President Barack Obama has become the first serving US head of state to visit Hiroshima, Japan, site, of course, of the detonation of the first nuclear weapon used in war. It was good that he went; there was no reason that it couldn’t have happened sooner. For many reasons, I wish it had been an earlier president who made the first trip.

It is also right that President Obama made no apology for the attack on Hiroshima, however terrible an event it was. And it was terrible: after falling for forty-four seconds, the bomb, Little Boy, burst some 1,900 feet over the center of the city. With a temperature said to eclipse a million degrees Celsius, it ignited the air surrounding it, resulting in a fireball some 840 feet in diameter with a brilliance ten times that of the sun. The blast wave shattered windows over a distance of ten miles and was felt at over thirty-seven miles distance. With a destruction radius of one mile, the thermal pulse sent fires raging over four-and-a-half miles. People on the ground reported a bright flash, a strange smell, and a booming din. The city toppled; buildings were ripped from their foundations; bridges twisted; some seventy percent of the city’s structures were shoved away in pieces. Radiant heat traveling at the speed of light caused flash burns, charring skin to charcoal. Somewhere between 70,000-80,000 souls were consumed instantly. Tens of thousands more would die more slowly, days or weeks, or even years after succumbing to injuries or radiation sickness.

While it is correct to say that President Obama should not apologize for this, it should not be glibly said. Obama made clear that he come to Hiroshima to “mourn the dead.” Well he should. But grief is not the same thing as guilt. Christian realism, that stream of the faith’s intellectual tradition that runs from Augustine to the present day, reminds us that it is not necessarily inconsistent to be sorry even when it is inappropriate to say sorry. This is because we are not always morally culpable for the things we are sorry to have to do. The just war tradition, a crowning achievement of Augustinian realism, affirms the tension that sorrow ought always to attend the employment of even justified violence. We kill – we drop bombs – when it’s quite clear that nothing else will restrain evil, retribute an injustice, or protect the innocent. Sometimes those values clash, and hard decisions requiring profound care are necessitated.

But Obama went to Hiroshima to do more than mourn the lost. In his speech delivered on Friday the 27th, he declared that he had also come to “ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past.” This terrible force is what helps us recognize that Hiroshima is not just any other battlefield in yet another human war. “Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man… It is not the fact of war,” Obama noted, “that sets Hiroshima apart.” War has always been with us, and the war that “reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki…grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes.” Modern war is merely, “an old pattern amplified by new capabilities.” Nevertheless, “there are many sites around the world that chronicle this war, memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism, graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity.”

What makes Hiroshima different, Obama asserted, is the “image of a mushroom cloud.” That cloud reminds us “most starkly…of humanity’s core contradiction.” He explained:

Our early ancestors, having learned to make blades from flint and spears from wood used these tools not just for hunting but against their own kind… The very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will – those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction…Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.

Of course, that’s really not the core contradiction of being human. All species, we see this most clearly of course in the primates, will use techne and deploy tools to the best of their abilities to capture prey or smash the skulls of their enemies – both in defense and offense. But, Obama seems essentially to be offering a secularized version of the Genesis account of the human fall.

Though made in the imago Dei – the image or likeness of God – we turned our back on this great gift and set about trying to be our own gods, which is funded in part by kicking in the faces of other imago Dei. In place of loving God and neighbor, we instead, as Obama lamented, fill “the history of civilization” with war, “whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold, compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal.”

Here we are come, to my mind, to the real lesson of Hiroshima – or, at least, the lesson that comes of a standing American President visiting Hiroshima. At one point in his speech, Obama recalled the words that helped start the American story: “All men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the grounding of American grand strategy in its simplest form, and Obama acknowledged that realizing such ideals is not always easy “but staying true to that story is worth the effort.” More than that, Christian realism insists that remaining true to that story requires that a sovereign government maintain the conditions necessary for the political community to live that story. Perhaps recognizing this, Obama insisted that because “we may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves.”

In the face of the aggression of Japanese militarism, America rose to meet her responsibilities – both parochial and to the greater community of freedom-loving nations. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes that human government, established by God, has the divine mandate to bear the sword as punishment against wrongdoers in service to the good of the political community. An important component of being made in the imago Dei is to accept, individually and collectively, that being so made is to carry the divine mandate to exercise dominion – providential care – over creation. We have a delegated – and limited – responsibility in history for the conditions of history. To be made in the image means that we seek the conditions necessary to promote human flourishing. Because flourishing doesn’t often happen on its own, we must help it to. Japanese militarism threatened human flourishing all over Asia and greater Oceania. In standing against Japanese militarism, America met her sovereign responsibility as sword-bearer; and those image-bearers operating within the government, or in her military, or tending to the war-effort at home, met their own imago-responsibilities by responding to the just causes of punishing evil, taking back what was wrongly taken, and protecting the innocent. That America did so for the right intention of a lasting peace was demonstrated today.*

It should not be lost that the leader of a conquering nation in a war it did not start has just laid a wreath in memorial to the victims of the defeated, and aggressor, nation. Such a gesture is surely something of a rarity in human history. In making it, Obama demonstrates not just an exceptional aspect of the American character, but he proves the value of Augustinian realism’s insistence – seen clearly in the just-war tradition – that wars, when they are well-fought, are fought well only when waged, finally, for the reconciliation of enemies. Since the end of WWII, Obama observed, the United States and Japan have made choices allowing both nations to forge “not only an alliance but a friendship.” Our peoples have moved toward that kind of peace that can only be had when relationships and political conditions are chiefly characterized by order and justice. Such political goods will, in history, always be only approximated and never fully realized – but they are no less worthy pursuits for being only partially gained.

Whatever else there is to be learned, that is a lesson from Hiroshima worthy of our attention.

Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence

*This paragraph was adjusted, post-publication, to clarify a misleading sentence. Originally, I was taken by some to say that America, as a nation, is made in the image of God.