President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima is historic—he is the first sitting president to visit there—and he spoke movingly and philosophically about the desire for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to mark the “start of our own moral awakening.” But observers also noted that Japan should not expect an apology for America’s actions 71 years ago. Why not?
|Hiroshima Peace Memorial - Wikipedia|
Here “sacrifice” is not just about putting some members of our society in situations where they may be killed or injured; it is deeper, according to Hauerwas: we ask them to sacrifice many of the normal moral commitments the society otherwise works so hard to foster, including the reluctance to kill. Only by sacralizing killing can we make sense of asking this. And if so, we find ourselves unwittingly committed to justifying past acts if for no other reason than that the worst of these acts show us to be killers we don’t remember (or don’t want to remember) choosing to be. As Hauerwas says, “War is a sacrificial system that creates its own justification.” With Memorial Day right around the corner, I think this is especially what’s going on for President Obama’s inability to apologize. To do so would dishonor America’s fallen soldiers and veterans by disrupting the sacrificial narrative that we tell ourselves about war. This is part of what makes war so powerful and dangerous, especially for the society of victors.
The debates about whether bombing Japan was justified are important. For example, the venerable tradition of Just War, in both its religious (e.g. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas) and secular (e.g. Michael Walzer) versions, always prohibits intentional, direct attacks on civilians. Debates have ranged from whether, in the case of Imperial Japan, the entire society was so thoroughly “militarized” that one can no longer speak of noncombatants to whether President Truman really only had the two options he said he did (use the bomb as he did or launch a bloody land invasion). If every man, woman, and child can be considered a “combatant” for the sake of dismissing one of our strictest limits on war, we need to be very realistic about how such a claim can be used by others against us, as indeed Osama Bin Laden argued this very point to justify the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, it has been well-demonstrated that Truman had other options not usually discussed, including a naval blockade or a demonstration of the power of the bomb in an uninhabited area during the three months before the land invasion was scheduled. These kinds of moral and historical debates are important.
Also important are the philosophical questions about the limits of ethics, especially the ethics of war. Great thinkers from Kierkegaard to Dietrich Bonhoeffer have reflected on the difficulty of reaching a kind of “no man’s land” beyond ethics, where the rules we normally trust no longer seem to apply. For Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, the absoluteness of the divine command produces this kind of dilemma (Kierkegaard’s extended example of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Fear in Trembling is a classic.) But, as Bonhoeffer puts it, this isn’t the choice between good and evil (or even the more difficult choice between two evils). It is the choice of whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil. There is no understanding or justifying this kind of choice; there is only the loneliness of having chosen something no one will understand, and this includes oneself. This kind of choice can produce what some are calling “moral injury,” in which a person or a society is unable to narrate what it has done in moral terms. Michael Walzer’s justly acclaimed book Just and Unjust Wars entertains just such a scenario in war, which he calls the Supreme Emergency. “Can one do anything, violating the rights of the innocent, in order to defeat Nazism? I am going to argue that one can indeed do what is necessary…” (pp. 238-9). Yet once an idea like supreme emergency is built into an ethic of war, even as an exception, it is given a justification as part of that ethic. This is a way of avoiding the no-man’s land of ethics (and not in a good way, in my view) that Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer discussed.
This gets us closer to the heart of the matter. Let us assume that (despite all of the arguments to the contrary) the US strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be thought of as a supreme emergency. This happens to be the force of the American consensus on the events—that it was the choice between two evils, but was preferable to the alternative since it would result in fewer casualties and would end the war more quickly. Walzer, however, who argues for supreme emergency in the case of Germany, thinks it is wrong to use it in the case of Japan. Unlike the case with Germany—carpet bombing German cities, in particular—which he says had the form of: “if we don’t do x (bomb cities), they will do y (win the war, establish tyrannical rule, etc.), the Japanese case had the form of: if we don’t do x, we will do y (p. 167). The US had aims for the war that, for example, wouldn’t allow anything short of unconditional surrender, but why? Japan had indicated a willingness to surrender but with the condition that they could keep their emperor. Walzer argues that, in this case, the US was wrong to ask for unconditional surrender which, in turn, makes the appeal to supreme emergency ultimately misplaced.
President Obama spoke eloquently about the need for our moral awakening with regard to war—I agree. But while there are compelling reasons that the US should apologize for its use of atomic bombs against Japan (say what you will about the idea of supreme emergency, but even so, it won’t pass in this case), the difficulty the victors of war have in telling the truth about what they have done is the same difficulty that anyone powerful—with power to lose—has in asking forgiveness. The powerful narrative, and possibly even the narrative of power itself, is contested and at risk of being replaced by another one.
Craig Hovey is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.