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Harry Truman's A-bombing of Japan left intact ethics and law

May 28, 2001 5:44 am

JACOB HORNBERGER'S May 19 op-ed, "A-bombings of Japan were acts of cowardice and criminality," is yet another example of a commentator who's bought into a skewed view of America's role in world history.

That view suggests that Americans should wear the hair shirt for wars of aggression and war crimes (and just about every other global malady) when, in reality, America has been the undisputed world leader in promoting freedom, decency, and compliance with the rule of law for more than two centuries.

In an alarming one-sided manner, Hornberger, president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, suppresses the historical and legal context in which the atomic-bomb decision was made.

Proselytizers of American guilt like Hornberger focus on American missteps--repeating them in mantralike fashion--excluding the tsunami of things that America has done right. Heroes? Not in their America.

As to Hornberger's central charge that the United States is criminally culpable for Hiroshima and Nagasaki--as much so as for the massacre of Vietnamese villagers at My Lai--I respectfully disagree.

First, consider the intuitively obvious. President Truman's decision to use atomic weapons against Japan was both appropriate and lawful. It wasn't, as Hornberger calls it, "cowardice, pure and simple." What is "pure and simple" is that it ended the most horrific war in history. Did the bomb save lives? Absolutely. The forecast casualties for an invasion of Japan reached the level of catastrophic.

Here's another news flash: Japan then wasn't like Japan now. It wasn't a place where citizens happily make Toyotas and Game Boys, sang the corporate anthem, and worried about their youth pining for Michael Jackson to go back on tour.

Japan of today is both an important ally and trading partner, but Japan then was an extremely isolated and dangerous military society. The emperor was considered a deity--and dying for him, either as soldier or as citizen was held an honor. His aura forever etched in the lexicon of infamy the terms "banzai" and "kamikaze."

The first time Japan heard his voice was via the radio after the Nagasaki detonation, when he called for his subjects to surrender and cooperate with the Allies. So awestruck were many Japanese that they threw themselves prostrate on the ground. Up to that point, they had been arming their children for the upcoming fight. That's the level of commitment faced by the
United States as it contemplated an invasion.

Talk to any member of what Tom Brokaw has labeled "The Greatest Generation" and get their perspective. Talk to any soldier, sailor, or Marine who fought on Okinawa--the battle closest to the Japanese mainland. Better yet, talk to any Japanese who lived through that era. Quiet-ly, they'll tell you that Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave them an honorable out. With face. Until then, surrender was never an option under their code of Bushido ("the way of the warrior"), which is difficult for moderns, steeped in situational ethics, to grasp.

The code, which was national policy, held that you fought to the death or committed suicide. Prisoners were rare--even in remote island campaigns far from their homeland. The fight for Japan itself would have been unimaginable.

According to George Feifer's careful and thoughtful estimation in the book "Tennozan: The Battle for Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb," casualties on Japan proper would have exceeded 20 million. The preceding horrors of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa figured as mere warm-up bouts before the main event.

U.S. war crimes? U.S. cowardice? Here's the unvarnished truth: Japan's warfare wholly ignored the Geneva Conventions. In places like the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Korea, and Singapore, Japan's wartime cruelty and brutality still scar the national subconscious.

I'm shocked that Hornberger, who lectures us about U.S. coward-ice, mentions rape as a war crime but conveniently omits Japan's "Rape of Nanking," in which tens of thousands of Chinese women were systematically raped. The Japanese army also forced females from all over Asia into the ranks of their "comfort women" while in garrison. And the Japanese were working on a nuclear-weapons capability as well. Would Hornberger argue that they would have never used it?

I would also caution Hornberger on being so quick to say that dropping the bomb violated international law in 1945. First-rate legal scholars disagree whether its use contravened legal norms at that time. One thing is clear. Lawful military targets existed in both cities. Both cities produced war materiel. In fact, Japan had largely disseminated its war-factory production away from large factories and into small shops and homes to avoid conventional targeting by B-29s.

International law has always permitted targeting military objectives, a category that includes combatants, defended places, and objects or places that somehow make an effective contribution to the enemy war effort.

In developing the laws of war after World War II, the concept
of incidental or collateral damage (e.g., to civilians and civilian property) was recognized as tragic but lawful. Limiting collateral damage, however, is accomplished by the pre-attack concept of "proportionality," which states that the civilian loss of life and property incidental to lawful attacks must not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage gained.

Therefore, under today's law of war, unintended civilian casualties--which might occur, for example, when a laser-guided bomb hits a passenger train instead of a munitions train--are a tragedy of war, but not a war crime, as long as the intended target was military in nature and the standard of proportionality was met before the targeting decision.

In 1945, however, the concept
of proportionality in aerial attacks was not as mature as today. The Fourth Geneva Convention (regarding the protection of civilians) was developed after the war, as was Protocol I (1977), which first codified the concept of proportionality.

Nevertheless, U.S. aerial campaigns in World War II focused, by policy, on military objectives. Collateral damage in places like Dresden in April 1945 and during the March 1945 Tokyo fire bombings (which killed more people than the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was horrific--but no war crime.

The Allies bombed these cities because they were where war production existed, where soldiers were garrisoned, where communication and transportation centers were located. Unfortunately, those places also were where civilians lived. Even prosecutors in the Allied-led Nuremberg and Tokyo war-crimes tribunals resisted charging the vanquished leaders and for the Axis air-bombing of cities. The law was that vague.

What is not vague (but ignored by Hornberger) is that Japan had half the market cornered when it comes to World War II war crimes. (Nazi Germany had the other.) To accuse the U.S. government of "cowardice" for dropping the A-bomb is disingenuous without
giving Japan its rightful due.

It was Japan, after all, that had launched an unprovoked, unlawful attack the breadth of the Pacific, systematically slaughtering inhabitants of conquered nations and subjugating the survivors. It was Japan that forced the Bataan Death March and unlawfully executed bomber crewmen from Jimmy Doolittle's raid and Marines from Makin island. It was also Japan that adopted the war-crimes practice of forced medical experimentation on humans and who worked Allied prisoners to death in its mines.

Leaving no generation unscathed, Hornberger also points the finger at Korean and Vietnam veterans by mentioning No Gun Ri and My Lai.

He fails to mention that inquiries into Korean War refugee casualties at No Gun Ri have proven inconclusive. In the Vietnam War, the killings of noncombatants by U.S. forces near My Lai clearly violated the laws of war. There are no excuses.
U.S. forces were wrong, and Lt. William Calley was held accountable. Note, however, that the revisionists never mention, when they talk of My Lai, the tens of thousands of outright murders committed by North Vietnamese regulars or the Viet Cong.

Senior Vietnamese officials, questioned about the thousands of innocents massacred in Hue in 1968, simply mutter about "the misfortunes of war." Of course, they hold no one accountable. Certainly two wrongs don't make a right. But let's make sure our friends in the Democratic People's Republic of Vietnam get their fair share of the billing for atrocities. There are plenty of photos of their handiwork.

Such skewed perceptions have produced a popular culture that equates U.S. involvement in Vietnam with war crimes. Vietnam War movies express this notion with the "obligatory" atrocity scene. In reality, the NVA and the Viet Cong played by their own rules of warfare, while the overwhelming majority of Americans who served in Vietnam did vast good under difficult circumstances, both at the organizational and individual level.

On this Memorial Day, I would caution Jacob Hornberger of cava-lierly accusing President Truman of "cowardice" for his fateful decision of August 1945. As Americans, we're not afraid of admitting our faults--that's how we learn and get better. But let's tell the whole story.

COL. KEVIN WINTERS of Stafford County is a deputy staff judge advocate to the commandant of the Marine Corps at the Pentagon.

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