My recollection of this event from schooling is one of cold facts. Time. Date. Location.
What I learned this evening was varied and great. For the U.S. it ranged from graphic details of how hard the Japanese fought, to a willingness to underestimate loss of life for the sake of a battle plan. The other side depicted the arrogance of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, to the general ignorance of the common Japanese citizen with respect to what their rulers were doing.
(The latter is consistent with what my college German professor told me regarding the actions of the Nazis during WW2. She was a young child during Hitler's control and from her experience there was a lack of awareness as to how the Jews were being treated.)
The European Theater has always been more interesting to me due to my fascination with how Hitler achieved power. However, watching American soldiers speak of their horrors from battling the Japanese peaked my interest in the Pacific campaign. Stories telling of the need to kill prisoners, the smell of the dead rotting in the sun and the overwhelming causalities from Kamikaze pilots laid a foundation for Truman's eventual decision.
For many the question of whether it was needed will forever be debated. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the most part, did not want to invade Japan due to the high casualty count. Information they obtained painted Japan as a nation preparing civilians to defend the homeland, further complicating strategy and endangering American soldiers.
The Japanese civilian casualties, which included immediate and eventual death from the bomb, was estimated up to 170,000. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later would kill an estimated 80,000. Had the U.S. invaded, the expectation was that casualties on both sides could have totaled at a minimum 1,000,000 people.
War is not moral. One thing that stood out amongst all the information was the explanation surrounding why they could not take prisoners. Unlike being on a continent, the islands in the Pacific had limited storage and therefore you could not leave the enemy in a protected location. In turn you could not let them go as they would rejoin their troops.
The situation was kill or be killed and watching these old men speak of what had to be done to survive disclosed a duality of joy from surviving against regret for acts they had to perform. It further reminded me just how much easier it is to kill without seeing the face of your enemy.
George Berkin wrote an interesting article about his trip to Hiroshima, Japan during this anniversary some years back. In it he speaks of Japan's seeming unwillingness to acknowledge their level of culpability regarding why these bombs were dropped. An excerpt:
Even now, the museum reflects a continuing attitude of a denial toward Japan’s culpability in starting the war. In his Aug. 6 message last year, posted on the museum’s web site, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba avoids any mention that Japanese actions may have brought on the bombing of his city.
The mayor’s message this year continues that theme, saying the victims were attacked “without understanding why.” Perhaps those who perished were not aware of the full facts of the war, but today’s survivors (as well as the Japanese public at large) should be.
Japan continues to downplay or ignore its role in starting the war, and its invasions of China, Manchuria, Korea and many other Asian nations. More than 15 million people died as a result of Japanese aggression.
Japanese school textbooks continue to give an inaccurate portrayal of Japanese aggression during the war, including the Rape of Nanking. As a result of the nation’s refusal to deal forthrightly with its wartime actions, Japan’s neighbors remain wary and at odds with that nation.
He goes on to make the point that if 3,000,000 people could have died, the loss of life from the two bombs is justified. A difficult argument for many to swallow, but if the context is that there will be deaths regardless, surely minimizing the number would be the best course.
I think this debate is a distraction and unfortunately, as was noted in the documentary, "There are pictures to show the affect of the bomb on the Japanese. There are no pictures showing all those who survived."
History states that the U.S. dropped leaflets on the cities so their residents were aware something was coming. Still, the dropping of the bomb was itself without warning. Shouldn't the question center around whether sufficient actions were taken to ensure the civilian casualties would be minimized? With the wealth of information available surely I'm not the first to ask this question and I hope to find at least a debate as to the answer.
But even after hearing the stories and the justifications. Even after reading accounts by American and Japanese academics\laymen, I can't help but consider the accountability of the leaders above all other points.
For example, had General Douglas MacArthur gotten his way, the American's would have followed through his plan for a ground attack. The documentary noted that MacArthur's ego played too much of a role, thereby ignoring the potential catastrophic loss of life. On the other side you had the Japanese Emperor. So absorbed with the idea of Japan's power and prominence that he would basically offer his entire nation to die.
From being lead as a child by our parents we move through teachers, employers and even friends. Trust is such an elemental role in life and for anyone who has been in the military you know that trust is an inherent part of being a soldier. Your hope, either tacit or active, is that your leader is able to maintain a "philosopher king" mentality so to save you from unnecessary harm. I do not envy those who had to weigh the loss of life in deciding to drop these bombs. The U.S. soldiers can be grateful MacArthur didn't get his way. Japan was not so fortunate.