Friday, August 05, 2005

WW II, Hiroshima, and the BBC

In the days leading up to the 60th anniversary of VE-Day back in May, the BBC posted numerous articles detailing various aspects of the Allied victory over Germany. There was a story about the fall of Berlin to the Soviets. There were two others about a British man and a British woman who witnessed the actual Nazi surrender. There was a letter from an 8-year old girl to her RAF pilot father, station away from the UK, about the VE celebrations at home. There was a story about the experiences of Hitler’s nurse during his last days in his Berlin bunker. There was a story about the escape of some Jews from Germany early in the war. And this is just a small sampling.

In other words, there was a plethora of stories about the end of the war detailing all manner of events taking place and the people who experienced them.

We are now approaching the 60th anniversary of VJ-Day. The BBC is again starting to produce daily stories about August, 1945.

Like the one about Keiko Ogura, a survivor of the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima.

And one about Yutaka Nagura, a ex-soldier in the Japanese army and a survivor of the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima.

And one about Yukio Yoshioka, currently a school teacher and a survivor of the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima.

And one detailing the memories of crew members of the Enola Gay regarding the fateful day on which they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (Noting in the lead-in that the young airmen were hoping to help the world, the BBC reminds us that they stand accused in some quarters of committing a “war crime”).

And one about the continuing argument over whether the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was necessary to bring the war to an end.

And one about Tinian, the pacific island from which the Enola Gay took off on its mission to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

And one about the lingering health effects due to radiation exposure for survivors of the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima.

And a photo essay of pictures contrasting Hiroshima in the days after the atomic bomb was dropped on it with today.

Now, I don’t dispute that the introduction of the atomic bomb to the world was certainly a momentous day. But why, when contemplating the end of the war, do we seem dwell upon the suffering inflicted by the dropping of the bomb as particularly notable or distinct among the sea of tragedy suffered throughout World War II? And why should coverage of that suffering far outweigh the celebration of the fact that the war itself had finally been brought to a decisive and just conclusion?

It is usually noted, in moral critiques of the decision to use the bomb, that the primary victims of it were civilians. This is, regrettably, true, and in the moral calculus of whether dropping the bomb was ultimately justified, that fact must surely have weight. But as repugnant as the fact may be, that in itself hardly distinguishes the use of the bomb from everything else that was going on during the war. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed about 70,000 people. The Tokyo fire raids killed an estimated 100,000, also mostly civilians. Civilian deaths during the battle of Stalingrad have been estimated at about 1 million. In Nanking non-combatant deaths were approximately 260,000. Some estimates have placed the overall civilian fatality figure for all of WW II at close to 40 million. In this context, the fact that the bomb caused civilian deaths hardly distinguishes it from the rest of the war.**

In recognizing that it has been sixty years since World War II finally and happily came to an end, the dropping of the atomic bomb must certainly play a significant part. But in focusing exclusively, or even primarily, on the unhappy effects of a single event which precipitated the end, the BBC does justice to neither history nor the occassion.

(**The above does not, and is not meant to, imply a moral equivalence between, say, the Rape of Nanking and the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima.)


Anonymous Mark said...

Scott, you are right to point out that during WW II civilian casualties were a common thing. When we bombed Germany, there were civilian casualties. As you point out, sometimes we bombed places with high civilian populations. I seem to remember that the Dresdin bombing was one of those instances.

Several years ago I met a woman who was in one of those German cities that was being bombed. They were awful memories. There were awful memories all over the place in Europe. The Allies had their share of civilian casualties what with Germany's bombing program.

Putting it like you do, it does make it sound like the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not that special when compared to other conventional bombing campaigns.

I think the only tragic aspect of it was that the Japanese were totally surprised by it. From the accounts of one of the nuclear blasts, the bombing raid alarms sounded when the bomber approached with a small escort. When the authorities saw that there was only a single plane, they sounded the "all clear" signal, causing people to come out of the bomb shelters. They thought it was just a weather plane. And then the bomb exploded overhead. At least in past raids, the opposing side knew what to expect and made attempts to protect their civilians in bomb shelters. Had there been more warning, there might have been fewer civilian casualties, but the U.S. was afraid of tipping off the Japanese, fearing that they'd use American POWs as human shields.

There are still U.S. WW II veterans alive today who remain very grateful to Truman for doing what he did, for they were trained for, and assigned to be in the invasion force that was scheduled to take on Japan. They feel they are alive today because the Pacific war was brought to a quick end. This, after the U.S. had fought in Europe for about 3 years, and had fought against Japan for the same length of time.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Erik Svane said...

Here are more comments on Hirsohima

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Mark Vassallo said...


sorry for the delay in responding to this post (holidays etc.), but it's helped in a way because I think the whole VJ day thing shows the Beeb in a much better light than your post suggests.

In fact, there were a significant number of pages put up reporting on VJ commemorations, historical articles on the British POWs, articles on the problems Japan still faces in SE Asia due to its occupations in the 30s and 40s of countries in that region, and, yes, still a lot of pages on the ONLY use of nuclear weapons in war time.

I think this balance is fair. The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki definately hurried the end of the war, and definately marked the beginning of an era in modern global history, and I think it's right to have a focus on that. At the same time, but with a gap of a few days, we had more pages on remembrance and the historical grounding of the conflict in the east which for Britons (much more than Americans) is definately more hazy.

BTW, I believe it was the right thing to drop those bombs, but I think your analysis misses a key point inasmuch as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were each devestated by one bomb from one plane - unlike the fire bombing of Tokyo/ Dresden/ Coventy. As such, the emphasis the Beeb placed on it was more than justified.

12:35 AM  
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11:09 PM  

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