On nuke-em-till-they-glow day

70 years after Hiroshima, there should be perspective.

There isn’t.  People still rant and rave about the “ethics” of dropping the Bomb.

I was reminded yesterday of how silly that was when Brett Stephens of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article entitled “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb”, which of course was also the title of a 1981 essay in The New Republic by Paul Fussell, which (at least at the moment) can be downloaded in full here.

Fussell’s main point, which is echoed by Stephens, can be summed up in the following quote from his essay:

Understanding the past requires pretending that you don’t know the present. It requires feeling its own pressure on your pulses without any ex post facto illumination.

Or, for those who follow John Ringo,

“This is a picture. All it tells you is what you see. If you don’t know the context you know nothing.

What Fussell said in 1981, and what Ringo put in the mouth of one of his characters in The Last Centurion, is absolutely no different than what I was taught in history classes at university in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, which boiled down more or less to, “Historical events cannot be interpreted from a modern-day perspective.”  Yes, you do have to walk a mile in their shoes to understand their lives.

Think about that for a moment.  Think about the history classes you’ve taken in the past, and historical books that you’ve read (primary sources, like autobiographies and classics written by people who had been there and done that).  If you’re not a history major, that won’t be many, but I’m sure you can remember reading selections from various and sundry historical personages and wondering how they could say or do such things.  When you did that, you were committing the sin referred to by Fussell and Ringo.  You were considering the historical event or person from your latter-day, “enlightened” perspective, and not placing it or him/her into their historical context.

Today we are horrified, for instance, by American black slavery, and think we know that only the Civil War could put a stop to it.  Yet historical perspective suggests that if the Civil War had not happened, slavery would have died out on its own within another generation — simply because the Industrial Revolution would have put paid to it.1  Even in the 1860’s, slavery was uneconomical for many, many slaveholders, who honestly did not know what to do about it that wouldn’t lead to the “ruination of their personal economies”2, and chose to ignore it and continue with the status quo, regardless of the morality of doing that.  (Which is probably why many fought so hard to maintain it.  Fear of the unknown future is a strong motivator.)  Had the Civil War not occurred, hundreds of thousands of young men would not have been killed or maimed on the battlefields of that war, and millions of dollars of American treasure would not have been thrown away on four years of warfare.  And the end result would have been slavery phased out within the next 20-30 years.

We have similar reactions when we read ancient and medieval history.  We even have it when we read the Bible.  If we do not investigate the context of their lives and times, we cannot begin to understand the motivations of the people who lived in them.  We may never fully understand them, but we certainly will not if we do not attempt to view them as they viewed themselves.

This is why we experience cognitive dissonance when trying to understand the German people during WWII, or the Russian people during the Communist era.3  We choke on things like the Holocaust or Stalin’s purges because we do not have the context in which to place them.  In short, we weren’t there.  We understand intellectually that these historical events were horrific and inhuman and genocidal, but we can never embrace them in a visceral or tangible way and know exactly what the people involved in them went through.

When progressives write — or, to be fair, rewrite — history, as they have done in their march through the institutions over the past half century and more, the idea that experience of a thing, or at least the placing of a thing in its historical context, is essential to the understanding of that thing is thrown out the window, and rather than asking “How would the people of the day understood that?”, they ask “How do you feel about that?”  Thus history becomes “touchy-feely”, something that would have earned me (in 1991) a lot of red ink and probably no better than a C on a term paper, if not indeed a suggestion that perhaps I should transfer to the political science or English literature department.  Or even, if the professor was feeling nasty, the School of Journalism.

This rewriting of history prevents students from learning, for example, that President Woodrow Wilson was a Fascist, who was admired by Mussolini, who did his best to emulate him; that Margaret Sanger was a raging atheistic racist abortionist rather than the progressive feminist promoter of women’s rights she is portrayed as by Planned Parenthood and modern progressives; and finally (leaving a lot of things out in the interest of avoiding TL;DR), that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rather than being somehow immoral and ethically suspect, was a lifesaving event for perhaps a million American servicemen and who knows how many Japanese civilians and Home Guard who, but for the word of their Emperor, would have been decimated while decimating Americans in the final battle for the Japanese Home Islands.

The problem, as Fussell and Stephens both note, is that we have no way to know that Operation Downfall, the plan for the invasion of Japan, would have played out that way.  All we know is what history tells us, and in Fussell’s case, what the context of living in that time and being marked for probable death in the invasion of Honshu made clear to him.

Having reached the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima — something I have been keenly interested in since I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima4 in my teens — perhaps there is no better time than now to reassert that in order to prevent repetition of history, we need to learn history.  And in learning history, we need to be careful to place what we learn into its historical context, or we haven’t really learned anything at all, and we’ve simply wasted our time.5

The lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that sometimes good men must do bad things to avert even worse things down the road.  Harry Truman knew that, and he ordered the bombs to be dropped.  Seventy years later, without context, progressives have no way to properly evaluate his action, and because of their current attitudes and 20/20 hindsight, they condemn him for it, without realizing that in doing so, they condemn themselves.


1 In my opinion, and contra the arguments of the Cliometricians whose research shows that slaves were “more efficient” than free farmers by something like 30%, there is too much evidence that the slave economy was already at risk due to innovations such as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and other contemporary industrial improvements, which were not war-driven technology and existed in their own civilian, commercial space.

2 I love that line from 1776.

3 Let alone Mao’s Cultural Revolution, or the Cambodian killing fields, or Vietnam after reunification, which are even more alien to our Western ways of thinking.

4 Hersey is one of the authors who comes in for a right pummeling by Fussell; the book focuses on the aftermath and the victims rather than the reason why they became victims.  It ignores the larger context in order to make its touchy-feely point.

5 This is the problem Barack Obama contends with concerning Iran; he has learned touchy-feely history (if he has learned any history at all) and has used what he knows to inform how he deals with the Mad Mullahs. Our next president needs to do better, and so do we all.