Friday, August 05, 2005

Through a glass, darkly.

I doubt it will have escaped anyone's attention that we're looking at the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

The event was an historical landmark and deserves to be treated as such. It was also clearly a human tragedy. However, my personal view is that much of the ethical debate that has inevitably and understandably resurfaced is largely sterile as it tends to involve placing an ahistorical and arbitrary partition between the nuclear bombings and the conventional bombing campaign that followed it.

This is a mistake, as to do so removes a lot of the context from the debate. It is important to recognise that, immense though the devastation was, it was not, in fact, conventional devastation of an order of magnitude particularly removed from that inflicted in the Combined Bomber Offensive in the ETO or - more relevantly - in the massive incendiary bombing sweeps conducted by the USAAF over Japan in the months leading up to the atomic bombs being dropped.

What we get in this case is two wild cards, both of which tend to play on an emotional level - the fact that the devastation was caused by a single bomb on the one hand and the radiation factor on the other. The former tends to invoke an understandable horror, but it is highly questionable whether that alone sets the atomic bombing as a breed apart, ethically speaking. The radiation is a double whammy in that it continued to kill long after the fact and the outbreak of peace and it plays to the natural, instinctive repulsion felt by human beings at the notion of "poison" (which is of a piece with notions of the "beastliness" of poison gas in the Great War and undoubtedly has a substantially fuller pedigree that laziness prevents full documentation here). However, at the time the bombs were dropped, the implications of the radiation were recognised hazily at most, with numerous American scientists, boffins and soldiers present at the creation subsequently popping off at a not especially ripe age and many theorists more worried about the possibility of chain reactions that would cause the planet to blow up.

The point is not that no ethical debate is justified, but that any ethical debate makes little real sense if the bombings are placed in a vacuum. I would contend that to set them apart from the conventional bombing campaign is a serious mistake and one that will generate far more heat than light.


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