It’s not something we like to do. We fight against the whole idea that one life is worth more or less than others. And taken to an individual level, even suggesting that such a value judgment could be made is anathema.
I’m writing this (not sure when or if I’ll post it) on the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, the day WW2 officially ended with the surrender of Japan. There were many factors that led to it ending but I’ve not heard it disputed that the dropping of two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities often Hiroshima and Nagasaki accelerated that end by many weeks, months and maybe longer.
It was then and remains a controversial decision and for those killed and their families, friends and colleague, utterly horrendous. A crime. At the time no one really knew what the short or long term consequences would be.
I’m glad it happened. That’s not an easy thing to write. And I really do not want to underplay the death toll or the consequential impact direct and indirect of that action. Neither do I write that because of some nationalistic jingoistic pride that ‘we’ won.
No, it’s very personal. In January 1945 my father finished his training and was awarded his ‘wings’ making him a member of the parachute regiment. In April, as he wrote to my mother, his girlfriend at the time, he had received news he was to be posted to Florida to join up with the American 8th airborne division. The reason was that they were being trained to be the initial assault force deployed when the Allied troops attacked mainland Japan. Douglas MacArthur was leading the forces, moving slowly and bloodily across the Pacific rim and gradually recovering the Philippines from Japanese control. If those battles were a template for taking over the islands of Japan, the time taken and death toll would be horrendous.
My father assumed as he admitted later that he would have been mostly likely killed ‘in the foothills of Mount Fuji’ had those bombs not been dropped. I wouldn’t be here. That why it feels personal.
Why did Truman authorise those bombs? Why two? Many speculate: to prove American might; to see how they worked in practice; to stop the Red Army’s rapid deployment towards the Korean peninsular and fear Stalin might seek to extend his influence in east Asia as he had done in Europe. Or to save many many lives.
Personally I tend to the latter view. I know I’m hardly unbiased in doing so. And of course, in life we cannot run a controlled experiment to see how many lives would have been lost had one or both bombs not been dropped. It required a monumental judgment call on Truman’s part, though I suspect, my personal bias to one side, he got it right. He had to put a value on human lives and while naturally he focused on saving the most American lives, in this instance he probably saved many many more lives of a whole variety of nationalities.
It happens a lot, in the allocation of resources but usually it isn’t so clear cut. Lives are not immediately lost as they were with the dropping of those bombs. It is a very real debate now, here in the UK and across the world. Our economy has been pummelled, our medical services given a very single focus as we get to grips with this unprecedented pandemic that spools and roils its insidious way around our communities. While the way deaths are calculated seem to change daily we can see there are north of 40,000 Covid or Covid related deaths in the UK. But, and here’s the thing, how many other deaths have been accelerated or will occur as a direct result of the policies of lockdown, economic constraint and long term fear that the occurance of Covid has and will continue to cause?
And if someone eventually has a stab at a number, someone else will also have a stab at a number of Covid deaths that would have occurred had we not locked down and become, albeit briefly a pretty much single issue NHS.
Goodness knows where these numbers will end up, and of course they will make headlines even if they remain guesses. But they will still have been the result of putting a value on a life, and currently a life spared from Covid is more valuable that another life lost to untreated cancer or an undiagnosed stroke, as two immediate examples.
And some will be glad, and some will rail against the injustice of the decision. As was the case with those bombs of long ago. And historians will analyse and hopefully we will learn something useful for the next pandemic when it hits – because unlike the world war, the chances of another pandemic are much higher.
And one thing will remain true. Whatever you might think of those in charge back then or now, it’s one hell of a job that requires you to make those value judgments, because for someone, many someones you will be not just wrong but culpable. And that knowledge will always be with you.