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Commemorating the Bombing of Tokyo



Among images of the horrors of war the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima are gold standard. Each of these bombs caused many tens of thousands of casualties. Beside their destructive power the horror of other weapons seems to fall into insignificance.

Photo taken by Ishikawa Koyo March, 1945 (Wikimedia Commons)

In March, however, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Tokyo in which over 300 planes stacked with incendiary weapons followed each other at regular intervals for three hours and killed an estimated 100,000 people — as many as those killed by either of the nuclear weapons in Japan.

Crew members on the later bombers wore facemasks to deal with the smoke from burning flesh. So large a number of people died because the bombing targeted a very highly populated mainly residential section of Tokyo in which low income workers and their families lived in flimsy and flammable houses highly vulnerable to firestorms. It was technically a very successful operation, causing many deaths, many casualities and massive homelessness, with the loss of only a few planes.

As we reflect on the bombing today it is hard not to be overwhelmed by sadness at the wound to our common humanity laid bare by the bombing. That so much human planning, such ingeniousness in the making and deploying of weapons, such careful calculation of the effect of napalm and phosphorous on wood, paper and human flesh, and such relentlessness in the starting, feeding and renewing of fires, should be expended in the destruction of people as a demonstration of the power to kill, and so to inspire the enemy to surrender, might make us ask what kind of human beings could devise such things.

In contrast to the muted criticism later of the use of the nuclear bombs, there was little critical response at the time of the Tokyo bombing. That silence invites reflection because those who justified the bombing appealed in such crude terms to the end that justifies the means. The claim could not have survived any full description of the means used in the bombing. The real principle at work was that in war anything is justifiable, or perhaps more precisely that anything done by our side is morally acceptable.

So many of the population and of those responsible for prosecuting the war implicitly accepted this principle that potential critics either questioned their own misgivings or thought it more prudent not to voice them. Public acceptance made it more difficult to contemplate the horror of war embodied in the death of so many people in fire, and the pain and grief of those who survived. Moral questioning soon withdrew into more comfortable abstraction and into forgetfulness.


'But the human challenge is never simply to win the war. It is to build a better and more peaceful society.'


Forgetting, however, has its costs. To accept that the bombing of Tokyo was morally legitimate endorsed the belief that all human challenges can be resolved by overwhelming power supported by high technology. That may be true of war in the limited sense that stronger forces armed with more powerful weapons can destroy opposing armies. But the human challenge is never simply to win the war. It is to build a better and more peaceful society.

Good societies are built on a respect for each human being that forbids reducing their life and death to means to an end outside them. To forget the horror of the bombing of Tokyo risks undermining respect and enshrining the principle that the solution to all human problems lies in power and technology. Certainly the conviction that airpower and bombs would make a better world persisted in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, surviving each new proof of its folly.

In Australia ideas that have rusted with use elsewhere often seem bright and shiny. The appeal to power supported by the latest technology is evident in Australian immigration and penal policy. The costs to society of the disrespect for persons built into these policies is also evident.

Even more striking, however, has been the response to the bushfires and to the effects of climate change. The growing evidence gathered by scientists shows that this threat to our future has arisen out of human disrespect for the complex relationships that compose the natural and human world, and the consequent employment of new and more powerful technologies to exploit natural resources.

The dominant response, however, is to strengthen the powers of government and its agencies and to rely on more advanced technologies to deal with fires. The disrespect for the world and for human beings on which this response rests will certainly undermine its effectiveness. The unrelenting flight of bombers bringing death and devastation to Tokyo remind us of the destructive force of a marriage between power and technology that is not blessed by wisdom.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Photo taken by Ishikawa Koyo March, 1945 (Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Japan, Tokyo bombing



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Existing comments

The point about 100,000 people perishing in Tokyo is important to remember. But the reality of terror bombing under Curtis LeMay using napalm and white phosphorous includedup to 100 large cities and civilian centres. Lena learnt his trade from the British, who for example, fire bombed Dresden with 25,000 refugees fleeing the Russians. The compounding enduring effect of nuclear radiation is a quantum leap on a much more fundamental problem : the ability of human beings to dehumanise other human beings to the point of annihilation. This reality is not limited to Nuclear or even terror bombing targets.

Peter Griffin | 13 March 2020  

Andrew, I'm almost too moved and lost for words to contemplate posting a comment. But I must at least try: at any rate to thank you for this wonderful piece. You've somehow gathered all our human horrors and griefs into a nutshell––then added hope. And you write like an angel.

Frances Letters | 13 March 2020  

Earlier this week I was reading in 'Why People Matter' that Robert McNamara was a strategist for that bombing. When asked in 'The Fog of War' he said 'Well, I as part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it." Amy Laura Hall relates his action to C S Lewis' 'The Inner Ring', where 'an inner circle ... may have just been the poison to control and dehumanise whiz kid like McNamara.' We need to guard against an arrogance that our tribe has more value and rights than other people. Challenging to do in today's world.

Stephen Nicholson | 13 March 2020  

The unanswered question has to be, "When does a war fought in defence against an acquisitive, immoral aggressor become unjust or immoral?" It would seem that Sodom fared a darned sight worse than Tokyo!

john frawley | 13 March 2020  

Fr Andrew, the firebombing of Tokyo and the subsequent nuclear attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from a military perspective were designed to end the war and to demonstrate to Russia that the USA had weapons so powerful that Russia should free Poland. McNamara (foreign Secretary under Kennedy and Johnson) made the point that had Japan won, it would have been the USA Generals up on war crimes charges. Agreed, the bombing of civilians cannot be justified, yet it didnt stop the Nazis bombing London, Coventry and towns all over UK. Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, the Philipines, Malaysia, Singapore, PNG, Pearl Harbour, Darwin and more were very fresh in the minds of the Commanders. "Lesson 5: Proportionality should be a guideline in war. McNamara talks about the proportions of cities destroyed in Japan by the US. McNamara compares destroyed cities of Japan to cities in the US before the dropping of the nuclear bomb. Tokyo, roughly the size of New York City, was 51% destroyed; Toyama, the size of Chattanooga, 99% destroyed; Nagoya, the size of Los Angeles, 40% destroyed; Osaka, the size of Chicago, 35% destroyed. Then, McNamara compares the proportionality of the war on Japan to being immoral."

Francis Armstrong | 14 March 2020  

Wonderful and very moving Andrew, Post World War II history is littered with so many similar horrific events that we have become immune to their impact. As a climatologist who has observed through the wonderful technology now available to me, the march of human induced climate change over the last two centuries, particularly in the last 30 years. I have read countless reports by thousands of reputable scientists, warning us of unimaginable consequences if we fail to act. At times I am lead to wonder; "just when will we get it? What is the trigger point? The response by various Governments to the Corinia Virus Pandemic illustrates the variety of human responses to potential threat; from denial to outright control, to absolute panic , such as we are witnessing at present .Sadly history has failed to educate us to the perils we face.

Gavin O'Brien | 14 March 2020  

“But the human challenge is never simply to win the war. It is to build a better and more peaceful society.“ And that was accomplished with superb grace in defeat by the vanquished of Japan and Germany who have moved on from the War, without giving in to the fashionable but ultimately fatal collectivism of the times, to great civilian heights. An anniversary poses a temptation to stigmatise one side. What it really is is an invitation to understand in whole why an event occurred in history and how those understandings should influence our present will to shape the future. It might be noted, perhaps thanks to the convenient bogey of international communism, that if Japan and Germany once felt their safety required possession of a co-prosperity sphere, their subsequent swaddling and coddling by an American victor devoid of vengeance has rendered them lamblike.

roy chen yee | 15 March 2020  

It would be very hard for you, Andy, as a long term Jesuit priest, not to have looked into the Heart of Darkness, that seemingly almost unquenchable Evil faced by both individuals and societies at various crucial times. Gavin O'Brien is right: we are in the process of turning the Earth into the Black Land of Mordor. Whither humanity? I believe there is what the Society of Friends call 'something of God' within every human being. At every crisis point facing humanity something has been sent by God to save it. I think that is so now. How to find and access this 'something' is the crucial issue. I am not in the business of preaching and I think every individual has to find his or her way themselves. This is not a primarily intellectual thing as in a Philosophy tutorial and it is also not a matter of perfunctory religious observance. It is about launching out into deep water. It is a voyage from where you are to where you should be. Ignatius of Loyola started out as a soldier but did not end as one. Perhaps that's a clue. May we all find appropriate help.

Edward Fido | 17 March 2020  

This, in a way, is selective moralising. All war is horrible. All actions are evil. I've listened to accounts by men of killing up close in Vietnam. Of watching the face of the enemy. Just one death is horror. I listened with horror as a child to men describing the burying of the truckloads of people killed in Darwin. To descriptions of mass killings. How the man I was named after was killed [drowned, locked in the hold of a ship.] I read the book on the attrocities at Ambon - two days of ritualised beheadings of hundreds of Australian boys - sons were beheaded in front of their fathers. I've read accounts of the attack on Nanking. Walked through Hiroshima, imagining the horror. Very easy to imagine, especially with the way the Japanese have presented the truth. I don't believe anyone who fought in a war truly thought it was about building a better world. It was just to defeat the enemy. All war is evil. I accept that the invasion of Japan would have resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. Perhaps we'd be writing about that as the epitomy of horror right now. My amazement is that we accept war so readily. So quickly. I think, Andrew, you help me to think of that point. Why we accept it as a rational action. Little real scrutiny of the decision to commit this horror. Afghanistan the latest. And look what we watch on the ABC Four Corners program? "Shall I drop this c---"? Horror.

John Kilner | 24 March 2020  

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