Monday, August 6, 2012

Another Day That Should Live In Infamy

But Won't......Justifying Nuclear Holocaust.

I stumbled across this blogpost over on the Secret Asian Man blog from last year discussing the perennially topical issue that arises around the beginning of every December on the various justifications for America's use of the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of the Pacific War. As the cartoon strip suggests there is some sentiment that Japan deserved the bomb because of their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor whilst many others credit the use of the bomb as necessary to end the war quickly and painlessly and cite ending Japan's aggression and war crimes as providing a solid moral justification for the bombs. Underscoring most discussions on the subject is an understanding, implied or explicit, that Japan committed an immoral act when it carried out the attack, and that the use of the A-bomb on this day sixty-seven years ago was justified both militarily and morally.

The whole episode of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor has become an event that is etched into the identity of American culture. The bravery and resolve exhibited by the US and its armed forces during the war has come to symbolically represent the character and identity of the American nation and its people, that is, the defenders of freedom and upholders of moral justice. As countless movies, books, and historical commentaries suggest, the war in the Pacific is seen by America as a morally righteous war of liberation against a violent aggressor whose goal was to subjugate the peoples of Asia. Although the US has always had this sense of itself as the bastion of freedom and moral vigor, the Second World War cemented this notion within the identity of America and its culture.

Thus, by definition, the accepted historical accounts remind us that the Pacific war was fought in the name of freedom and liberty, and that using the atomic bombs, by implication, can be justified on these grounds. To my mind, this account ranks as one of the most epic historical frauds ever perpetrated, yet, remarkably, it is accepted uncritically by Western and, even worse, by Asian commentators alike. For mainstream America, this is understandable - the account is a significant reinforcement of American identity, but for Asian-Americans this historical account and its uncritical acceptance (of this and other dubious historical claims) is fundamental to understanding why (despite having such significant intellectual potential) Asian-America up to now, has largely failed to develop a potent cultural voice that is autonomous, original, oppositional, and unique to its own experience. At the same time, if this historical account is false (as I believe it is) then the moral basis justifying the use of the atom bombs fails.

The first thing to remember is that the war in the Pacific was not fought by the allies to liberate Asia, nor was it fought to allow democracy and political freedom to flourish. In fact, this idea is absurd because, with few exceptions, almost every nation in Asia was subjugated by the imperial powers of Europe, America and Japan. Liberty in Asia prior to WWII was a concept that threatened the colonial privilege and thus, any attempts to gain liberty was brutally suppressed by colonial armies. According to the accepted narrative, Japan invaded their Asian neighbours, defeating the armies of Europe and America who were "defending" these nations against tyranny, but the reality is that these armies of Europe and America were occupying forces whose job it was to suppress freedom movements of Asia's native peoples. History focuses on the terrible atrocities these western troops experienced in Japan's concentration camps, whilst ignoring the probability that  some or many of these troops had themselves participated in brutal suppression of native people both prior to and after the war.

The war in Asia was fought by competing colonial powers to assert (in Japan's case) or re-assert (in the West's case) imperial rule over people who were already subjugated. This is an objective fact. The post-war actions of several of these imperial powers is a testament to this fact. After Japan's surrender, with America's financial and military backing, France, Britain, and the Netherlands, all returned to their former Asian colonies and began a war against the native peoples living there - committing atrocities in the process. To add insult to injury, these powers re-armed the Japanese troops who had recently surrendered in order to help them police and suppress independence movements in Indonesia and Indo-China. France even tried to overturn a wartime agreement that they had made with China in the hope of regaining their Chinese territories that they had lost in the war. More Asians in South-East Asia were killed struggling for their independence against their western "liberators" post-war than were killed in the Pacific war itself. That certainly doesn't sound like these nations were fighting the Japanese for my freedom or that of my ancestors.In this light, all moral arguments justifying the use of the atom bomb fail because at the end of the day, both Japan and the western allies were ultimately fighting over who would have the right to deny liberty to Asia.

So, winning the war against Japan simply meant that the US and Europe had one less imperial competitor for land and resources in Asia. What this means is that the atomic bombs simply enabled France, Britain, and the Netherlands to attempt to re-assert their suppression of Asian peoples and allowed them to kill millions of Asians in the process. The use of atomic bombs against Japan can only be morally defended if one does backflips to change history to suit one's narrative needs. Because all sides in the Pacific War were fighting to maintain an imperial system that suppressed Asian freedoms - by brutal means if needed - then no participants have the moral upper hand. Because the war in the Pacific was fought not to free but further subjugate Asian people, the moral premise for using the atomic bombs has no foundation. This shows the absurdity of trying to defend America's use of atom bombs on moral grounds.

The use of the bombs did not end any wars in Asia, but served as the impetus for the West's colonial powers to start more wars against Asian people. It is convenient to re-create history as a way to support the moral argument in favour of the bombs, but the cold hard fact is that America's nuclear prowess was the umbrella under which the old imperial powers of Europe were empowered to wage war against Asia. The war in Asia did not end with the defeat of Japan but continued for decades afterwards as Asian countries fought to win their independence.


  1. A very well-thought-out rebuttal of the dominant narrative. Really if people were more wary about the intentions of global powers, they'd be less susceptible to unrealistic ideas of 'good vs evil' that arises naturally from narrative bias.

    I think the whole justification of the use of the atom bomb is just an exercise in easing guilt from the intentional killing of civilians. Ultimately, the US has to portray itself as a paragon of freedom and liberation in order to justify the bombings.

    1. There is also the red herring element in the narrative - focusing on Pearl harbor and fixing the dialog on the atom bombs leaves no room to recognize that the true nature of the war was one of colonial powers fighting each other to maintain their own oppressive control over Asia.

      If you are taught to think of the Pacific war as a defence against Japanese aggression then people soon stop asking the question "why were there millions of western soldiers in Asia in the first place?". But that is the most important question if we want to have an accurate context of history.

    2. but you neglect Imperial Japan's colonialism in Asia.

    3. defaultuser

      Welcome and thanks for your comment. I don't think i have neglected Japan's colonialism in Asia. But feel free to expand on your comment.