Over the weekend, Pope Francis became the first leader of the Catholic Church since John Paul II in 1981 to visit the Japanese cities devasted by atomic weapons. His talks in Nagasaki and Hiroshima were undoubtedly heartfelt, compassionate, and cognizant of the horrors of what transpired in those cities. They were also myopic and reflective of much that is amiss in Christian thinking about human conflict and war. In his idealistic insobriety, he failed to take a clear-eyed look at both the context of the past and the conditions of the future. 

About the detonation of Little Boy over Hiroshima, Francis waxed poetic:

In an incandescent burst of lightning and fire, so many men and women, so many dreams and hopes, disappeared, leaving behind only shadows and silence. In barely an instant, everything was devoured by a black hole of destruction and death. From that abyss of silence, we continue even today to hear the cries of those who are no longer. 

The sentiment of continuing to “hear the cries” is apt. I have argued previously that when we morally assess the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is right to mourn and grieve. There is no place for a glib dismissal of the horrors that happened when those bombs hit. As one Hiroshima survivor said to Francis, “No one in this world can imagine such a scene of hell.”

Francis insists that among the “moral imperatives” evident in light of Hiroshima is the duty always to remember “what happened here.” While he is right to call to mind what happened at Hiroshima, he would have done well to remember why these things happened as well. Doing so might have made clear that there are others who might have an idea of what it is like to experience hell on earth.

Among those would be the Chinese victims of Japanese brutality in the years leading up to Hiroshima. Between July of 1937 and August of 1945, low-ball estimates peg the Chinese death toll under Japanese imperial administration at between 100,000 and 200,000 souls per month. From December 1944 onward, some have that average up to 250,000 per month. China alone suffered something around 14 million civilian deaths—murders—at the hands of those whose suffering Francis would have us never forget. The Japanese were every bit as vicious as the Nazis. The imperial occupation was characterized by dehumanizing humiliation, wanton killing, rape, human experimentation, enslavement, and torture. 

This comparison is not to omit the suffering that occurred among those innocents who suffered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; rather, it is necessary to widen our aperture of historical focus. Hiroshima did not happen in a vacuum. We would do well to remember that the Japanese innocents cannot be evoked without deference to the innocents who fell under Japanese brutality.

It matters that one side launched unprovoked attacks across the Pacific, and the other side responded to that belligerence in self-defense and in defense the international order. The choices of governments in an age of total war impugn their own people—even their own innocent. No matter how the Pacific war was going to end—whether by a land invasion, a naval siege, or an atomic assault—innocent people were going to die. As one morally weighs options, the context gives us reason to prefer—if forced to choose—the innocent ones under Japanese occupation over the innocent ones under the Japanese flag. In any case, as I’ve written, given the horrific casualty estimates of any of the war-ending options then on the table, if you wanted to save innocent lives—including innocent Japanese lives—you dropped those bombs. It was the morally right thing to do. Anything else would have been a greater evil.

Francis has also always had a lot to say about the importance of peace. In Japan he implored:

In a single plea to God and to all men and women of goodwill, on behalf of all the victims of atomic bombings and experiments, and of all conflicts, let us together cry out: Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering.

This is a fine statement, and I embrace the sentiment. But I’m reminded of an old quote I read as a kid that probably helped start me on my trajectory as a realist. “I’m all for the abolition of the death penalty,” the quotation began, “but I want to see the first step taken by our friends, the murderers.” This is precisely right. Our enemies, the quip reminds us, have a say in the conditions of our world. We have to respond prudently to this fact —not despite our faith, but because our faith enjoins us to do so. 

Meanwhile, it was war that set the conditions to allow peace with the Japanese. Francis, for all his love of peace, has not shown that he has any realistic grasp of how peace is made in a world in which our enemies have a say. The just war tradition—which under Francissome in the Catholic Church have been emboldened to challenge—is all about peacemaking. This peace is desired, first, for the innocent victims under unjust assault. And second, this desire for peace extends to the enemy as well—toward the restoration of the enemy into the fellowship of reconciliation. You cannot reconcile with someone who has not seen the error of his ways, repented, and given you solid reasons to trust that he will not seek to harm you again. There is much more to say about this, but suffice it to summarize the point this way: the just war moral intention, properly understood, casts war-making as peacemaking.

But none of this can happen until the enemy knows that they have been defeated—Versailles taught us this. The peace that America enjoys with the Japanese—the peace that the Japanese people enjoy was purchased, in part, by a decisive violent victory. Of all the options that could have led to a decisive victory—in the face of continued Japanese obstinance—those two bombs were the least horrific.

Looking forward, Francis insists that we must get rid of the bomb. He cites many reasons, among them the sheer waste of resources that modern weapons engender:

In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance, and sale of ever more destructive weapons are an affront crying out to heaven.

The pope’s comments, similar to what I’ve responded to before, ought naturally to call to mind the much-quoted bit in Dwight Eisenhower’s “The Chance for Peace” speech, in which he acknowledges that every dollar spent on arms is a dollar lost to something else. As he puts it, every bomber robs us of 30 well-built schools, or two electric power plants, or a pair of fully appointed hospitals, and so on.

While the “breads-or-bomb” dichotomy is largely false, and frankly rather tired, it is nevertheless true that we could spend the money we give to military hardware on something else. But it is equally valid that the money we spend on keys, police cars, door locks, peepholes, safes, security systems, jails, barbed wire, rape whistles, bodyguards, and all sorts of things could be spent on other things—including helping Francis’ illustrative children no longer live in inhumane conditions. But, of course, because our enemies have a say, we sometimes need to spend money on such things. And Francis knows this

This is why, in the under-quoted bit of Eisenhower’s same address, he sounded another caution:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

Francis can insist that the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima was immoral. But given the real options in play, he also has to suggest what would have been more moral and equally effective. 

He can also say that the continued possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. But, again, he had better let us know what else he has in mind, given the conditions of the world in which some people intend other people unjust harm—and in which they have a say in the conditions of that world. 

As grim a horror as it might be, it is nevertheless true that nuclear weapons won the peace that we now enjoy. And, until conditions change, there is ample reason to believe that they continue to do so. Pope Francis needn’t be as sanguine as I might be on this prospect, but he should allow for the facts on the ground—in history and the present—to ease a bit of his burden. It would be salutary, as well, if they happened to bring a bit more light, and not just heat, to his rhetoric.