I went down to Washington the other day to see the Smithsonian's new exhibit on the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
It is an impressive exhibit, though far smaller than the one envisioned before veterans' groups forced the Smithsonian to scrap most of the text and pictures dealing with President Truman's decision to use the bomb, and with the destruction it wrought. The veterans complained that the original exhibit painted the United States as a racist aggressor and made scant mention of Japan's own culpability for the war.
As a lifelong airplane buff and sometime pilot, I can pretty much do without the commentary because I am also a former close student of World War II who long ago made up his mind that the decision to use the bomb was probably inevitable given the expected costs of a U.S. invasion of Japan. The bomb was seen as a quick way to stop the killing -- by then Japan's defeat was a foregone conclusion -- and that is exactly what it did, albeit at terrible cost to the Japanese civilian population.
War, wrote the 19th-century German theoretician Karl von Clausewitz, is slaughter and maneuver. No theory can completely encompass it, he taught, because the multiplicity of simultaneous combats escapes theoretical grasp. That is why it so often is misleading to second-guess critical decisions in light of hindsight.
Today it is obvious even to schoolchildren that Pickett's charge cost Lee the battle at Gettysburg, or that Custer underestimated Sitting Bull. But it wasn't obvious to those commanders at the time. So, too, the decision to drop the bomb on Japan.
Sun-tzu, the 5th-century B.C. Chinese general who is the earliest military writer of whom we have record, taught that the highest form of generalship was to subdue the enemy without fighting. That essentially is what Truman was aiming for when he authorized the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it is certainly how most Americans at the time interpreted the attacks.
Only later did revisionist historians suggest that the bomb was unnecessary, that the Japanese would have surrendered within a few months even without a U.S. invasion, and that the Enola Gay's fateful flight was intended as much to put Stalin on notice as to cow the Emperor Hirohito.
This makes for fascinating speculation, but it is dubious history. Taking events out of the context of their own time in order to judge them by the standards of a later era almost invariably clouds, rather than clarifies, the issue.
Still, I believe the museum erred in not attending to the victims of Hiroshima. To my mind, they should occupy an honored place even in the annals of their former enemies.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was historical culmination and logical consequence of the total character of modern warfare, by which the old division between combatants and non-combatants was obliterated and every resource of the nation-state became subject to mobilization on behalf of the military effort. That pattern, first established during the American Civil War, has shaped every major conflict since, but it reached an unprecedented scale during World War II.
The 300,000 casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented only a tiny fraction of the estimated 50 million people, more than half of them civilians, who perished during the war. More people died in the conventional bombing of Tokyo than in the atomic blast at Hiroshima. The firestorm that leveled Dresden was comparable in destructiveness to the one that destroyed Nagasaki.
Yet the atomic bombings ushered in a new era unlike anything that had preceded it. It institutionalized the threat of global holocaust as a permanent possibility in a way that the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, dreadful as they were, could only hint at.
Not for nothing did Robert Oppenheimer, who led the team that developed the bomb, remark after the Trinity test blast in New Mexico: "Now science has known evil." The deaths at Hiroshima are emblematic of that terrible new order as well as of all the waste of innocents in all the wars since time immemorial.
Somehow we are going to have to come to terms with the moral implications of America's having created the bomb and the world now dominated by its existence. It is an issue of responsibility rather than of guilt. But I can think of no better way to begin to address it than by acknowledging that the hapless victims of our triumph were human beings like ourselves.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.