On the news of the death of Claude Robert Eatherly, with apologies to T.S. Eliot.
“Advise: Bomb Primary”
A million burning people screamed in his brain,
Their eyeballs bubbling, their faces flowing,
Nameless shadows etched in concrete.
The man who fingered Hiroshima
Began dying that day, and each bomb dropped
Struck another mortal blow
Until he returned, no longer at ease,
Robbing the Post Office not for money but his life,
Screaming in the night for the radioactive dead.
But atomic cancer took his voice then
Slowly, slowly sent him to join
The people for whom he had wept.
— Yip in July, 1978
When we speak of the sacrifices veterans make in the fulfilment of their duties, until recently it was usually in reference to the visibly physical: death, dismemberment. Since the Vietnam war, it’s become apparent that the experience of war, including simply be a witness to it, can have crippling consequences. Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other subtle psychological poisoning can be every bit as consequential as any physical wound. How vulnerable military personnel are to things like PTSD depends in part on the degree to which the individual feels the experience was justified, was necessary.
People who need to justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will find it easy to be cynical about Major Eatherly‘s post-military conversion to anti-nuclear weapons politics. They may be right in their cynicism for all that I know. Motives are such slippery things! But my humble opinion is that whether sincere or feigned, Major Eatherly was also right in his opposition. Furthermore, it is long past time that us civilians need to start taking responsibility for what we are asking military personnel to do on our behalf.
Were the bombings necessary or justified? This is an old question that is vehemently argued, to the point that the National Air and Space Museum found it easier to display the Enola Gay (the aircraft that atom bombed Hiroshima) without any discussion of the historical context. My armchair general opinion is that if you assume that an invasion of the Japanese home islands was necessary then it’s a moral toss-up. But Japan had already lost the war, getting their leadership to admit it was the issue. It’s possible that a brief blockade could have done the trick as well.
That leaves politics as the deciding factor, and there I’m inclined to agree with those who argue that this was an act intended to nail down the Pacific edge of an American empire, and was aimed as much at the Soviet Union (a country with imperial ambitions as well) as at Japan. That said, the effects of the bombings were so spectacularly horrendous that they may have helped keep the subsequent Cold War as cool as it ended up being. We’ll never know.