Thank God For The Atom Bomb

 Posted by on 7 August 2005 at 10:55 am  Uncategorized
Aug 072005

Because it’s the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been a number of recent newspaper articles and editorials discussing the morality these actions. In light of this, I’d like to point readers to this classic essay by literary scholar and National Book Award winner Paul Fusell, who was also a combat infantryman in World War II, entitled “Thank God For The Atom Bomb”.

In this essay (written in 1981), Fusell discusses and rebuts the various academic arguments against dropping the atom bomb, then gives his own perspective on why he thought it was morally right. Although I don’t agree with everything Fusell writes, there were two passages that I found especially striking:

When the atom bomb ended the war, I was in the Forty-Fifth Infantry Division, which had been through the European war so thoroughly that it had needed to be reconstituted two or three times. We were in a staging area near Rheims, ready to be shipped back across the United States for refresher training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and then sent on for final preparation in the Philippines. My division, like most of the ones transferred from Europe, was to take part in the invasion of Honshu…

I was a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act.

When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy.

We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.

And this passage:

Experience whispers that the pity is not that we used the bomb to end the Japanese war but that it wasn’t ready in time to end the German one. If only it could have been rushed into production faster and dropped at the right moment on the Reich Chancellery or Berchtesgaden or Hitler’s military headquarters in East Prussia (where Colonel Stauffenberg’s July 20 bomb didn’t do the job because it wasn’t big enough), much of the Nazi hierarchy could have been pulverized immediately, saving not just the embarrassment of the Nuremberg trials but the lives of around four million Jews, Poles, Slavs, and gypsies, not to mention the lives and limbs of millions of Allied and German soldiers.

If the bomb had only been ready in time, the young men of my infantry platoon would not have been so cruelly killed and wounded.

As I said above, I don’t agree with everything Fusell has written either in this essay or many of his other works. His primary argument here seems to be that the experience of a combat soldier gives one a very different perspective on the morality of the atom bombings that future historians critical of the action can’t understand, and one can discern a subjectivist thread that runs through his arguments.

For the record, I think that the moral issues are sufficiently clear that one does not need to have served in combat in World War II to be able to arrive at the correct conclusion about the morality of dropping the bombs. Yet Fusell’s essay does help broaden one’s context, especially for those (like myself) who have never served in the active-duty military during wartime.

Interested readers can find the full essay online here in PDF form or here in HTML form.

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