This past Thursday, August 6th, marked the 75th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb by the United States on Hiroshima, Japan. The attacks by the U.S., virtually marking the end of the war in the Pacific, have gone down in history as actions that have been left by many as questionable. The morality of using atomic weapons on a civilian population has sparked debate among believers and non-believers alike.
In a webinar event hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology and the Catholic University of America, experts in military affairs and prominent leaders in the Christian community joined forces to debate and reflect upon the legacy and tension that was created by the dropping of the atomic bomb.
The panel consisted of four individuals, Andrew J. Bacevich, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., and Joseph E. Capizzi. Bacevich is Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, and received his PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio is the fourth Archbishop of the Military Services USA, and is an observer to the Committee for International Justice and Peace. Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Finally, Joseph E. Capizzi is Ordinary Professor of Moral Theology at The Catholic University of America and is the Executive Director of the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America.
Throughout the approximately hour and a half long discussion, the four experts debated various questions about the use of the atomic bomb. The morality behind the atomic bomb, the debate on the use of bombs on civilians, and the justification for having a war in the Pacific after a war in Europe were discussed. The four were in a general agreement that the use of an atomic weapon with the potential to damage a civilian population is not moral or Christian.
The first debate point that was brought up was in regards to the use of mass bombing in any conflict. According to Bacevich, bombs were a danger to begin with because they had the potential to harm both civilians and military personnel. The use of nuclear weapons only made the danger of harm occurring towards civilians and non-combatants more present. This point was generally agreed upon by the panelists. They decided that when a military superpower implements bombs in an armed conflict, risks are being taken. Civilians can potentially be caught in the crossfire, with the danger of homes and public land being destroyed.
Also, according to Christiansen, the use of mass bombing was sometimes viewed as being not worth the cost according to various generals. Many generals were against the use of mass bombing for fear of the lack of discrimination that came with it. The bombings and fire bombings that had occurred in Dresden and London spoke to this idea. These bombings were responsible for mass casualties on both military and civilian sides. Comparable to the scorched earth policy promoted by the Soviets, there was mass chaos and destruction of property, with public land and country sides reduced to ash and rubble.
In conjunction to the idea that mass bombings resulted in a wide amount of destruction, the idea that nuclear weapons could be potentially used would only result in more destruction. Nuclear weapons only made the danger to civilians more present according to Bacevich. More so than a conventional weapon, nuclear weapons can have long lasting effect. Generations can be affected by radiation exposure, land rendered inhospitable, and nature affected for centuries to come.
According to Christiansen, the use of weapons such as nuclear bombs goes against the orders of the Church. Christiansen claims that “The Vatican has told us that it is a crime against humanity to destroy large amounts of land, civilians, and civilization. There were other options and attacks that could have been taken instead of using nuclear weapons.”
This idea that the use of nuclear weapons was not the only option was agreed upon by all four panelists. As stated previously, nuclear weapons lack discrimination when it comes to their attack. Land invasion, continued overpowering of Japanese forces in the air by planes, and other methods of attack should have been pursued before nuclear warfare according to the panel.
Finally, the justification for a war in the Pacific was also brought into question. It was agreed upon that World War II in Europe was a just war. According to Bacevich, the Nazi regime was a force of pure evil that needed to cease to exist. The Nazis were committing documented atrocities to mass people groups and carrying out countless crimes against humanity. However, the war in the Pacific was another matter. Although the Japanese were not committing acts to the extent of the Nazis, the panelists hinted at the idea that the contention and anger that was held towards the Axis powers could have potentially been transferred over to the Japanese and the War on the Pacific.
According to Bacevich, World War II was not a war of good versus evil. He explained this belief by saying “As a boy, I viewed World War II as a war of good versus evil. I now realize that this was an oversimplification. There is now a moral complexity that exists in World War II that I now realize exists in my older and wiser age.”
The moral complexities that exist in World War II are some that are still very applicable to situations that exist today, and we as a society should take note of them. It can be rather simple to make a decision to launch a missile or bomb at a target country, but the cost in both a physical sense and a moral sense can be extreme. According to this group of scholars, the cost of using nuclear weapons is something of which we Christians should be mindful. It is their belief that nuclear weapons cause more harm than good, and that other routes to ending the War in the Pacific should have been pursued instead if possible.