war morality atom bomb america religion
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war morality atom bomb america religion
Japan’s iconic Great “Floating” Torii is a Shinto Shrine on Miyajima island, marking the sacred gateway between the spirit and human worlds. A direct ferry shuttles between the shrine and Hiroshima, upon which the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb, ending World War II. Some 80,000 people died instantly in the bombing, and many thousands later. (Beautiful Japan 90, Adobe Stock)

William Tecumseh Sherman, the storied Union general in the U.S. Civil War, pointedly deglorified war when he addressed the Michigan Military Academy graduating class in 1879, fourteen years after that catastrophic conflict had ended.

war morality atom bomb america religion
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, a top commander in the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1865. (Flikr, Public Domain)

“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here,” Sherman told them. “Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, War is Hell!

This to me illustrates the profound moral and, thus, religious questions that attend warfare. It expresses the arguably unforgivable sin of war, by one who’s been in the eye of the inevitable murderous storm of human hate and violence that war unleashes.

Medieval Christian theologians long debated and eventually coalesced around a consensus view of “just war” — the “notion that the resort to armed force … is justified under certain conditions,” as Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it. But it seems a self-serving idea, considering the epic human misery and death it generally inflicts on mostly innocent bystanders.

But, still, there can be degrees of war, some with far more depravity and suffering and moral exposure than others.

Complicating the moral and ethical dilemmas of military commanders deciding which lethal tactics they might employ is the somewhat stark schizophrenia of the Bible, from which most moral codes in Western civilization largely derive. The Old Testament, for example, would seem to not only condone warfare and the slaughter of innocents but revel in it. On the other hand, it’s impossible to imagine Jesus condoning any random acts of gratuitous violence, much less paroxysms of it on a global scale.

“The Crucifixion of the Martyrs of Nagasaki,” a painting in the Franciscan convent of the Lady of the Snows in Prague. It depicts the execution of 26 Franciscan priests in Nagasaki in 1597. The world’s second atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. Air Force on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, instantly killing an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 citizens. (Pavel Vnenk, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

So, what to do if you’re a top-ranking military commander?

As with most human activities, it depends … on how far from the purest ideals of moral integrity you are willing to go after weighing the apparent dangers and weapons at your disposal. Indeed, when push comes to shove — whereas Jesus would “turn the other cheek” — most of us, if sufficiently threatened, might instinctively take a swing.

This brings me to a very interesting story in Skeptic magazine by its founder, Michael Shermer (there might be a paywall), about the morality, or not, of American scientists creating the most terrifyingly destructive weapon in history to that time — the atomic bomb — and President Harry Truman’s decision to drop it (twice) on Japan.

It is not an easy moral/ethical question to answer.

On one side (speaking of “degrees” of moral responsibility), even many of the scientists who worked developing the bomb in the historic Manhattan Project — notably its director Robert Oppenheimer — ultimately and deeply regretted their roles in birthing such a destructive technology.

They had good reason. Shermer writes that the debut atomic bomb dropped on the coastal city of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, carried the explosive power of more than 16,000 tons of high explosives. The uranium-armed device “flattened” 69 percent of the city’s buildings, killed some 80,000 people — most instantly — and injured another 70,000. The plutonium bomb dropped August 9 on Nagasaki packed the equivalent of more than 19,000 tons of TNT. It’s detonation a few thousand feet above the city leveled some 44 percent of its area, killed 35,000 to 40,000 inhabitants and wounded 60,000. Then, there was the delayed reaction effect of radioactive fallout from the bomb, which killed many, many more over the following decades from disease, such as various cancers, and other lethal effects.

If Japan hadn’t surrendered, the U.S. military had several more bombs nearly ready to go.

A great irony of the bombing is that the victims of the two bombs became pariahs in their own nation. For instance, many female victims could not find husbands because of fears they might die early or produce offspring with defects. All survivors were shunned and denigrated to some degree, like HIV and AIDS sufferers in the U.S. decades later.

So, it’s impossible to view the first atomic bombings in history through any other but a moral lens.

However, there is another side, and it’s compelling if not equally so. President Truman’s advisors projected that as many as a million American soldiers would perish in a U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland and up to 5.5 million Japanese.

“By comparison, cold though it may sound, the body count from both atomic bombs — about 200,000–300,000 total (Hiroshima: 90,000–166,000 deaths, Nagasaki: 60,000–80,000 deaths) — was a bargain,” writes Shermer, whose father was preparing for an expected invasion with the U.S. Navy when the bombs fell.

It’s Situational Ethics 101. Which was morally worse? For the U.S., clearly the bombings were the least depraved tactic, causing the least loss of life overall … particularly for Americans. But both scenarios would have been disastrous, possibly ruinous, for the Japanese people.

The morality play of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reminds me that religious beliefs haven’t caused the horrors that humanity has regularly inflicted on itself throughout history, though divine intercession has often been claimed. People just do what people do in moments of great fear and passion, often justifying it with religious pieties that, clearly, they don’t really subscribe to.

How a true Christian could justify those two bombings that abruptly ended World War II as acts that Jesus himself would condone mystifies me. The attacks, which doomed men, woman and children indiscriminately, were the antithesis of loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek.

In such moments of great carnage, we just think, deep down, that we’re acting holy.

Still, the death of a million invading Americans in Japan would be something that U.S. wartime authorities would rationally be willing to do anything to prevent. And to feel completely, even morally, justified in doing it.

“War is Hell,” after all, so the normal rules of providence shouldn’t apply, right?

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...