One of my high school history classes was taught by a coach. I’ll never forget it.

While a coach is certainly capable of teaching history, for him it seemed that his only desire was to get through the drudgery so he could get back to coaching his team. Like a lot of teenage boys, at the time I found World War II utterly fascinating and had high hopes for discussing the topic in class. Sadly, even with support materials, the coach knew little about the topic. The official date of the beginning of the war (September 1, 1939)? Nope. The date of the Pearl Harbor attack (December 7, 1941)? Nope. You can imagine the depth of knowledge imparted to us kids.

Yet despite the lack of teaching of history, there was the perfunctory discussion about the morality of America’s dropping of the atomic bomb. Why bother? When students are not taught some of the finer details of the build-up to the war, the war itself, or the cultures of the different countries and how they shaped the fighting, how are they to have an informed discussion about the morality of America’s choice to drop the bomb?

Truly, any discussion on a topic is pointless when made in a vacuum of knowledge. And yet high schools across America have students do it all the time. Emotion generally wins the day – not unlike much of American political discourse these days.

The reality is that while the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb was horrifying, it actually pales in comparison to the devastation caused by the preceding fire-bombings of Tokyo and other Japanese cities.

The central issue to questions of morality regarding both the atomic bomb and fire-bombings of cities, of course, is whether or not civilians play a key role in a ‘total war’. To a finer point, when an entire society is mobilized for war, such as was Japan, who is making the war possible through production of weapons and materials? What’s the line between combatant and non-combatant?

By the time America was capable of a sustained bombing effort against the Japanese homeland we had experienced the incredible and horrifying dedication of the Japanese soldier to die for his Emperor and his country. So, too, was seen the often savage behavior of Japanese soldiers towards conquered peoples and prisoners of war.

Edward Jablonski wrote the following about the differences between the Americans and the Japanese in Airwar Vol.2:

A wide cultural gap separated the American and Japanese soldier. They killed each other but they did not understand one another; they shared neither the orthodox conventions of war nor certain values, emotions, and ways of thinking. The concept of surrender was alien to the Japanese; he fought until he died or, if he was not killed, charged screaming at his enemy in a suicidal, pointless evasion of surrender. When captured Allied soldiers asked that their families be notified of their imprisonment – and comparative safety – the Japanese were appalled. Why did these soldiers wish their families to know about their disgrace?

The Japanese did not surrender (especially in the early months of the war), because it was shameful and he could no longer, because of his shame, regard himself as Japanese. He also believed that the American enemy tortured and killed his prisoners – a powerful rumor was that at Guadalcanal all prisoners were disposed of by driving tanks over them. This explains why so few Japanese were taken prisoner (another was that they frequently made themselves walking booby traps and killed themselves and their captors) and why they treated prisoners so badly. Once ‘face’ was lost, the prisoner was not fit for human treatment.

The Japanese were inculcated from birth with a number of basic beliefs: that things of the spirit were superior to material things, ‘to match our training against their numbers and our flesh against their steel.’ That Japan did not have the material resources of the United States meant nothing; Japanese spirit and discipline would win in the end. Their training manuals invariably opened with the formula: ‘Read this and the war is won.”

How the Japanese attitude played out was well-known by the time America began bombing Japan’s cities. The kamikaze suicide attack was officially unleashed during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. During the Battle of Iwo Jima (1945) the Japanese lost an estimated 21,000 soldiers, while only 200 were taken prisoner – a ratio of deaths-to-surrenders that had been seen many times before. And as the Japanese leadership realized that an American invasion of the Japanese home islands was imminent, preparations were commenced to arm every able-bodied man, woman, and child with weapons, even if only bamboo spears, to meet the Americans on the beaches.

Operation Olympic was the code name for the planned American invasion of the Japanese homeland. But how bloody would such a conquest be? And how long would it take?

Ruth Benedict, a cultural sociologist tasked with studying the Japanese people and culture in order to help the U.S. military determine the best strategies for ending the war, noted in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword just how long both Americans and the Japanese expected the war to last.

In June, 1944, I was assigned to the study of Japan … During that early summer our great offensive against Japan had just begun to show itself in its true magnitude. People in the United States were still saying that the war with Japan would last three years, perhaps ten years, more. In Japan they talked of its lasting one hundred years. Americans, they said, had had local victories, but New Guinea and the Solomons were thousands of miles away from their home islands. Their official communiques had hardly admitted naval defeats and the Japanese people still regarded themselves as victors.

Initially, when the Americans did begin bombing Japan, they used the same tactics as they had in Europe: High-altitude, high-explosive, precision bombings against factories and military targets. Unfortunately, a number of issues made such efforts far more difficult against the Japanese than the Germans. For one, many of the Japanese factories were snuggled into neighborhoods or were actually smaller and home-based, making it difficult to discern which targets were supporting the war effort directly and which were not. Additionally, high-altitude winds made precision bombings difficult. There were other issues, but those two figured quite prominently in the change of tactics.

Knowing the wooden construction of most Japanese buildings, too, Gen. Curtis LeMay decided to completely change the bombing strategy to,

…a medium-level, nighttime maximum effort with incendiary bombs and without guns. After months of frustrating, inconclusive strikes, maybe this kind of tactic was the solution. Perhaps; if not, LeMay would have to be the goat. It was, ultimately, his idea, his responsibility, and – for all he knew – his funeral. And if it went wrong, if he was wrong, it would be the funeral flight of a lot of young airmen. If it went right, it also meant the funeral of a great number of Japanese – soldiers, civilians, women, and children. It was not an easy decision to make.

In the early morning of March 10, 1945, as he waited for the report of Bombs Away from Power, leading the mission, LeMay revealed, in what must have seemed an unusually long utterance for him, the real meaning of his decision. ‘If this raid works the way I think it will,’ he said, ‘we can shorten this war.”

The shift in bombing tactics was tested first on Tokyo. The results were devastating. One-fourth of all of the buildings in the city were destroyed, twenty-two industrial targets marked for pin-point attacks had been smashed, there were nearly 85,000 official dead, and over 1,000,000 were homeless.

Despite the destruction, the Japanese leadership continued to call for a fight to the bitter end. There would be no surrender for the Japanese people. To that end, on July 21, 1945 the American Fifth Air Force Intelligence issued the following statement:

There are no civilians in Japan. We are making War and making it in the all-out fashion which saves American lives, shortens the agony which War is and seeks to bring about an enduring Peace. We intend to seek out and destroy the enemy wherever he or she is, in the greatest possible numbers, in the shortest possible time.

So weak was the Japanese air force at this late-stage of the war, that LeMay began to drop leaflets on cities that were scheduled for attacking, urging the population to flee. Here’s an example of the kind of messaging the Americans were delivering to the Japanese people:


These leaflets are being dropped to notify you that your city has been listed for destruction by our powerful air force. The bombing will occur within 72 hours. This advance notice will give your military authorities ample time to take necessary defensive measure to protect you from our inevitable attack. Watch and see how powerless they are to protect you.

We give the military clique this notification of our plans because we know there is nothing they can do to stop our overwhelming power and our iron determination. We want you to see how powerless the military is to protect you. Systematic destruction of city after city will continue as long as you blindly follow your military leaders, whose blunders have placed you on the very brink of oblivion. It is your responsibility to overthrow the military government now and save what is left of your beautiful country.

Here’s what the leaflets looked like: 

After many such fire-bombings that proved the impotence of the Japanese air force at this stage of the war, on July 26, 1945 the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration, which demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan or face “prompt and utter destruction”. The Japanese refused.

It was only after dropping two atomic bombs, the first on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the second on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, that the Japanese finally surrendered, making a military invasion of the home islands unnecessary.

Yet even after the two atomic bombs and the surrender, there were many in the military who were still calling for the war to be continued, for the Japanese to fight to the death. In fact, even after the Emperor made the surrender official (though not signed), Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki, who commanded the kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Okinawa, went rogue and personally lead one last attack that disappeared into the Pacific, never finding its intended targets. Such was the fanaticism of many Japanese during World War II.

Most high schools students – even Americans for that matter – probably don’t know much of that other than there was a war with the Japanese, we dropped the bomb, and we won. But they’re expected to have an in-depth discussion on an act that the world has only seen once before during the world’s first, true world war. The questions of morality during such a global struggle arguably challenge even the most seasoned philosopher.

While I am deeply troubled by the idea of obliterating men, women, and children in the blink of an eye, frankly, I can see how America went to great lengths to win a war it didn’t start with the least amount of bloodshed possible and how the leadership of the time believed they made the most morally upright decision. I pray I would never have to make such decisions. As Edward Jablonski concludes in his Airwar: ‘Man, have pity on man’.