The Lessons of Hiroshima and the War Against the Islamic State


August 6th is the 70th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima with the Atomic Bomb that would lead to the surrender of Japan in World War II. As I consider the historical implications of the bombing, I am drawn to my discussion with my Kodokan Judo instructor, Dr. Sachio Ashida, who fought for the Japanese during World War II and ponder the implications of today’s war against the Islamic State.

Dr. Sachio Ashida, Professor of Psychology and 9th Dan in Kodokan Judo, 1924–2009.

As student at the State University of New York (SUNY), College at Brockport, I had the opportunity to study Judo with Dr. Ashida who was also a professor of psychology at the college. He began studying Judo at the age of 12 in Kyoto, and during World War II served in the Japanese Imperial Air Force as a Kamikaze pilot trainee. In 1953, Dr. Ashida moved to the United States where he received his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in Psychology. When not teaching psychology, he remained active in Judo and went on to serve as the U.S. Olympic Coach in 1976 and later a Judo referee at the 1984 Olympics. What is remarkable about Dr. Ashida was his personal connection to the aftermath of the atomic bombing.

Dr. Ashida was always open when asked whether the Japanese would have kept fighting despite the bombing. His answer was always the same: Yes!
A Japanese soldier walks through the flattened center of town, near Hiroshima Castle, 2625 feet (800 meters) from the hypocenter in Motomachi District. The 2nd Area Army under Field Marshal Shunroku Hata, a veteran commander in China, defended Kyushu and part of Honshu with its Headquarters in Hiroshima Castle. Chugoku Military District Headquarters, the base of the 5th Division, was also located there. Both military installations were destroyed. (Photo by Wayne Miller)
An aerial view of Hiroshima showing the devastation caused by a single atomic bomb.
Emperor Hirohito and General MacArthur, at their first meeting, at the U.S. Embassy, Tokyo, 27 September, 1945 (U.S. Army Photo, Lt. Gaetano Faillace)

On the afternoon of August 6th, Dr. Ashida and his Commander “flew to the outskirts of Hiroshima to evaluate the destruction the bomb had wrought.” They had to bicycle from the airfield through the destruction of the city. Along the way, Dr. Ashida came face-to-face with the horrors of nuclear war which are recounted in the book titled A Poetics of Hiroshima and Other Poems. Dr. Ashida was always open when asked whether the Japanese would have kept fighting despite the bombing. His answer was always the same: Yes! He emphatically stated that the Japanese, following the principles of Bushido, would have fought to the last man, woman, and child. Even the August 9th atomic bombing of Nagasaki did not persuade all Japanese military leaders to surrender and as they attempted a coup, the Kyujo Incident, which would have prolonged the war. The atomic bombs, while immensely destructive, may not have altered the mindset of the Japanese who already suffered under the painful consequences of U.S. firebombing raids such as the one that struck Tokyo — killing far more than Hiroshima. Dr. Ashida said, had the Japanese Emperor not spoken, the people were prepared to commit national suicide.

Fighters belonging to the Islamic State group in Anbar, Iraq (Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Ashida’s story of Hiroshima and the Japanese determination to fight to the very end parallels today’s discussion on the apocalyptic worldview of the Islamic State. The Islamic State is a pseudo-state on a revolutionary quest to upend not only the governing order in the Middle East, but globally according to its end-of-times prophecy. Despite statements made by the Department of Defense that the U.S. led coalition has killed upwards of 10,000 ISIS fighters, the group and the legions of foreign fighters appear undeterred. Despite heavy aerial bombardment, ISIS, like the Japanese in World War II, remain capable of maintaining territorial control over large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Even when defeated tactically in places like Tikrit, ISIS is able to spin it in a positive manner indicating that such defeats fall in line with their prophecy.

Unlike the Japanese Emperor, the self-proclaimed Caliphate, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi does not command the same level of devotion among the masses to convince them to surrender.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Wikimedia Commons)

With ISIS’s death cult mentality, how can the U.S.-led coalition defeat it? There will be no surrender by ISIS. Additionally, unlike the Japanese Emperor, the self-proclaimed Caliphate, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi does not command the same level of devotion among the masses to convince them to surrender. This war will be won through attrition by seizing territory controlled by ISIS and the annihilation of the group’s leaders, sources of funding and foreign fighters, and loss of power and legitimacy among its rank-in-file followers.

Had Japan not surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. was prepared to move forward with its invasion of Japan, Operation Downfall, which would have caused an estimated million U.S. casualties. Unlike World War II, the U.S. and its allies today appear unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices needed to destroy ISIS. For the U.S., 14 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan make it reluctant to engage in a third ground war in the Middle East. However, the real problem is that our regional partners, despite being equipped with large conventional militaries, are incapable and/or unwilling to address the problem themselves. Until they do, and the world accepts that collateral damage will be inevitable, there will be no immediate defeat of ISIS.

However, the real problem is that our regional partners, despite being equipped with large conventional militaries, are incapable and/or unwilling to address the problem themselves.

As Dr. Ashida taught his Judo students, the difference between defeat and victory is a matter of position. A fighter can be on the bottom and still win through skill and determination. In World War II, the Japanese faced an opponent determined to see the fight to the finish which eventually caused the Emperor to sue for peace. Today, despite being in the dominant position, the U.S. and its Allies and Partners lack the determination to finish the fight.


This post was provided by contributor Chad Pillai, an U.S. Army strategist. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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