Moral Horror: Christian Ethics & Hiroshima
This is my first dispatch from spired—and inspiring—Oxford. I arrived here a bit over a week ago to take up a two-year appointment as the McDonald Visiting Scholar at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at the University of Oxford. Working under the supervision of Nigel Biggar—regius professor of moral and pastoral theology and Providence contributing editor—my work at Providence will shift a degree to refocus on scholarship and the dissemination of our ideas across a wide spectrum of venues and audiences in support of the journal.
To help with this, my work here includes a pair of book projects, one of which is aimed at providing a Christian justification for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. Its publication is aimed to coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the attack. The book is important because both the Christian arguments against and for the bombing are generally inadequate. The arguments insisting that the bombing should not have happened are inadequate simply because they are wrong—on rational, historical, as well as theological grounds. Many of the arguments in support of the bombing are inadequate because their justification is misguided, tending toward either an amoral pragmatism or some or another version of a claim about lesser evils. My basic argument, which I first made here, forwards the simple assertion that the bombing of Hiroshima was a moral horror but not a moral wrong. The forthcoming book will defend this distinction in detail.
Meanwhile, the importance of such a distinction—and of being able to make it—grounds much of the purpose of Providence. From at least Augustine onward, while thinking about the relationship between theology and human conflict, Christian realism’s long tradition of ethical reflection has developed conceptual resources to allow Christians to make important judgments. For instance, it helps make nuanced distinctions between moral and non-moral evil; distinguish the importance of intention when assessing an act; apply universal norms to concrete situations; discern that killing comes in different kinds—including that which is always wrong and must never be done, that which is morally neutral, and that which is morally permitted and even, at times, obligatory; and recognize that this latter kind of killing can be compatible with love.
Not all Christian traditions, of course, have shared in this patrimony. Some of those that have are progressively (pun intended) abandoning it. This is owed in no small measure to the West’s increasingly maudlin understanding of love, which views conflict, judgment, or making someone feel uncomfortable as unloving. Such a kind of love—and how it hamstrings our access to those helpful moral resources touched on above—is regularly on display every August as Christians reflect on the anniversary of the Hiroshima attack.
An example of this is found in Brian Zahnd’s recent reissue of an older essay in which he condemns the atomic bombing. I’m not going to rehash my own earlier essay to respond to Zahnd point-by-point (but, really, you should read my earlier essay!). What I do want to do is to articulate, briefly, three basic commitments to ethical reasoning that Zahnd fails to display.
First, the starting point for Christian ethical reflection is to acquire as accurate an understanding of the facts on the ground as possible. Now, my relationship with math is much estranged, but I do know that if you get your augend or addend wrong then you’re bound to botch your sum as well. It’s just the same when analyzing a historical event. If you neither have a firm handle on what really transpired, nor a good grasp of the—likely complex—circumstances that led up to it, it’s doubtful that your analysis is going to be accurate.
Sometimes what you get wrong seems somewhat trivial—as when Zahnd mistakenly asserts that “the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was the world’s first use of a weapon of mass destruction.” Not so. Whether we gesture to the Mongol trebuchet that launched plague-ridden corpses into the besieged city of Caffa or to the poison gas attacks of the Great War, we see that Hiroshima represents nothing entirely new. Whether or not ancient warfighters understood germ theory sufficiently enough to know precisely what they were doing, the practice of using corpses to intentionally foul land and water is likely as old as war itself.
Zahnd, of course, could still have his judgment right even if his history is wrong. But in mishandling the history he deprives himself, first, of appearing like he might know what he’s talking about but also, more importantly, he fails to engage with alternate examples that could have revealed Hiroshima’s place within the historical trajectory of warfare and, thereby, could have served for contrast and comparison. This might have helped him understand Hiroshima better.
This isn’t an entirely trivial point. It seems pretty clear in Zahnd’s essay—and clearer in some of his comm-box exchanges (in both the 2015 and 2018 postings)—that a part of his specific critique of the Hiroshima attack is wrapped up in his larger critique of America, American power, and the American patriotic-zeal that he and others like him believe heavily fueled the atomic attack. One senses that Zahnd would have a whole lot less fun if he admitted the historical record shows America introduced no new moral horror into the world in August 1945.
This leads to a more serious mishandling of facts, which brings into focus my second point. The more serious error is Zahnd’s abhorrent belief, which he apparently formed in childhood, that “Auschwitz and Hiroshima [are] to be spoken of in the same breath.” Such overwrought rhetorical zeal is understandable in the child, but not the adult. The adult should know better.
Hitler’s war against the Jews, for which Auschwitz is so often the shorthand, had as its primary intention the annihilation of the Jewish people. All of them. Every single one of them, wherever they could be found. The intention behind the allied dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima was to end the Japanese war of aggression as quickly as possible. Just what the allies intended following this ending-of-the-war can be seen in what actually followed the war’s end: peace with the people of Japan. The murder of the Jews served no military value whatsoever. The atomic attack on Hiroshima was of foremost military value and had no discernable viable alternative. The Jews had no way out of Auschwitz except through the crematoria chimney. To avoid the Hiroshima attack, the Japanese need only have surrendered.
By ignoring intention, context, and rationale, Zahnd’s moral equivalence amounts to slander. It wrongly impugns the character of a good many allied leaders who were doing the best they could in a horribly complicated—and time compressed—situation. Christian ethical debate must be characterized by scrupulous fairness, generosity, and honest-dealing. Zahnd’s Auschwitz analogy is a failure, then, of Christian charity. If he did so in ignorance then, happily, he is guilty only of being asinine. If he knows the analogy is false but figured it makes a good soundbite then he’s an ass, in which case shame on him. In any case, while we can’t always help being the former, the Christian ethicist should really strive to be neither.
My last broad point has to do with consequences. In Zahnd’s 2015 posting of his essay, he has an exchange in the comm-box with a Joe DeCaro. Joe points to the staggering number of Chinese who were dying every day under Japanese occupation and contemplates the many more who would have died had the Japanese not surrendered when they did. Citing the math, Joe wonders aloud whether the atomic attack could be justified on the grounds that it saved more lives. Zahnd’s rather flippant response is: “MERCY > math”.
Against the numbers of those killed in the atomic attack, it is common to cite the estimated numbers of deaths that might have resulted had the allies chose any of several alternatives: a land invasion, the continuation of the naval blockade, continued conventional bombing campaigns, etc. These deaths would have involved not simply the combatants on both sides but also, as Joe pointed out, civilians under Japanese occupation. We also must remember it would have involved Japanese civilians themselves. It cannot realistically be believed that fewer innocent lives would have been lost in any other alternative measure to end the war absent a Japanese surrender. Even the lowballed numbers are simply staggering.
Against these numbers Zahnd offers only that mercy is somehow greater than math. But where, one wonders, is the mercy for those Chinese civilians? Where is the mercy for the many more Japanese civilians who would have died had those bombs not been dropped? Mercy always costs somebody something. The cross teaches us that if nothing else does. The cost of the mercy of not dropping those bombs is staggering. Zahnd defies those who support the atomic attack to suggest that Jesus, walking in the ashes of Hiroshima, would approve of the attack and commend those who nuked the city. Is Zahnd saying, then, that Jesus would have approved the mass-starvation the continued naval blockade would have caused? Some estimates push 10 million souls. Would Jesus have celebrated the dying Chinese children as being the profits produced by Zahnd’s mercy dividend?
Zahnd’s mental exercise seems to get us nowhere. I don’t myself picture Jesus bursting with joy in any of those scenarios. But neither do I picture him high-fiving the angels after the fire-storm over Sodom, nor skipping about gleefully as he judges the nations at the end of time. And yet those things happened or will happen and, surely, Jesus understands both events to be morally correct.
In the horrible calculus necessitated by the conditions on the ground in August 1945, if one wanted to save innocent lives then one dropped those bombs. I strongly believe that Jesus would have grasped that. He almost certainly would have mourned over that fact. As should we all. But grief does not necessarily indicate moral guilt.
Could it be that it is not, in fact, the protection of the innocent that is Zahnd’s primary concern? Perhaps he believes that because the dropping of the bomb was a horror that he must not, for his own sake, endorse it, no matter the costs to others? I hope not. But there are those who will argue that the only important thing is the purity of one’s own soul. This is a trickier thing than can be tackled here. But let me make a brief assertion.
To place the preservation of one’s own piety over the welfare of the assaulted innocents seems to me a perilous thing. All of this is tricky, in part, because I do not believe that one should sin in order to bring about a good consequence. But to the question of whether one ought ever to dirty their hands, I must first respond that dirt comes in different kinds.
There are things that need, morally, to be done in the world that we would much rather not have to do—like disciplining my children, rebuking a friend, or killing in war. Such actions have a way of injuring the spiritual health of the actor, even when they are the right thing to do. In such circumstances, for one to prefer one’s spiritual health—their piety—over the welfare of others seems to me a great evil.
The goal of our moral actions ought not to be, in the first place, my own spiritual health. It ought to be the preservation or restoration of some bit of shalom. There is a way things ought to be. As a basic rule, we should seek conditions that bring it about. And we ought to be willing to act for the restoration of shalom, even when it costs us.
Such are the things I’m thinking about, here under the spires of Oxford. There is, of course, much more to be said. Some of it I have said. Some of it remains to be said. That is the work of the coming months.
Marc LiVecche is the executive editor of Providence and the McDonald Visiting Scholar at the McDonald Centre, Christ Church, University of Oxford.