Reflecting on the atomic bomb

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Imagine laughing at death that's delivered from the air. In 1939, the renowned radio dramatist Arch Obler wrote a short and startling play for the NBC network. He centered the plot of "The Laughing Man" on a book that had been discovered in the ruins of a civilization some 20,000 years old. Those who studied the book found its narrative totally incredible. It described warfare between races and abetted by amazing flying machines that dropped "horrible tearing things" on the beings below. The play's narrator found the idea so absurd that all he could do was laugh uproariously.

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of an event that was far from laughable. On Aug. 6, 1945, a U.S. B-29 dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, resulting in a blast equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. On Aug. 9, a second B-29 annihilated Nagasaki. The two attacks claimed nearly 200,000 Japanese lives either through immediate immolation or subsequent radiation poisoning, and many more were maimed for life. The bombs destroyed 90 percent of the cities but quickly had their strategic effect. Six days later, Japan's Emperor Hirohito announced his country's unconditional surrender.


The atomic bomb ended World War II in the Pacific Theater and saved the lives of countless Americans and Japanese who would have perished if the U.S. had mounted a land invasion. Once the bomb's technology spread, its known horrors might also have prevented future world wars because of the mutually assured destruction inherent in the use of any such weapon. The bomb certainly kept the Soviets from dominating Western Europe and Japan. The decision to deploy it was pragmatic, but can it be defended morally?

In the 1980s, I did a television interview with Jacob Beser, a former lieutenant and radar specialist in the U.S. Army Air Force. A Maryland native, he was the only person to have served on the crews of both atomic bomb missions. As for morality, he had a ready answer, one he repeated in his 1988 book, "Hiroshima and Nagasaki Revisited."


Beser said he felt "no sorrow or remorse for whatever small role I played. That I should is crazy. I remember Pearl Harbor and all of the Japanese atrocities. I remember the shock to our nation that all of this brought. I don't want to hear any discussion of morality. War, by its very nature, is immoral. Are you any more dead from an atomic bomb than from a conventional bomb?"

There is no denying Beser's assertion that "War, by its very nature, is immoral," especially if we adhere to Christian instruction that we "turn the other cheek" when someone slaps us on the right cheek. Fighting and killing are forever locked in a struggle with Christian doctrine, a struggle that pits our efforts to lead moral lives against our natural instinct for self-preservation.

Ethicists have maneuvered around this seeming contradiction by giving us the doctrine of the Just War. One of its conditions is that the use of arms must not produce outcomes that are worse than the evil to be eliminated. Given the destructive power of today's thermonuclear weapons — one warhead is 20 times more powerful than the one that leveled Hiroshima — and the danger of triggering a conflict that could end life on much of the Earth, it would appear that any future use of nuclear weapons is unjust and immoral.

In 1945, atomic scientists theorized that fewer than 100 "super" bombs could end the world. Seventy years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we find ourselves sitting on a weapons stockpile of about 4,800 tactical, strategic and nondeployed thermonuclear weapons. The rest of the world accounts for another 10,000 warheads, with Russia leading the pack. These numbers are a testimony to the stupidity of the arms race and the muscle of the military industrial complex. They also go a long way toward defining special strains of insanity and obscenity endemic in the human race.

I am not foolish enough to advocate unilateral disarmament, to beat our swords into plowshares. I know there are people out there who hate us and would not hesitate to use a nuclear device on one of our cities, perhaps even to fulfill a perverted religious goal. But I also know how history will treat nuclear war if anyone is even left alive to write about it. Cue the laughing man.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at