Thursday, April 12, 2007


It's strange that just yesterday I was reading a few horrifying chapters from Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe, and today we hear about the death of a man whose claim to fame rests on a novel that's based on the devastation of Dresden. Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, and finally Hiroshima, all dark chapters in the history of the twentieth century. But Lowe's book really reminded me why opposition to dropping the atomic bomb cannot be completely unequivocal, albeit for a heartbreaking reason.

Lowe's book details the destruction of Hamburg in July-August 1943, which was the most successful operation of the war for British Bomber Command. Hamburg, just like almost any other city, was engaged in some manufacturing of war material, and that pretext was enough for the Allies to cross the thin line between bombing military bases and bombing civilians, as it was enough for almost everybody else in the second world war.
Lowe devotes a full chapter to the unique and grotesque phenomenon that materialised in Hamburg on July 27, 1943, that was like nothing seen before. Technically, it was called a firestorm. On a personal level, it burnt memories in the minds of witnesses that are comparable to those evoked by any of the twentieth century's other excesses.

A firestorm begins when fires caused by bombing unite to form a giant conflagration. Both the bombing conditions have to be intense enough and the atmospheric conditions have to be right enough for a firestorm to start. Under warm, dry conditions, fires that are initiated by incendiary bombing burn bright and hot. They combine to form one giant inferno, which superheats the air on top and around it. The hot air rises, but with such fury because of the temperature, that the surrounding air at ground level is sucked into the center of the fire at speeds exceeding 100 kmph. In Hamburg on that day, the winds that the air gave rise to reached almost 150 kmph.

The testimonies of witnesses that Lowe narrates describe what can only be called hell on earth. The winds suck people around into the fire and raze their bodies to their bones in minutes. The wind, having no easy way to escape because of the buildings, forms mini hurricanes around corners that toss people around like paper dolls before they are swept into the conflagration. In addition, all the oxygen that is around fuels the firestorm, and people die gasping several dozens of meters away. The temperatures in the firestorm in Hamburg reached 800 degrees celsius. Researchers later estimated that this was more than in any fire in the history of the world, including the great fires of London and Chicago. On the ground, the concrete and glass melted, and witnesses recall people who were running get their shoes stuck in the molten material. When they desperately removed their shoes, they faced an even more gruesome situation, with their legs getting grounded in the hot tar, after which they actually started to burn upwards from the bottom; just like flies who fall into hot wax, as someone said. We don't really expect people to catch fire as quickly and easily as paper does, but that's what happened in Hamburg. People who were close to phosphorus bombs had melting phosphorus fall on their eyes and skin, which burnt incessantly and bored its way into bone and internal organs. As they blindly ran, they were hit by flying debris that was getting sucked into the fire. Others had their hair catch fire, and ran around madly as their face melted, before they finally gave a scream and flopped dead. Fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters and brothers and sisters saw their loved ones dying every imaginable horrible death in front of their eyes.

At the end of the nightmare, 45,000 people were dead. After the fires subsided, workers could not get into air-raid shelters to drag decomposing bodies out; the maggots were so thick that they slid on them.

The reason that my thoughts turn to the atomic bomb is this; while 45,000 people died in the most horrifying manner in Hamburg, millions were dying on the Eastern front. The Russo-German war was the single most horrible and devastating war in history, with Stalingrad topping the list of killing by numbers. The end left 20 million Russians dead, including 10 million civilians. Thousands of miles way, in the Pacific, equally horrific battles were being fought; Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal. Curtis "Iron Ass" Le May decided he could do better than the British, and in March 1945, burnt 100,000 men, women and children in a single night in Tokyo. And we don't even have to start recounting the fate of the millions who were being slaughtered in the Holocaust.

The main point in all this, is that by 1945, everyone had lost their morality. Everyone had sinned. Hitler may have been a monster, but on the ground, the British citizens in the Blitz and the German citizens in Hamurg and Dresden suffered equally. The estimate of one million soldiers that were going to die in the planned invasion of Japan in November 1945 may have been inflated, but no one can doubt that the toll would have been terrible, and would be yet another act of madness in a world gone half-mad. In Japan, twelve year old girls were being taught to fight with bamboo spears, and the Japanese had been programmed almost like zombies to kill or be killed. Under these circumstances, almost any end to the war would have been a pitifully welcome end.

That's why, I don't agree that dropping the atomic bomb was wrong for moral reasons. Or rather, I think it's a trivial point; sure, of course it was wrong for moral reasons. But was it any worse than the unparalleled killing that had gone on before? At least the people close to the epicenter in Hiroshima would have had an instant and painless death, unlike almost everyone who horribly suffered in Hamburg and Tokyo. On the other hand, atomic radiation caused scars that would proliferate through genes and generation. But again, is that really any more immoral than burning alive a hundred thousand people in one night by sustained bombing? In my opinion, once the Allies took the decision of bombing civilians in large numbers, the moral line was crossed and the decision to drop the atomic bomb was already taken.

The real reason why I think dropping the bomb was wrong, was because the Japanese would probably have surrended if they had been allowed to keep their Emperor, which was a very important symbolic necessity for them. This would have been easy, as the Emperor had virtually no practical powers, inspite of being treated like a God. But there was a big cultural divide between the Orient and American understanding. Even though there were officials who realised the mentality of the Japanese, Washington did not take cognizance of this desire. What bothers me, and this was not the first time it happened, was the constant tendency of the Allies to fail to empathize with their enemy.

And here we really get to the heart of the matter, which turns away from morality and back again to plain old politics. After fifty years, it is increasingly clear that Truman was too preoccupied with thoughts of the superiority that his country would have with this new weapon, and with preventing the Russians from entering Japan. The atomic bomb would serve as the ultimate diplomatic gambit. A million Russians had already amassed on the Manchurian border; Truman had already given them Berlin, and he was not about to lose Japan to the Reds too. The atomic bomb would ensure an instantaneous Japanese surrender, and the Americans could quickly move in before the Russians. Preemptive diplomacy, that's what the bomb really was. I don't mean to say that Truman cared nothing about the Japanese, or that his concerns about loss of American life in the invasion of Japan were unwarranted. But the real driving force was quickly ending the war, and stopping the Russians from taking over Japan.

It is a sobering fact that, not for the first time in history, the fate of hundreds of thousands was decided on a military and political basis. If anything about dropping the bomb strikes a raw nerve, it's that Truman did not exercise the patience that could have saved not just American lives but also all those in Hiroshima. As for the bomb, the Americans were superior to the Russians for many years, and the failure of almost every President after Truman to realise this ironically leveled the playing field. The dropping of the Nagasaki bomb was even more impulsive and premature, but again was done exactly for the same reasons.

Apart from this regret, Hiroshima was really another cauldron of brutality in a long line of cauldrons. Killing people by strategic bombing and killing people with atomic bombs, the principle is really the same. And that is one reason why, contrary to the hopes of those such as Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer, the atomic bomb has not ended war. Perhaps it provides an element of swift and horrific shock like nothing else, but conventional war and genocide and ammunition can still uproot and kill millions. China, Vietnman, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia all bear testimony to this. Atomic bombs can provide deterrence, but they cannot stop us from killing each other. In this respect, the atomic bomb and the Hamburg phosphorus bomb both fit into the same paradigm. The least we can do is hope that our old ages have not been completely futile in giving us wisdom.

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Anonymous Siddharth Rege said...

Well written, Ashutosh. I must say that was a very powerful and moving article.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks...somehow I knew that you would be the first person to comment, given our common interest in the subject!

2:01 PM  

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