Saturday, August 06, 2005


(Was going to write this in a couple of days, but was prompted in a timely way by Hirak's post)

(Two historic images- The first one is of the American flag being raised after victory on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima on Feb 23, 1945, scene of one of the bloodiest naval battles in history. The second one is of the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima 60 years ago. How much killing will we have to engage in in order to do good and preserve freedom?)

In the fall of 1949, a young, twenty-five year old student who lacked even a PhD., came to the Los Alamos national laboratory in New Mexico. Ted Taylor had been recommended as a promising physicist by his advisor at Berkeley, Robert Serber. Serber, a veteran physicist, had been among Robert Oppenheimer's elite group of students at Berkeley in the 1930s. A lean, austere Philadelphian, who talked with a lisp, Serber was 'Oppie's' top man in Berkeley, and later on the Manhattan Project. His first lectures on the atomic bomb- the 'Los Alamos Primer'- top secret at the time, but declassified later as a book, was required reading for anybody who joined the project. Ted Taylor was his student at Berkeley after the war. Taylor, although promising, was a complete failure at formal studies. He had failed his PhD. oral exam not once but twice, failing to answer some basic physics questions. So what made Serber recommend him so highly to Carson Mark, the Chief of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos? Taylor had a remarkable knack for imagining how a collection of metal, explosives, nuclear material, and wires, could be put together in the most efficient way. At Los Alamos, his talent was recognised, and he became not just an expert, but an artist of sorts, in designing small atomic bombs. Since deliverability was a key strategic consideration for any atomic weapon, Taylor's abilities were crucial. Over the years, he became versed in the art of atomic bomb design, the way an architect becomes versed in the art of bridge, or studio design. His 'Super Oralloy Bomb' was a sleek mere ten inches, and one man could lift it off the ground and put it in a bag; yet its yield was a fantastic 500 kilotons, an order of magnitude more than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
Over the years, the more Taylor worked on atomic weapons design, the more disillusioned he became with the nuclear arms race. Witnessing first hand the awesome power of these weapons, he became convinced that mankind should stop developing them. After a few years, he quit, and in an interview, simply remarked, "It's simple. If they bomb New York, I won't bomb Moscow"...
(Taylor's story is documented in detail by John McPhee in his 'The Curve of Binding Energy')

It's been 60 years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Somber ceremonies were held in Japan and other parts of the world this week. Yesterday, I watched Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi deliver a simple address to the people of Hiroshima. In the background, the so-called atomic dome stands alone, the only survivor of the flash of light that incinerated a city 60 years ago, and a testimonial of what we are capable of.

Was dropping the bomb necessary? This question still evokes such a muck of controversy, that nothing I or anybody could say could be enough or satisfying. Frankly, the knee jerk reaction I have always had for many years ever since I first read about Hiroshima and thought about it, was that dropping the first bomb was a very controversial and perhaps essential decision, but that dropping the second bomb was perhaps pretty hasty. The Japanese would likely have surrendered anyway, especially with an invasion of Japan by Russia impending (the Russians had declared war on Japan on August 8). So why was the bomb dropped on such short notice, especially with the expected view of the confusion caused in Japan by the use of a wholly new paradigm in conflict? The most provocative explanation I have read is by Nobel Laureate Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, enumerated in Howard Zinn's magnificent 'A People's History of the United States'. It was simple. The Americans had planned an invasion of mainland Japan in November, 1945. They had negotiated with the Russians to solicit Russian entry into the Japanese war three months after the end of the war in the European theatre. Germany formally surrendered on May 8, 1945. Three months later was August 8, when the Russians did keep their promise. The Americans knew even before the surrender of Germany that a full-scale invasion of Japan was going to be horrifyingly bloody. The gory battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the most gruesome in naval battles in history, clearly signified that the Japanese were going to fight tooth and nail in the most extreme patriotic way possible, before giving in. Later reports showed that 9 year old girls in Japan were being taught to fight with bamboo spears. The quarter of a million troops who attacked the island would have been in for an utterly inhuman and macabre experience.
After all this sacrifice, the Americans would have considered it unthinkable to share their hard won 'conquest' of Japan with Communist Russia. Blackett's analysis is straightforward; dropping the atomic bomb was the first 'diplomatic' act of the Cold War...
(For all this, it must be remembered that the Americans were true gentlemen during their occupation of Japan. Douglas MacArthur had issued strict mores for the treatment of Japanese civilians, and soldiers who stepped outside the line were in for stern censure)

I don't know how I sound when I say I think that dropping the first atomic bomb was 'essential'. Am I some kind of a belligerent zealot with a Curtis LeMay like mentality?
No. I wept when I read about the plight of human beings in Hiroshima, recounted in John Hersey's 'Hiroshima', that shortly after the war, described the experiences of such witnesses as Dr. Fujii, who treated patients and watched them die in the aftermath of the disaster. It still damns my spirit to read about similar accounts in Richard Rhodes's high octane prose in 'The Making of the Atomic Bomb'. My heart reaches out like that of thousands of others, to the little girl Sadako, whose plan to fashion a thousand paper cranes fell short when she became a victim to the wounds and ill-effects that the bomb festered in her body.

The real reason why I think that dropping the first bomb was perhaps 'essential' has to do with the trivialities that war engenders, and which are also at the core of the reason why I prefer to be a pacifist. When I was listening to Koizumi's address, my mind wandered back to the terrible cruelties of Hiroshima. But then I realised something which I have been realising for some time; that while the real virtue of the bomb was its shock 'value', as a new and terrifying weapon of war, as a device that brought much woe, shattered the human spirit, and fostered brutality, was it anything new? Let's consider a few events that preceded it:

1. Even before the war started, the unspeakable slaughter and atrocities that the Japanese committed in Manchuria were already a part of the most ignominious history of the human race. Women were raped and killed, babies were tossed in the air and then impaled on bayonets, and in general, the scale of atrocities committed was as much as any that our lesser minds can possibly imagine. Iris Chang's 'The Rape of Nanking' will stir the hearts of even the most stone-hearted.

2. Strategic bombing adopted by the Allies, still a controversial maneuvre, incinerated hundreds of thousands, melted their flesh and skulls, and popped their organs out, just like the bomb did. Hamburg, Dresden, and especially Tokyo speak volumes about the complete breakdown of morality in war, whether of the Allies or the Axis. Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five' paints a vivid and compelling picture. In Tokyo, during a single night, one hundred thousand civilians were killed, men women and children, more than those who instantaneously died in Hiroshima.

3. The horrific treatment of POWs in Russian, German, and especially Japanese camps, is part of the macabre folklore of war history. Every 'convention' ever signed by nations was violated in some way or the other, by some country or other, during some time or the other. Note that this was never limited to the 'Axis'. Perhaps the most revealing instance is documented in somewhat controversial but true detail in Antony Beevor's 'The Fall of Berlin 1945'. In it, he describes how, in addition to the atrocities that the Russians inflicted on German women during their march into Germany, they did not even spare their OWN women who were imprisoned in German concentration camps.

4. I don't even need to say anything about the Holocaust. The spectrum of every human emotion, from Anne Frank's indomitable innocence to Rudolf Hoess's calculated butchery as commandant of Auschwitz was demonstrated during this time. If the Holocaust cannot convince us of the depths of depravity that we can sink into, nothing can.

5. Even after the war, as the years have showed, Indian partition, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, to name a few, show that man's animal brutality toward man has not changed.

Add to this, the infinite amount of agony that wives, mothers, sisters and daughters back home endured.

The point is, in light of all these, in terms of morality, does the bomb really do something radical and unacceptable? If anything, it simply adds another notch, admittedly a big one, to the moral quagmire which we have dragged ourselves in during conflict. Agreed, the shock 'value' and sheer scale of atomic bombing is paradigm shifting, but it does not suddenly make us clutch our heads and bring us to our moral senses. We have descended into immorality in many sundry and glorious ways much before the atomic bomb. We have crossed moral divides many times and much earlier.

That's the only reason why I personally think that dropping the bomb was perhaps an essential way to bring an end to an unbelievably horrible war, at least on a relative basis.

That is also why I prefer to be a pacifist. That's because I believe that the decision to kill human beings is such a difficult and complex one, that it is frankly beyond our capacity to understand its scope and consequences, and so it can never be taken without arousing resentments, doubt, and controversy later on. In some ways, it also becomes meaningless in a grotesque way, because it's only once you go to war that discussions about methods of killing become relevant. Because of our complete inability to comprehend what Robert McNamara rightly calls the 'Fog of War', it is imperative that we pursue every negotiation, every dialogue, every manuevre, every effort to its utmost, that would allow us to resolve problems, no matter how big or serious, in a peaceful manner. This is a simple fact that leaders seem to surprisingly have failed to understand in the heat of the moment. After Hiroshima, a simple but revealing statement appeared in the Scottish newspaper, 'The Scotsman'

"Now that man has mastered nature, it is more important than ever that he gain mastery over himself"...

After the war of course, the arms race escalated. The drive towards bigger and 'better' atomic weapons went on until it reached an ugly proportion. Interestingly, while the development of the H bomb was the most obnoxious move ever made by a government to achieve destruction of a foreign nation, it was quite definitely the ultimate form of detterence. As a military weapon, the H bomb is absurd and completely lacks strategic value. With the deployment of missiles with thermonuclear warheads, the instant destruction of almost an entire nation many times over makes these weapons instruments of genocide. Therein lies the utter meaninglessness of the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads that the US and Russia possess. They are enough to destroy the whole earth many times over. There is zero strategic or military advantage in using them. No even marginally sane leader in the free world, or even in a dictatorship, would risk complete annihilation of his country by using them. The concept of deterrence, although bandied about an obscene number of times, actually has worked.

In the end, the question again, quite soberingly, is not at all of nuclear or non-nuclear weapons, but is in some refreshing way, of human nature, common sense and most importantly again, of empathy. In 1947, MacGeorge Bundy, who later became National Security Advisor for Kennedy and Johnson, was acting as a kind of scribe for Henry Stimson, Secretary of War during the war. Stimson drafted an article, that was largely worded by Bundy. Its most important argument, made clear after the war, was that preserving their Emperor's status was of paramount importance for the Japanese, and they didn't think the Allies would do it if they surrendered. The high officials in Washington did not completely understand this wish of the Japanese, and the extreme reverence in which they held their Emperor. Note that this had everything to do with empathizing with the enemy, especially one whose cultural roots ran as deep as Japan's. Reading later declassified documents even today, including Stimson's memo, it seems extremely likely that if the Allies had made it clear to the Japanese that they would allow them to keep their Emperor (a matter of relatively less importance for the Allies), the Japanese might have surrendered much earlier, let alone before Hiroshima, saving countless Japanese and American lives. The same goes for Vietnam. For Iraq? Deployment of National Missile Defense certainly does not help this and increases resentment and tension.

Sometimes the best weapon against an enemy is actuallly no weapon at all, simply an attempt to understand him, his culture, his values and his roots, and to understand what makes him the way he is. Failure to do so has repeatedly shown to lead to nothing but destruction.

This theme is a continuing one, I think. I can only best quote from a recent post penned on the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test:

"Fundamentally, and in the long run, the problem which is posed by the release of atomic energy is a problem of the ability of the human race to govern itself without war."...
-From a report of a panel of consultants on disarmament that was submitted to the Secretary of State in 1953.


Blogger Parikshit said...

Hi.. i am just a fellow blogger who stumbled onto your site. You write really well though. Great article on the atom bomb.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HI Ashutosh,

You dont know me, but I am a close friend of Hirak and Sumedha and stumbled across your blog while readings their blogs.
Excellent stuff. I see you seem to have a great interest in history (and judging from a couple of articles) in contemporary world history. History is a passion with me too, and maybe in a different world and a different time I would have been a historian, but (as you might guess) I am an engineer working here in the states. My personal favorite hobbies are American History, Pre-independence Indian history, WWII and Maratha history.
Getting back to your current article, I really appreciate your point on knowing the enemy or adversery. THis was fully brought home to me while going through the book" The Emperor's General". General macaurthers tremendous understanding of the japanese culture (in fact as the author says, he understood the orientals better than his own countrymen) was instrumental in the rise of a peaceful, democratic and rich Japan, that instead of hating the americans is very much an ally of the american nation. Imagine if the US had someone in Iraq, who truly understood Islam, arabs and arabic culture.

Well keep writing. You have an ardent reader in me.

Siddharth Rege

1:17 PM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

I remember reading Kurt Vonnegut's account of the bombing of Dresden...
Try watching Stanley Kubrick's 'Dr Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'.
A fantastic performance by Peter Sellers in a triple role :)

10:02 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Siddharth: You probably don't remember but we had met many years back during the Maggi Quiz Contest. I was with Satyen on the Abhinav team...
I think I had also met you once when you were in IIT; me and your IIT group (Satyen, Karnik, Ambya etc.) had been to a movie in Vijay; it was either 'Small Soldiers' or 'American Beauty'...don't remember which one.
Yes, I think I too would have been a historian in a different time and place, and it's good to find someone who is also much interested in it.
I am glad you liked my writing, and you raise a very pertinent point about there being probably no experts on Iraq, Islamic culture etc. in the US administration. Robert McNamara also says the same thing; he cites the lack of experts on Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. I think it's really important to empathize with the enemy, and in this age of impulsive nuclear terrorism, even more so.
Anyway, keep in touch. Good luck!

Sumedha: Been there, watched it. It's brilliant :-)

8:11 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Correction: It was 'Toy Story/Toy Story 2' and not 'Small Soldiers' :)

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Siddharth Rege said...

HI Ashutosh,

Yes, actually while going through your blog I saw Satyen's name and got to thinking that I had probably met you. Maggi quiz, yes the good old days. If I mistake not, you and Sat came in second right. Were we also in the same semi-final, which I remember was a very close affair.
Have you kept up with quizzing? Personally I haven't and guys like Hirak are now miles ahead on that front.
Anyway, you have found a regular reader in me.
tata, sid (or rege as everyone prefers to call me)

12:34 PM  
Blogger Nikhil K said...

'The war to end all wars' it definitely wasn't. Nor was the bomb the last one to vaporize poor souls into oblivion.
No cause , however mighty, justifies wiping out an whole city. If self-righteous people start playing god, god would have no recourse but to while away his time playing dice. Leave the administering of good and evil to the one in heaven ( and to Dubya ;-)) and don't allow sanctimonious little ba*** to play marbles with whole cities. Being a pacifist at heart, I don't sympathize with war per se, but realpolitik does matter in today's world. And diplomacy can be more potent than rash bellcosity.

10:49 AM  

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