‘Military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. . . . The target is a purely military one.”

So wrote U.S. President Harry S Truman in his diary on July 25, 1945, of the atomic bomb that the United States was to drop on Hiroshima less than two weeks later. An estimated 140,000 people in Hiroshima were dead by the end of that year as a direct result of the bomb having been dropped on that “purely military target.”

William Downey, chaplain for the 509th Composite Group of the U.S. Army Air Force, blessed the group in this way: “Killing is the name of the game; those who do not accept that have to be prepared to accept the alternative — defeat.” The Enola Gay, the plane that, on Aug. 6, carried the bomb to Hiroshima, was in Bomber Group 509. (The plane was named by the pilot, Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., for his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets.)

The war in the Pacific (and with it, World War II) ended on Aug. 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced, at noon on that day — in what has to be one of the greatest understatements in the history of the world — that “the war has not progressed entirely as we would have wished.” The Japanese government accepted the unconditional surrender demanded by the Allies.

We don’t need anniversaries of the end of wars, such as that in two days’ time, to visit true horror. Thanks to the occupation of Iraq by a few Western powers, and the incursions into Lebanon by the armed forces of Israel, we can witness on television, radio and the Internet the myriad tragedies being inflicted right now on innocent people caught in conflict. No, this is not an article about blame, which is invariably shared, if not equally, on all sides of the battleline.

The current comparison of the Middle East with the war in the Pacific, particularly in its final months, brings to light the essential lesson for us today: It is the adoption of implacable positions by governments that leave killing as the only “name of the game.”

Dethronement of the Emperor

Japan’s last wartime foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, was urging capitulation on his colleagues prior to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and there is reason to believe that the Emperor himself may have been in favor of this.

The Americans, having broken Japan’s code, were well aware of the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the war. There was a single obstacle, however. With the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945, the Allies set the requirement of unconditional surrender, which meant to the Japanese the acceptance of the intolerable: the probability of the dethronement of the Emperor. The Emperor was not just the symbol of the Japanese state. He was the Japanese state itself. Had the Emperor’s postwar dethronement been excluded, it is highly likely that the Japanese government would have promptly sued for peace.

Ironically, after the war the restitution of the prestige of the Emperor became a mainstay of Allied Occupation policy. Had this been recognized as a necessity before the use of the atomic bombs, the horrendous loss of innocent life in Hiroshima and three days later in Nagasaki could have been avoided and the U.S. would not bear the stigma, as it does today, of being the only nation to have used the world’s worst weapon of mass destruction.

Hearing of Hiroshima, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

U.S. Chief of Staff Adm. William Leahy later remarked, “It was my reaction that the scientists and others wanted [to do this] because of the vast sums spent on the project. [The atom bombs were] of no material assistance in our war against Japan.”

The circumstances of today’s conflicts are, of course, not the same, and few would suggest that the U.S. or Israel is about to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East. But precedents speak loudly despite the details of circumstance. The essential impediment to a negotiated settlement in the Middle East is absolutely the same as it was in the war in the Pacific: the unwillingness of the technologically superior forces — in this case, those of the U.S. and Israel — to compromise. Convinced entirely of their own moral superiority, these two countries will not face their potential enemies, Syria and Iran, across the negotiating table. They are demanding what is tantamount to unconditional surrender and, it seems, will stop at virtually nothing to achieve it. (U.S. President George W. Bush has staked his regime on the ideology of implacability and seems incapable of freeing himself of it.)

Euphemism for brutality

Governments on all sides tend to couch the will of their nation in terms of black and white, invoking God’s name in their defense. Belt buckles of German soldiers were manufactured with the message, “God with us” inscribed on them. Japanese propaganda during the war constantly emphasized the moral superiority of the Japanese nation. The Japanese were particularly eager for other Asian peoples to be convinced of this. “The secret of Nipponese success ever since the outbreak of the war in East Asia,” reported the Syonan Times, occupied Singapore’s leading daily, on Feb. 22, 1942, “is the spiritual strength of the Nipponese people.” In actuality, this “spiritual strength” was merely a euphemism for brutality in the enforcement of the principle of hakkoichiu, or, “bringing the eight corners of the world under one roof.”

In those days that “one roof” was defined by a militaristic Japanese government; today it has been co-opted by a similarly inclined U.S. government, determined to assert its own brand of “spiritual strength” in the eight corners of the world.

As this week we revisit the catastrophes of WWII, this is what we must bear in mind. Chaplain William Downey, the man who blessed Bomber Group 509 as it prepared to set out on its mission of unspeakable destruction, was only half right. Killing is the name of the game. But the second half of his blessing, “Those who don’t accept that have to be prepared to accept the alternative — defeat,” is wrong. The alternative of swallowing your self-styled moral pride and sitting down to talk with your adversaries always exists. This alternative is the true blessing.

If this alternative existed in the final months, weeks and days before nuclear weapons murdered more than 200,000 innocent people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when even an ultra-fanatic Japanese government was willing to compromise, then surely it exists now in Washington, Tel Aviv, Damascus and Tehran. Disaster can be avoided. This must be believed even in the darkest of times.

What is the acceptable alternative to talking to each other? There is none. Politicians may believe, like Truman, that innocent people are not in the crosshairs of destruction, but they always are. “The target is a purely military one” is an excuse for murder today as surely as it was on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945.

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