the will to use them. I believe the projections are true that the bombs saved lives on all sides. Therefore, dropping the bombs was an act of mercy not horror even though the loss of life and images were horrific. They had to be to get the Japanese to surrender unconditionally.

    I also see nothing wrong with Patrick’s thinking. The best way for nations to avoid repeated wars is to make your enemy your friend. Had that philosophy been embraced at the end of WWI, WWII might not have happened.

  3. I don’t see anything wrong with sending a memorial delegation. If they didn’t actually apologize or admit any sort of fault, and just stuck to a script touting friendship, working together, world peace, etc., and a few compliments for the hosts on other matters, they would have been fine. The Japanese understand and appreciate that sort of kind politeness (evidenced by the mere presence of a delegation), and tactful avoidance of reminders of shame, whether their own or others’.

  4. The mission of the military was, is, and always shall be to destroy the enemy as quickly as possible in order to minimize its own losses. Sherman knew that, Patton knew that, and anyone who has been in battle knows that. Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing was to carry out that mission.
    My own unit suffered casualties while providing aid to villagers of the Vietnam highlands. We had been lulled into the false notion that we would be accepted by the villagers because we were providing health care and reconstruction. That was not the case. Three died. I apologize for nothing I did to survive, neither should the nation.

  5. I believe Paul Fussell, who talked the talk and walked the walk, assessed the dilemma properly:
    “In general, the principle is, the farther from the scene of horror the easier the
    talk. One young combat naval officer close to the action wrote home m the
    fall of 1943, just before the marines underwent the agony of Tarawa: “When
    I read that we will fight the Japs for years if necessary and will sacrifice
    hundreds of thousands if we must, I always like to check from where he’s
    talking: it’s seldom out here.” That was Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy.
    And Winston Churchill, with an irony perhaps too broad and easy, noted in
    Parliament that the people who preferred invasion to A-bombing seemed to
    have “no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves.”
    Read the entire piece–it’s masterful.

    Click to access Fussel%20-%20thank%20god%20for%20the%20atom%20bomb.pdf

    • 77Zoomie,
      Thank you so much for your post on Paul Fussell’s article “Thank God for the Atom Bomb”. I found it moving beyond belief. I teared up reading it. Those that decry the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki need to also view the images of Dresden, Berlin, Warsaw, Nanking, and Stalingrad. Atrocities and devastations were so extreme and were committed by all combatant countries. I for one cannot single out which ones were the worst. I do know that had Germany and Japan not unleashed war on the world none of the devastations would have occurred.

      • You’re welcome, sir. That piece, as much as anything, lays out the issue with assessing past conduct using current standards. Even having spent plenty of time in Okinawa, Palau, Saipan, and Guam, I can barely imagine the horrors facing those troops as they prepared for Olympic, and their relief at the Japanese surrender.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.