Friday, December 14, 2007

"Fat Man exploded directly above the Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki"


Unless you are a World War II history buff, you probably do not recall the name of Charles W. Sweeney, who died on July 16 at the age of 84. He had finished his Army career as a major general, but he became famous while a major for piloting the plane the dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. That was on August 9, 1945.

Sweeney's obituary explained that "At 11:01 a.m., the pumpkin-shaped bomb called Fat Man was dropped on the industrial city of Nagasaki, killing and wounding tens of thousands, heavily damaging a steelworks and arms plant, and demolishing an estimated 14,000 residential buildings."

In a ghostwritten autobiography published in 1997, Sweeney said, "I took no pride or pleasure then, nor do I take any now, in the brutality of war, whether suffered by my people or those of another nation. Every life is precious. But I felt no remorse or guilt that I had bombed the city." Those who should have felt remorse and guilt, said Sweeney, were the Japanese leaders who brought the war upon their own people.

Many justify the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by saying the abrupt end to the war saved as many as a million American lives that would have been lost had Japan been invaded. I don't know where the figure of one million came from. My understanding is that the War Department estimated a maximum of 46,000 casualties in an invasion. That was a worst-case scenario, meaning the likely number of casualties would have been far lower.

Some commentators have argued that no invasion was needed at all, since Japan no longer had an air force or navy and had no domestic source of oil for its industries. A blockade would have resulted in the Japanese war machine and economy grinding to a halt. The war thus could have ended without an invasion, though the end probably would have come long after the summer of 1945.

Be that as it may, what concerns me is the attitude, so prevalent among political conservatives (most of whom are religious conservatives), that there are no limits in defensive warfare: If the other guys started the fight, they deserve whatever they get. In a defensive war it is not a matter of "My country right or wrong" but of "My country can do no wrong," which is an odd thing coming from conservatives who, on domestic matters, can be highly critical of their government's moral failings (as regards abortion or homosexuality, say).

Catholic moral principles are easy to apply to other people, difficult to apply to ourselves. This is as true in public life as in private life. During World War II our enemies did atrocious things on the battlefield, to conquered nations, and even to their own people. Many of these evils we knew about during the war; others came to light only after the cessation of hostilities.

Even those evils we knew about during the war were so prevalent and so gross that, to many, it seemed permissible, for the duration, to lay aside a principle that we insisted be followed by our enemies: The end does not justify the means.

Rephrase that in Catholic terms: To achieve a good, you may not perform a sin. To provide your family financial security, you may not rob a bank. To protect your wife's health, you may not abort the child she is carrying. And to defeat an enemy in war, you may not violate just war principles. But we did--and more than once, sad to say.

The atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, like the fire bombings of Dresden and other German cities, cannot be squared with Catholic moral principles because the bombings deliberately targeted non-combatants. The evil done by our enemies did not exonerate us from the moral law. Their evils did not provide us justification for evils of our own. Being a Christian in peacetime is difficult; it is more difficult, but even more necessary, in wartime.

Fat Man exploded directly above the Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki. The city was the historical center of Catholicism in Japan and contained about a tenth of the entire Catholic population. The cathedral was filled with worshipers who had gathered to pray for a speedy and just end to the war. It is said their prayers included a petition to offer themselves, if God so willed it, in reparation for the evils perpetrated by their country.

Until next time,



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