Putting A Value On A Life

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.

Mount Fuji, seen from central Tokyo last October

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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21 Responses to Putting A Value On A Life

  1. Sue Vincent says:

    Power comes at a heavy cost. I doubt if any one human being is ever wholly to be blamed, even for the worst atrocities. There are always those whose share a vision, ‘just follow orders’, seek to feather their own nest… or simply cannot find the courage to say ‘enough’.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Darlene says:

    Well said. We will never know if it was the right thing to do. My generation lived in the shadow of those bombs. I prayed every night as a child that a bomb would not be dropped on us. (Canada being between Russia and the US.) Just as we will never know if the decisions made during this pandemic were right. As we feared being wiped out by an atomic bomb, children now fear being wiped out by a pandemic. There is always something…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had this conversation yesterday. Difficult one. The Japanese were losing the war at that stage, although they would have fought on to the bitterest end, but the Soviets were showing lively interest in occupying and there had been the Russo-Japanese war only 40 yrs before, which Russia had lost. Dropping those bombs was a terrible, terrible thing but it does seem as though the powers that be saw it as well justified in order to prevent both of the above plus, given the fearful brutality of the previous 6 years in one arena or another, it probably seems much worse to us now but would have felt more in line with the general tone then. The person I was exchanging emails with didn’t respond to that one and may have been horrified, argh! I’m not sure I could ever justify dropping them on civilians, though.
    Such a decision may need to be made by any leader at any time, such as on the Covid situation you mention. I’m sure when everyone was merrily toasting in 2020, this was far from many minds. Unfortunately, every life is something and nothing and we are just there to be thought of in the abstract and as possible collateral damage. Politicians and Generals have to be able to switch off thinking of us as humanity or individuals. They’d be rendered incapable if they didn’t.
    There’s been much criticism of our Government but, who knows, 2 years down the line we may have a better outcome overall than expected. It’s very easy to criticise, especially when you don’t have full possession of the facts. It’s not as though everyone has been behaving well during all this either, and blame, if you can call it that, would have to be directed there as well as the politicians.
    It was very moving watching the Veterans yesterday. I worked in my first job with 3 ex pow’s of the Japanese, all of whom still suffered after-effects, but none of them bore any hatred. I learned a lot from that. Sorry for rambling!

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      Ramble away! I twist in the wind on these moral maze questions. I’m sure our leaders have made many stupid decisions but equally it’s foolish to try and decide which ones are avoidable until we can look back properly. I do sense, though, that we have become fixated on a second wave when we originally fixated on the NHS not being overwhelmed It wasn’t but we’ve kept on as if it remained a risk. It feels – but as you say we won’t know for a while – as if we’ve swung too far in the direction of trying to hold down some sort of lid. Oh well, I’m glad it’s not me deciding

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t know about the Covid thing as I have resolutely only read the bare minimum of facts all these months – I’d have gone mad(der) otherwise. But my question about the two atomic bombs has always been ‘Did they have to drop them on populated areas?’ It seems incredibly ruthless to us. They probably had an eye on the long view – as a future deterrent, but still. I think Oppenheimer never got over the fact that a second bomb was dropped as he felt it was unnecessary, but it was in the hands of the politicians. Truman didn’t seem to need to think twice about it and I’m sure his decision never kept him awake at night, probably the reverse.
        Like others here, my father expected to be deployed out East and was always grateful that didn’t happen. Most of the guys were already pretty exhausted.
        Yes, as I was saying to the Textiliste a while ago, I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions! Like you say, we have to be alert to possibilities for future evils and must be prepared to be continually surprised by some people’s capacity for war-mongering and our Government’s actions/reactions. If you want to sleep well, then don’t watch “Once upon a time in Iraq”. What a mess – talk about injuring innocent people, nightmarish. I’ve only been brave enough to watch 2 episodes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        We’ve not tried it. Going for mjnd mush with Good Omens. V funny

        Like

  4. willowdot21 says:

    I was wondering whether to mention VJ day , thank you Geoff you did it ,and did a better job than I.
    I also agree about the NHS , pandemic verses all other illnesses. It’s a hard pill to swallow if your on the wrong end of it. I doubt I would still be wearing this still a couple of weeks off seeing the surgeon, let alone getting an operation date if Covid19 was not hanging around.
    No point in moaning it was it is…who ever said life/war /death were fair. 💜

    Liked by 2 people

  5. A profound post, Geoff. I guess I’m with you on those two nightmarish bombs – but look what a precedent they set for today’s apparently indiscriminate bombing

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Yes, as I said to Pauline, indiscriminate bombing was a thing from Guernica, through the Blitz to Dresden and onto the likes of Vietnam and modern conflicts. The trouble with all wars and weapons is that you can’t uninvent them and once they are there someone will exploit them, whether its chemical gassing or the sort of Salisbury poisoning. We must remain super vigilant to the stupidity of sabre rattling politicians

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well said, Geoff. All of us who had fathers in WWll that came home have remained thankful that Truman made the decision that ended it. My dad was in the Pacific theater attached to a Navy bombing squadron. They actually flew missions to Tokyo and each time several failed to return including the squadron commander. It was nightmarish duty and all involved thankful it ended.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I can understand your reasoning, reading this brave post. But for me there is never any excuse for deciding to place any human beings on the altar of sacrifice. Inventing a bomb, just because you can and for the hubristic exercise of proving you can and then dropping it onto an unknown and anonymous populace is anathema. This viewing of humanity as ‘less than’ and expendable typifies all that is wrong with the world. I know this reads as simplistic and abrupt – but its not yet 7 am and first coffee grows cold beside me while I read and then tap on the keyboard….. I’m glad your dad was not one of the young men sacrificed in the name of war and that you therefore managed to be brought into the world, no doubt with a deep breath and gurgling cry. But those atomic bombs dropped on the populace of two cities opened the door to the indiscriminate bombing of anywhere by anyone with a plane and the desire not to look into the eyes of the people they are murdering. These conundrums will drive us mad!

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      Ah, we need more time and space to debate that! Indiscriminate bombing had been a thing since Guernica and Dresden, before these awful machines. I suppose I’d ask the question; how many lives killed by the war’s continuation, albeit killed in small groups and not in these massive obliterations would be acceptable? Of course the answer should be none, but the inescapable situation of 1945 was that the war was not ending soon or slowly. By late summer 1945 you have a choice: let the war continue its inexorably progress and see many die, many more than the 200,000 from the bombs: give up and allow the Japanese to continue to treat the POWs and the indigenous peoples of China and Korea as lower forms of life and see many die in the most awful of ways, or drop two of the most terrible weapons invented and hope this ends it. The fact is, I’m not capable of making an unbiased decision, but even so it seems clear to me, even as I hate myself for saying it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And these are all valid points. Still I wonder what we would be saying had the bombs been dropped on an Allied city or two…… Ultimately of course the question for us all is why go to war? I am a fan of the meme that suggests the rulers of the countries concerned are given big sticks and put in a field to sort it out between themselves.

        Liked by 2 people

      • TanGental says:

        Oh yes, of course that’s is the bigger question and rarely is it justified. I was brought up on the notion that WW2 was a just war – we had ti fight Hitler and the Japanese because of how awful they were, and they were. Then I did a history A level that covered 1945 to the then present day (1974 – ha!) and before it even started the teacher had us read all we could find on WW2 but with certain musts, one of which was the Origins of the Second World War by AJP Taylor. It was eye opening, making a compelling case that the British and the French esp but also the Americans created the circumstances that allowed Hitler to arise and the Japanese military to flourish so before we all got a bit holier than thou, lets point a few fingers first. I wanted to talk to dad about it, but he wouldn’t engage. AJP Taylor was some sort of traitor in his eyes back in the early 70s. It was too close, to raw and how could you live with all that death if you didn’t think you were right to fight? It was an early and important lesson in the impenetrable nature of recent history – as Alan Bennett says in the History Boys: ‘there is no period so remote as the recent past’ – sorry, no sure where I’m going with this. I so wish we could sit down over several coffees and chew a lot of fat, Pauline…. sigh…

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yes indeed – several coffees and a couple of long walks I suspect. I was deeply influenced as a young woman in the Vietnam Debacle, by a local poet James K Baxter whose father had been imprisoned during WWII as a Pacifist and who, in his turn, founded an alternate community in an isolated spot on the Whanganui River called Jerusalem. His writings and rejection of contemporary society had a strong influence on me. We all have these long ago influences that have shaped our understandings and beliefs I guess. And as to bombs and warfare, it’s a complex subject – and in the end there’s no easy way through to understanding the beliefs and prejudices under which humanity operates. I take comfort though every time I come across someone who is wrestling with the issues and not just trumpeting ‘them v us’ and random other degrees of hatred.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        A hearty hear hear from my little place on this knobbly old rock of ours!!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Jennie says:

    Well said, Geoff. I’m with you on this.

    Liked by 1 person

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