I picked up a book at the local library a few weeks. It was number 3 of 3 I checked out that day. It was a last minute while waiting for my daughter to pick out her books kind of grab. From the cover of it (it had a rather dated cover), I was dubious but for whatever reason caught my attention. They say never judge a book by its cover, but I think that's hogwash. I very seldomly enjoy books that don't have a good binding or cover artwork. If the artwork is flake, then the book usually is too.
The name of the book was Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard. The cover had this real 80's looking panorama of modern Japan in yellow letters. It was kitschy looking, but like I said, it piqued my interest. I don't know why I grabbed it, as it had the vibe of "heavy handed anti-war hippie" panache written all over it. I usually don't go in for that sort of thing, particularly since I had another book I had really wanted to start reading in the pile, but I always enjoy a good non-fiction history book. I was willing to give it a whirl, at least for a few chapters to see if I was correct in my cover pigeon-holing assumptions.
From pretty much the preface of the book, I was sucked in immediately. Being a history major, I had studied World War II in some detail, though not greatly. I generally had a pretty good working knowledge of the military history and all of the war. I even remember getting into a spat with my world history teacher back in the day about the atomic bombings that ended the war. I am one of those rare birds that made it through a liberal arts college and graduate school without ever drinking the drinking the political koolaid that makes may such people become brainwashed Leftist sycophants. If anything, my experience in graduate school at an extremely liberal institution actually made me in some ways more conservative and not less, not that I have ever been any bastion of Right wingnuttery. I am still a leftover Dixiecrat at heart, but, that is neither here nor there.
In any event, as I began to read through Southard's book (Southard is a white American who has no ties to Japan other than as a foreign exchange student in Japan as a high school student back in the 1980s) I was pleasantly surprised at the even handedness she presented the effects of the atomic bomb on normal everyday people in Nagasaki. The whole thing was extremely well researched and footnoted, if one is into such things.
One of the things that immediate caught my attention about the book was because it focuses exclusively only on the second of the atomic bombings. It largely ignored the bombing of Hiroshima almost entirely throughout the entire book. I do not believe I have ever encountered a narrative of the atomic bombings that focuses only on the latter. Usually, they are always packaged together as a set, with the research focus tending toward Hiroshima or else the different types of atomic bombs used. Those topics I had read in some detail in the past, but I found I knew very little about Nagasaki itself, other than that it had been bombed and suffered like Hiroshima with the second hand radiation fallout and all that. But, I really did not know anything about the city itself.
The second interesting thing this book did was basically follow 5 of the survivors of the Nagasaki bombing, not just in the immediate aftermath, but throughout their adult lives. That was also a new twist on studies of the atomic bombings. Many books have been written on the immediate destruction and radiation fallout, but I do not recall ever having read something that focuses on whole life stories of survivors and how the war affected people even decades later.
One of the most telling things about the book is that it tries to stay fairly evenhanded with its analysis of whether or not the bombs were justified. Most of the 5 survivors she interviewed extensively for the book later became peace advocated and anti-nuclear arms protesters, so that does tend to color the later chapters.
However, the author makes some surprisingly subtle theological arguments that I was completely not expecting, given the secular looking cover of the book. I was expecting it to be a finger waging America-is-bad screed. Had the book been that, I probably would not have read more than a few chapters. I do not find politically-based moralizing of that sort particularly helpful or engaging. I also was taken aback by the logic the author used. It was a logic I had not heard before.
Basically, the author's argument, subtle though it may be, was extremely thought provoking. Basically factoring out Hiroshima entirely, she makes the argument of whether the Nagasaki bombing was a just war military maneuver. She clearly thinks it was not justified, but here is how she got there: she says (again with copious footnotes and documentation) that Nagasaki was a primarily Christian city. The biggest building in town was a Catholic church. The majority religion was Christianity. This is why Nagasaki was largely untouched by bombing raids until the very end because many traditional bombers would fly over, see the huge church, and not wanting to bomb a town with a church, would fly on to gravity or fire bomb other targets.
Furthermore, Nagasaki had one Mitsubishi munitions plant, but other than that had no strategic military value. It had no standing army or navy base to speak of. They were all virtually civilians, and Christian civilians at that. The author's basic argument was that if you are going to ethically justify the bombing of Nagasaki and say it was a moral just war bombing, you have to be okay with the US Government intentionally and knowingly targeting a Christian city of civilians with nuclear bomb.
Like I said, that was a logic I have never encountered before. And, honestly, I don't have a good response to that argument, other than to lapse into some form of Cicero's rhetorical logic of inter arma enim silent leges: in war the law falls silent.
I understand the traditional argument that the bombings saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. That does carry some weight in my analysis of things. However, even General Eisenhower, who is probably one of the people of the 20th century of whom I have the utmost respect, cautioned Truman against using the Bomb as strategically unnecessary. I also understand that when two combatants that over their own free will agree to wage total war on each other (and in Japan's case, horrendous murdering and raping of Manchuria and China during the occupation, amongst other horrible crimes), then to a certain extent, all is fair in love and war, as they say.
But, I still can't get over that notion of intentionally targeting a city known to be almost entirely civilians with such a horrendous weapon. Over two dozen nuns in a convent were literally vaporized.
Maybe I am over-analyzing this, but I have certainly been re-thinking some things over the last week as I have been thinking about these historical issues.
Being a realist, maybe assigning blame in a moral morass of war with hindsight being 20/20 is not productive. Looking to the future and "what can we learn from this awful tragedy?" is always the most important question. With North Korea and America saber rattling over nuclear weapons, I think this lesson is all the more crucial to ponder. Let's just hope someone in the halls of power learned something from Nagasaki. I fear that might not have.
More's the pity.