Us Bombing Of Japan Essay Contests
By Máté Mátyás
“The older I get, I learn that assumptions are dangerous,” says Claire.
Though a product of artistic imagination, House of Cards presents very real issues. Many watch the show for its supposed revealing lewdness, others dismiss it as an exaggerated caricature of US politics ignoring the values and virtues of the American democracy.
I think we should embrace it—not for its values, but its perspective.
We inherited from venerated thinkers of international relations theory from Thucydides to the late Zbigniew Brzezinski the romantic assumptions that states are real, living, acting, individual “persons” making deals, wars, and peace, vying for power, befriending each other. All current major schools of international relations theory teach us that. “Realism” says that states act in order to maximize their security. “Liberalism” believes international organizations and cooperation make countries better off. “Social constructivism” thinks ideas and identities shape the way states interact. While all offer interesting lenses, due to their naïve conceptual oversimplifications, they have often failed. Often “bigly.” From failure to predict (or avoid) the Second World War through many conflicts of the previous century to the momentous end of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are now standing before an era of complex global uncertainty more confused than ever.
Had had the voters of the state of Florida and Wisconsin, in their infinite wisdom, turn out for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump on 8 November 2016, would our world look different today? Absolutely. There is nothing inevitable in politics—domestic or foreign. But if we are still to treat global politics, the “world order,” organizations, alliances, states as unitary, person-like institutions and structures—instead of products of individual and collective human agency, interactions, and decisions disregarding people’s psychology, specific socio-political contexts, options and constraints, people’s intentions, interests, values, behavior, and communication—we are going to ask the wrong questions, offer the wrong analyses, and arrive to the wrong conclusions.
The “liberal world order,” or democratic political systems for that matter, are gentlemen’s agreements: vast collections of commonly agreed upon social rules and norms. They are alive and functioning as long as they are being upheld by their people. There is nothing inevitable in politics. Realizing this has been the most important propeller of the “populist” wave: an assumed agreement could be, instead, a coalition of the willing. Targeting the right voters with dubious information and promises, forging economic and political factions can make dishonest goals come true. Many of the powerful can profit from such arrangements, but many more can suffer gravely from opportunistic politicking. Indeed, we know that a vast variety of systems based on lies, intimidation, force, violence, and terror is possible. We have taken frankness, transparency, progress, and common values for granted.
Meanwhile the world has changed tremendously, becoming more technologically advanced minute by minute. But as generations of smartphones and software followed, generations of people are still receiving largely the same curricula in schools. This is not just about technological skills. The stunning proliferation of media and the ensuing new media economics require the much desired skill of “critical thinking.” Moreover, in our time of ever-specialized jobs and diversely unique life experiences, the ability to engage in constructive debate, respectful and effective communication is more needed than ever. The alternative is alternative facts and media, fake news, and deception of vulnerable people. In the current political and media climate, you may make the best, most detailed and well-supported argument backed up by years of research—if the counterargument is a brief message of fear, you’ll most likely lose.
“It is amazing how ready people are to be afraid,” realizes Claire Underwood just one episode earlier. Our susceptibility to ear is a well-known phenomenon; we are wired this way. (In fact, throughout this writing, I have appealed to fear one way or the other in almost each paragraph). But we should embrace this—for we fear the most the things that we do not know.
Therefore, education with an explicit emphasis on constructive, effective non-violent communication, its psychology and structural, critical thinking is key. Abandoning romantic ideas of large, collective identities and characteristics of states and orders in social sciences, and focusing instead on the understanding of delicate complexities of policy processes, competition of vast multitude of personal, corporate, organizational, agency, etc. interests, different personalities and their individual beliefs and values show us a way how to navigate in our interconnected world. It gives us a better way to comprehend, analyze, predict, and explain events more precisely to people with different expertise and views. This is the way to rebuild our agreement—and return from alternative realities and echo-chambers.
In the meantime, watch House of Cards. Or, for more light-hearted—and hopefully more accurate—entertainment, Yes, Minister.
Máté Mátyás graduated in International Relations from the Cornivus University of Budapest, Hungary, in 2016 after spending an exchange semester at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He is currently a graduate student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Seventy years ago—on August 6, 1945—the United States dropped a uranium gun-type fission bomb, the first atomic weapon ever used in warfare, on the Japanese industrial city and military center Hiroshima. Just three days later, on the morning of August 9, an American plutonium fusion bomb hit its secondary target, the port city of Nagasaki.
Within two to four months, the bombings are estimated to have killed 90,000 to 166,000 people in Hiroshima (only about 20,000 of them soldiers), and 39,000 to 80,000 civilians in Nagasaki. Scores of secondary deaths due to the long-term effects of radiation followed in the months and years to come.
On August 15, Japan announced its surrender to the Allies, which was formalized on September 2 and effectively ended World War II. But whether the bombs are actually what brought the war to a close—and whether that kind of civilian death toll can ever be justified to prevent hypothetical future carnage—remain topics of fierce debate among historians.
New York University history professor Marilyn Young, whose research focuses on US foreign relations, is the co-editor with Japanese historian Yuki Tanaka of the essay collection Bombing Civilians: a Twentieth Century History, (New Press, 2010) which traces the evolution of aerial bombing from 18th-century hot air balloons, the first civilian air raids (on Parisians by Germans) in World War I, and the escalation of sustained blanket bombings of London and Dresden during World War II all the way through to Vietnam and the recent Gulf wars.
In her essay “Bombing Civilians from the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Centuries,” Young argues that a central fallacy—”World War II ended in a blaze of bombing, ergo, bombing ended the war”—steered military strategy through the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and beyond.
Even in what were meant to be “limited” wars fought with limited means, she argues, airpower “came to be understood as a special language addressed to the enemy, and to all those who might in the future become the enemy”—a surefire way of intimidating an opponent into accepting our concessions. Korea and Vietnam ended in a “crescendo of bombing,” acts of devastation that, by her calculation, were “irrelevant to the outcome of the war.”
And, over time, American civilians became so accustomed to widespread aerial bombing as a winning strategy that, watching the first Gulf War on television, we were eager to look through “the crosshairs in the nose cone of a descending missile.” All of that, Young suggests, can be traced back to that fateful day in 1945.
To mark the grim anniversary, university writer Eileen Reynolds spoke with Young about how Hiroshima irrevocably changed the nature of war.
How did the US come to justify killing civilians in World War II—with blanket bombing in Dresden even before Hiroshima? Were there practical differences between the “precision bombing” and “blind bombing” approaches?
I don’t think there really was, or is, such a thing as “precision bombing”—even drones can be dumb if the intelligence guiding them is off. The justification in World War II, as in Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, and Gulf War II, is always the same: to break the will of the enemy, to bring the war to a close more quickly—and thus save lives—to destroy the “infrastructure” that enables the enemy to continue to make war. None of these justifications withstand close examination in my view.
In history class, students are often taught that these bombings brought an end to the costliest war in history—and actually saved more lives than were lost. You write that this is a myth. In your view, what really ended the war?
I urge students to read the arguments on both sides of this issue but am myself persuaded by the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, who argues that it was the Soviet invasion and the prospect of a two-front war that weighed most heavily with the Japanese.
I think most historians would agree that there was no justification for the Nagasaki bomb, which was dropped before the impact of the Soviet invasion and Hiroshima could have been assessed by the Japanese. Many would call the Nagasaki bomb a war crime—I do.
How much of the “peace through persuasion” theory—the idea that aerial bombings destroy enemy morale and encourage surrender—is true in practice?
I don’t think they work; the Strategic Bombing Survey post WWII didn’t think they worked; they didn’t work in Korea or in Vietnam… and so on.
So how did the idea that massive bombings end wars affect strategy and rhetoric in future conflicts (i.e. Korea and Vietnam)?
It was just assumed, I think. Vietnam was a little different: McNamara’s idea of coercive diplomacy meant there was a slow build up of bombing until—because it didn’t work— before very long, the B52s and saturation bombings were introduced. Korea was massive from the get-go.
Have aerial bombings changed the way civilians think about war?
I’m not sure they have—for Americans, the visuals of bombing are from the viewpoint of the planes, not from the ground looking up. There is little sense of what it is like to be bombed—until perhaps 9/11 and that, thank goodness, was, so far, a one-off.
Do predator drones represent a departure from the blanket bombing approach?
Drones depend on the accuracy of the intelligence targeting them. If the intelligence is off, as it has often been, then civilians will die. Moreover drones are used in two ways: targeted assassinations and “signature strikes.” The latter are based not on known suspects but rather on anyone of military age behaving in a suspicious manner in an area of potential military activity—or a definition equally vague.
Will bombing remain a strategy for most countries at war because of efficiency? Is there a better alternative that some military strategists now argue for?
Efficiency, the desire of the Air Force to have a function, “defense’ industries,” habit—you name it. Military strategists generally argue for approaches to war as if they knew what they were doing, as if they knew and were able to control the consequences of their actions. I don’t trust any of them.
Is there ever a circumstance in which you can imagine a large-scale bombing to be necessary, or is the entire practice inherently flawed?
No and yes.