We Never Stopped Bombing Japan

Unless you’re tremendously naive, you think that dropping the atom bomb on Nagasaki was a war crime. If you consider yourself an enlightened progressive, you might deign to hear a person question the morality of bombing Hiroshima. But, being the good American, you would recoil with all the practiced shock that lets you participate in your social media identity were someone to suggest that much of the war against Japan was unethical.

It’s not a radical thought if you’re a Christian philosopher, though. Augustine defined the concept of Just War and in doing so clearly described the situation that the United States found itself in, on December 7th, 1941. The Empire of Japan, with the ambitions typical of such a state, struck at the colonial possessions of the United States: Hawaii, the Philippines and various and sundry other distant places most Americans couldn’t pronounce. According to Augustine, in such situations the only just response was for the United States to respond in kind: defeat the Japanese military and evict it from a few of its colonial possessions.

And it wasn’t just Augustine who thought this. There was no chance for the Japanese to defeat the United States in a total war. Their military leadership thought only to bloody them and rely on the Americans being sensibly unwilling to expend blood and treasure to respond effectively. Instead, for a few paltry islands, the United States responded by burning all of Japan to the ground. The firebombing of Tokyo and the two atom bomb strikes were just the culmination of years of relentess war for unconditional surrender.

And ever since then, the kind of absolute, wild-eyed, completely out-of-proportion response has defined US policy, both foreign and domestic. It is not too much of a stretch to compare those paltry islands to the paltry missionaries whose death the Germans used to viciously expand their colonial ambitions in China. When they did that, as Mark Twain wrote about in To the Person Sitting in Darkness, they knowingly took more than it was worth. He wrote that essay when the US was in the process of betraying Aguinaldo and exercising the colonial disregard for honor that defined the age.

Since then, we have made a living of responding to small grievances with total war. Total war on the Vietnamese for daring to choose communism. Total war on Iraq for its imperial ambitions in Kuwait. Total war on any person who dared to have an ounce of marijuana. Responding so wholly out of proportion reached its Platonic peak with the 9/11 attacks.

The Global War on Terror, as famed cat painter George W. Bush called it, started with a score of Saudi Arabian fundamentalists flying planes into buildings. They didn’t do it in the hopes that they would defeat the United States, and conquer its people, and raise the crescent moon over the Capitol Building. They did it under the same misapprehension that the United States would recognize there was some cost to its endless imperialism, and perhaps do the rational thing and reconsider its constant use of war, assassination and political pressure.

Instead, using the same rhetoric and imagery of the unjust response to Japan, the USA declared total war on this time a vague and somewhat convenient enemy. The blood and treasure spent on terrorists abroad and at home could easily have bought a thousand World Trade Centers — not that anyone would want them since the structures were universally derided as ugly white elephants.

The legitimacy of this response is rooted, like most things, in the morality forged in World War II, when the Greatest Generation did everything right and returned heroes. If we want to restore any sanity to how we approach politics today, we need to reconsider the politics of the period where right was defined. The clearest, most simple example is our prosecution of the war against Japan, which was as irrational as it was bloodthirsty, and set the stage for bloodthirsty irrationality on the part of its prosecutor ever since.