Sunday, November 4, 2007

Enola's Boy

Paul Tibbets is dead. The man who piloted the Enola Gay (named after his mother) on its bombing run over Hiroshima died on November 1st at age 92. Reaction around the world was mixed and muted, reflecting the uncomfortable ambiguity of his place in public awareness and, now, history.

Some people said Paul Tibbets was a hero; others that he was a war criminal. Which is it? How should we remember Paul Tibbets?

The bomb he dropped killed more than a hundred thousand people, almost all of them civilians, in a single horrific, world-changing conflagration. Together with a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki a few days later, it forced the military regime that had led Japan into a disastrous war to contemplate surrender.

The man himself was unapologetic to the end about what he had done, insisting that his action had saved lives by shortening the war. His uncompromising stance made him an easy figure for some people to hate, and a harder one to defend than if he had expressed sensitive, conciliatory second thoughts.

What you think about Paul Tibbets, of course, depends on what you think of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So what about that? Was our use of atomic weapons on two Japanese cities one of history’s great crimes?

Look it in the face, and a plausible first reaction is: how could it not be? How could the incineration of a hundred thousand men, women and children not be a crime? Sketch for me a philosophical position that excuses the purposeful killing of an entire civilian population, even in retaliation. Even given the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust, even considering that the Axis powers had obliterated standards of civilized behavior, that six years of war had coarsened and brutalized the best of democracies, how can we not condemn slaughter on a scale like that?

And yet. An elderly gentleman of my acquaintance, a life-long liberal and an educated, humane man, who was sitting on Okinawa with the remains of his battered division contemplating the invasion of Japan when the bomb was dropped, told me, “Well, we were sure glad they dropped it.” And he said it with a smile. I doubt he took any pleasure in thinking of the hundred thousand dead Japanese civilians. But I doubt he loses any sleep over them, either.

Any argument justifying the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan must be a purely utilitarian argument. Utilitarian arguments take no account of rights. They are based on mere calculus: this number of lives versus that number, this bottom line versus that one. The notion of individual rights says that some things are wrong no matter what the reason. Rights are “side constraints”, in Robert Nozick’s term; they are supposed to trump utilitarian calculations. We are rightfully suspicious of utilitarian arguments precisely because they override rights.

Most of us, however, would concede that in an emergency we sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils, and it is here that utilitarian arguments come into play. In an emergency, rights can be seen as a luxury.

So what it comes down to is asking whether we were in an emergency situation when President Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan. Were the circumstances so dire that there was no alternative to dropping the bomb?

The consensus that has allowed most of us to live with the way the Second World War ended is that they were. The war was a fundamental threat to civilized society, and we were close to the end of our tether. It was an emergency.

This consensus is not universally accepted, of course. There is a rival school of thought that holds that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indeed crimes, great enough to undermine the legitimacy of the United States as a law-abiding power. Maybe. But nations are not at their best under extreme stress. There are better things on our record than Hiroshima, like the post-war reconstruction of Japan. And all nations should be judged by the same standards. We were not the only ones to systematically attack civilian populations in the great moral collapse of the Second World War. We weren’t even the most ruthless. We were just, in the end, the best at it.

Paul Tibbets didn’t invent the atomic bomb. He didn’t make the decision to drop it, either. So I’m not inclined to regard Paul Tibbets as the great villain of the piece. But his passing ought to make us think hard about nuclear war and how we can avoid getting to a place where the cold hard calculus of numbers trumps our right not to be incinerated. There’s no magic formula—neither simple-minded pacifism nor reckless belligerence is going to insure our safety. All I ask is that whoever has the nuclear football should never lose sight of the stakes.

Sam Reaves

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