Thursday 14 November 2019

Review: War: Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham

Doubleday, €33, hbk, 640 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Brendan Behan complained in an interview that he had been branded a terrorist because he was caught carrying a little bomb in his coat pocket.

If he had a 1,000lb bomb to drop on Dresden, he would have been decorated as a war hero, he said.

The point is well made in this impassioned book that the carpet-bombing of German and Japanese cities, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians perished in firestorms, was an act of barbarism; and that Bomber Harris of the RAF, who has his statue in Whitehall, and General Curtis LeMay, who boasted of the Japanese civilians he had "scorched, boiled and baked to death", should have been on trial as war criminals.

Paul Ham traces the history and the horror of this type of warfare to provide a context for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the newly invented atomic bomb.

In doing so he effectively demolishes the carefully cultivated historical narrative that the bomb, dropped on military targets, was necessary to end the war, the least repugnant of the available choices, and that by avoiding the need to invade the Japanese mainland the lives of half-a-million or more American soldiers were saved.

Ham argues convincingly that the bomb was entirely unnecessary: that Japan would have surrendered within weeks, if not days, its economy strangled and the people reduced to near starvation by the naval blockade and the cities reduced to ashes by constant bombing.

Truman had taken a decision not to risk invasion even before the decision to drop the bomb.

A close trawl of Japanese documents, and cable traffic with Moscow, enables Ham to recreate the discussion between the military hawks who would fight on to the last civilian, and the peace lobby who would bow out if the American demand for unconditional surrender could be softened to preserve the role of the Emperor.

In this internal debate, the determining factor was not the bomb but the easing of the Potsdam conditions to preserve the Emperor and, crucially, the Russian declaration of war and their rapid annihilation of the Japanese army in Manchuria.

Why then was the bomb used, and without warning? The generals, including Eisenhower, MacArthur and Marshall, were opposed (mostly in retrospect), Admiral Halsey was totally and consistently against, and Secretary for War Stimson (who was kept outside the loop) had moral reservations and recommended a warning at least.

The answer is that a huge project driven by science, by politics and a military-industrial complex had taken on a life of its own and could not be stopped (even when many of the scientists tried to jump ship).

The bomb was used because it was there, because reputations and careers depended on delivery, because there was a political demand for vengeance for Pearl Harbour, because the ordinary Japanese had been so dehumanised and demonised.

It was used as an experiment to prove a hypothesis and, for some, as a warning to the Russians. The main point was the elimination of the largest number of Japanese civilians in the most dramatic way.

As Harris put it, Japan was "a most interesting subject for the initial experiment".

In the end, a race developed to drop the bomb before the Japanese could surrender or the Russians enter the fight.

The book is weighed down by detail. But the telling detail comes from the diaries of Japanese schoolchildren drafted into the industrial workforce at the age of 12, from contemporary records and interviews with survivors.

The description of the immediate impact of the bombs, and the aftermath, is almost unbearably painful to read in its depiction of terror, destruction, death and human suffering, of the bodies vapourised, the burns inflicted, the courage of survivors and rescuers and their subsequent destruction by secondary radiation.

None of the official bodies come out of it well, including the post-war Japanese governments who took more than half a century and numerous court actions to provide compensation and services for the survivors. Equally deplorable were the US medical commissions who insisted on denying the existence of radiation-linked sickness and refused to treat the victims.

In the light of this trenchant critique, Truman's own role as President is due for reassessment.

This book is a stern warning of what happens to nations who go to war in defence of human rights and high moral principles which are then jettisoned in the search for total victory.

Ham concludes that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not military targets: their destruction was not a strategic imperative, but a carefully planned slaughter of innocent civilians, a crime against humanity and an act of terror, by any definition.

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