Hiroshima, North Korea, and the End of Just War

By John Zmirak Published on August 10, 2017

The crisis over North Korea has deepened at a darkly fitting moment: in the week when we mark the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just as Christians (more than most Americans I think) debate the rightness or wrongness of those U.S. bombings to end a war, such a choice might be repeated. North Korea is testing missiles that could strike American cities with nuclear weapons. We stand in very grave danger, as we haven’t since 1991 when the Soviet Empire folded. We face very similar stakes to those Harry Truman did in 1945. And the same deep questions arise. There are no easy answers.

Right now, President Trump is certainly weighing the possibility of massive, pre-emptive airstrikes against North Korea. In such an attack, some hundreds of thousands of North Korean civilians would likely die, simply because they are too close to our military targets. (Their tyrants arranged that on purpose.) Our attack would have to be incredibly rapid and overwhelmingly powerful. Nothing less would stop North Korea from incinerating the nearby capital of South Korea, Seoul, with massive artillery attacks aimed at civilians.

Fire and Fury

And we still might not succeed. Short of launching “city-buster” strategic nuclear weapons that simply wiped North Korea off the map, population and all, that is. President Trump surely knows this. He showed his typical bluntness when he said so to the White House Press corps. If North Korea attacks American Guam, as it recently threatened, he said: “They will be met with the fire and fury like the world has never seen.” That isn’t bluster. Nothing less might save South Korea from a brutal attack, and hundreds of thousands of American service people from perishing in a brutal conventional war.

The North Korean regime is as evil and anti-human as the Japanese we faced in 1945. That isolated, cult-like Communist party has shown the same contempt for civilian lives that the bushido-spouting warriors of Japan showed in China and the Philippines. The Japanese militarists armed housewives, old men, and children with wooden rifles. They ordered them, in case of a U.S. land invasion, to fight to the death. Most Japanese soldiers refused to surrender, even when battle was hopeless. Japanese airmen willingly conducted terrifying suicide bomb attacks — anticipating Islamists by decades.

Two U.S. atomic bomb drops obliterated hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Even then, most of that country’s war cabinet refused to surrender. It took Emperor Hirohito, breaking custom, to overrule them. He, at least, didn’t want to perish on an ash heap.

A Dead-End Regime

The North Korean Communists have equal contempt for the lives of their own countrymen. The regime has willingly sacrificed tens of thousands in artificial famines. Thousands more languish in concentration camps.

We’ve learned from defectors that Mao Zedong wanted to risk a nuclear war with the West during the first Korean War — telling Soviet leaders that China could afford to lose a “few” hundred million. If that was the price of destroying capitalism. We now know that Fidel Castro told Nikita Khrushchev that he could accept the obliteration of Cuba — again, if that meant that the West was also destroyed. The leaders of North Korea have made it clear that they will gladly make their people pay that price, rather than let go of power.  

It’s all too easy to look back from the comfort of our present peace and freedom and condemn those who waged old wars. Men like Harry Truman. We can and should think through the choices that they made and weigh them in the balance. But we should do so with grave respect for the gravity of the burdens that they carried.

Walking in Truman’s Moccasins

There are crucial moral questions that arose in 1945, which have popped up again today. I don’t have easy answers. The fact that we face them now reminds us of the tragic dimension of life. The fact that man is fallen, and evil walks the earth — in our own hearts as well as our enemies’.

First let’s stipulate the facts surrounding our last use of massive atomic firepower to end a war and preserve our soldiers. Most of these facts apply almost as well, alas, to the current situation in Korea.

  • The Japanese regime had zero concern for human life. On balance, it worried more about protecting its soldiers than its civilians.
  • A conventional invasion of the home islands would have likely cost at least 250,000 U.S. combat troops’ lives. Perhaps double that many.
  • The conventional bombing required to make that invasion successful, and the impact of massive combat, would likely have claimed far more civilian lives than we snuffed out in our two atomic attacks.
  • The use of the atomic bombs stunned and genuinely frightened our Soviet rivals. The only thing that in subsequent decades would stop them from using their massive conventional superiority to overrun Western Europe? The threat that the U.S. would obliterate its cities. As we’d shown we were perfectly willing to do.

Weigh against this, though, the moral price we paid when wiped out enemy cities — not just in Japan, but in Europe, during our indiscriminate bombings of cities such as Dresden. We flouted a central principle of Christian just war morals: that you should never target civilians instead of soldiers in a war. We said that it was acceptable, sometimes, to intentionally kill large numbers of innocents, to attain the greater good. Archbishop Fulton Sheen later said that when we used the atomic bomb, we guaranteed that we would someday legalize abortion. We showed that we would cross any line at all, if we thought the outcome was important enough.

A New Pagan Ethic

It took centuries of Christian culture in Europe for us to gradually start living up to the standards that St. Augustine had set back in the fourth century.

It’s not really natural to worry in time of war about the women and children among the enemy. Chimpanzees don’t, and pagans rarely do. Our fallen nature goads us to bloodlust, to summon ruthlessness that suppresses our secret fear. Ancient cultures frequently waged wars of extermination or enslavement. It took centuries of Christian culture in Europe for us to gradually start living up to the standards that St. Augustine had set back in the fourth century. That’s when he codified Just War teaching. Europe only really started living up to those standards, however, in the 17th century, as Caleb Carr documented in The Lessons of Terror. Before that, cities that had resisted a siege for longer than was customary were considered “fair game” for rape and pillage.

As Carr notes, in the 1920s, generals appalled by the slaughter of their soldiers in World War I developed the theory of strategic bombing. Instead of sacrificing our soldiers in frontal attack, we would strike the soft underbelly of our enemies: their cities and citizens. That would provoke collapse, and end wars sooner. The strategy didn’t really pay off for most of World War II: the Blitz didn’t convince the British to surrender. Allied bombs didn’t cause the Nazi government to collapse.

But at the very end it did: The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did end the war with Japan. They saved countless U.S. soldiers, and even Japanese civilians. Most importantly, they deterred a Communist conquest of Europe. The price? We lived for generations on the knife-edge of mutual assured nuclear destruction. And our Culture of Death advanced. Since we paid for our freedom in coin of nuclear blackmail, could we really have stopped it?

I have no glib answers for today’s dreadful showdown. I fear that the best likely outcome will still be completely appalling. Great evil may happen to millions of innocents north and south of the border in Korea. It may be unavoidable. We shouldn’t forget that these evils emerge first of all from the wicked system of socialism, which starves and slaves the North and covets the South. It would take a devastating war to reduce South Korea to the level that the North “enjoys” in peacetime. That’s because socialism itself is a kind of war, waged against human nature itself, without any boundaries or limits.

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