In Defense of Monday-Morning Quarterbacks

There has recently been something of a to-do within the Catholic blogosphere involving the early August anniversaries of the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of the Second World War. Some commentators have called to mind the 65th anniversary of the bombings to celebrate the Allied victory over the barbarous and murderous practices of wartime Imperial Japan. Others, rather, have recalled the events of August 1945 to remind Catholics of the Church’s teaching that it is never morally legitimate to deliberately target non-combatants in war, no matter what the intended outcome may be — and they thus conclude that the atomic bombings were immoral and unjustified. Critics have responded to these latter commentators, offering varying arguments to justify the bombings, arguments involving retaliation, consequentialism, and the principle of double-effect, among other lines of thought, all attempting to contextualize and even excuse the admittedly tragic results of the atomic bombs.

It is not my intent to question or discuss the morality of the bombings themselves in this essay, one way or the other; rather, I wish to address one particular critique leveled at those who have recalled to our minds the bombings and the question of their morality.  Some critics have argued that to look back and offer a negative evaluation of the decisions made during those bloody years of war is to hypocritically and unfairly judge by the light of modern knowledge those who made harrowing decisions in more dire and pressured conditions. These critics allege that to call up these past events for modern scrutiny is a smug attempt at “Monday-morning quarterbacking”, cheeky criticism pushed by those unqualified by the simple fact that they weren’t there.

These critics do have a point. There is a certain potential unfairness in judgment by hindsight. Those who made these historical calls did so out of various motives and in a time when the outcome was uncertain. Who are we to critique those who stood in harm’s way and did what they thought best, knowingly gambling and unsure of the future? Who are we, sitting in armchairs and only worried about spilling our martinis, to judge those decision-makers who sat in dirty camp-chairs under shell-fire, worried about the lives of the thousands, if not millions, who would be affected by their decisions? How can we look back and presume to analyze their calls?

Yet there is something else the critics forget: the harshest of all Monday-morning critics is the quarterback who actually played on Sunday. Every player worth his uniform spends the week between games reviewing the previous game’s plays in detail. Every coach, in fact, questions his quarterback’s calls, even though he wasn’t the one holding the football. Every surgeon is reviewed by a medical team that questions his judgments, though they weren’t holding the scalpel. Every classroom teacher is critiqued by his principal, even though he wasn’t standing in the front of the roomful of rowdy children. Hindsight and review are part of life, and especially part of improving performance. Who better, then, to review and critique questions of grave morality than the thinkers of the Church?

True, modern thinkers aren’t staring down the threat of Japanese invasion. True, they did not see their best friends killed by Japanese bombs and guns. Yet their distance may be a necessary corrective to the admittedly emotional and difficult impulses of those most intimately involved. Decisions of grave morality are almost always made under pressure and emotion. It is all the more reasons, then, that the principles by which we will make moral decisions should be evaluated under less pressured conditions. We would not, for example, put our trust in a surgeon who stated that he would not dare to evaluate another surgeon’s mistakes simply because he “was not there.” The next time he operates he may himself face the same challenge. We would prefer that he reviewed past examples and determined his own solution before he faces the challenge, not in the midst of it. We would prefer our team’s quarterback consider his mistakes in past games and determine his response to the defense before the game, not in the midst of avoiding getting sacked. We would likewise prefer our moral teachers and thinkers to question past examples and determine future responses before those responses must be made in a split-second, emotionally pressured moment of decision.

Indeed, the magnitude of the controversy is itself evidence that it needs to be discussed. Were the faithful Catholic community agreed, we could perhaps put the question aside as settled, confident that the faithful knew the right principles to implement if they encountered similar future situations. The fact, however, that faithful Catholics who are otherwise in agreement do in fact dispute over such a momentous question as the atomic bombings of Japan is proof that the principles involved need to be vigorously discussed, and not set aside as mere history.

To be sure, the Monday-morning quarterback has some definite obstacles to watch out for. He must be humble, remembering that final judgment is not his to make. The ultimate fate of the men he evaluates, and the subjective moral status of their decisions, fall only into the hands of God. The commentator’s motive, too, must be subjected to close scrutiny. Does he critique past decisions in order to place himself on a higher moral pedestal? Does he thank God, like the vain publican of the Gospel, that he is not a sinner like those men of the past? If so his critique should be halted and left to the more objective and the more just.

If, on the other hand, he offers his critique honestly and fairly, in order to truly evaluate history or to demonstrate a Catholic moral principle, his after-the-fact analysis is to be welcomed. We will undoubtedly face similar difficult situations in the future. It is best to ask ourselves now, before the pressures are upon us, what the moral principles to which we will commit ourselves are. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took the lives of hundreds of thousands of noncombatants. These events may have happened over half a century ago, but they are nevertheless landmark events in the course of human history. As Catholics we have an interest, and even an obligation, to look at events of such magnitude and ask ourselves the tough moral questions — not only to understand the past, but to prepare for our own challenging future.

Michael Baruzzini

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Michael Baruzzini is a writer on Catholic and science issues, and his writing may be found online at www.deepsoftime.com. He lives with his wife and children in Virginia."

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  • waynergf

    Sorry, Mr. Baruzzini, but your bias slipped through – revealed by the repeated use of the word “mistake.”

    Had the atomic bombs not been used, *millions* (not thousands) would have died during the invasion of Japan – most of whom would have been “noncombatants.” Even after the second bomb was dropped, the ruling military junta was split 3-3 in its vote on whether to surrender. Even after after Hirohito broke the tie by deciding to surrender, some in the military tried to sieze control of the government to continue the war – they were bent on total annihilation of the Japanese people rather than the “dishonor” of surrender.

    History, and repeated detailed examinations and critiques, have shown that the right decision was made…justified and moral – even under the “emotionally pressured moment of decision.”

    Perhaps you should turn your attention to the lessons that may be learned by the examination, in the light of the Church’s teachings, of the the Rape of Nanking…the use of “comfort women” by the Japanese…the Bataan Death March…the slaughter by the retreating Japanese in the Phillipines…fertile ground there.

  • Andy0

    Sir, your article argues that it would have been better for Japan to continue with their merciless and savage raping, pillaging, murdering toward world domination. Do you know how many priests, religious and civilians were murdered at the hands of the Japanese. In China alone they murdered hundreds of thousands. You sir are ignorant of history and wish to distort the facts as they were available at the time. I do not ever condone the taking of innocent life but if it is for the glory of God to give my life innocently, I can accept that. Pray for the souls of those who perished during that evil time, and also pray for those who made the fateful decision to use the ultimate weapon of the day for the ultimate peace. Look at Japan and Germany today they are examples of having to kill evil in order to be rid of evil.

  • wgsullivan

    Do we review all the surgeries done 65 years ago in the same light of today? No. Neither can we review WW II decisions 65 years ago in the same light.
    There is some question as to the validity of using the atom bomb but today’s knowledge, 65 years later, is vastly different and is not apples to apples.

  • http://deepsoftime.wordpress.com Michael Baruzzini

    Gentlemen, thank you for your comments. The whole point of this article is that the question is still well worth discussing, so I appreciate you offering your thoughts.

    waynergf:

    I make no attempt to hide my “bias”, I only attempt to make sure that “bias” is based solidly on Church teaching, which holds that non-combatants may never for any reason be targeted. Any Catholic argument which justifies the bombings must begin solidly and squarely with the principles of Catholic moral theology. If such an argument can be made, I say it is good to lay it out and encourage you to attempt to do so.

    Andy0:

    Nowhere in my article do I argue that it would be better for Japan to have continued its evil and murderous ways. I am thankful to God for the Allied victory, and firmly believe the Allies were justified and right in waging the war with determination. The question is, if the Japanese Empire of the time was evil because targeted civilians without mercy or second thought, shouldn’t we avoid sinking to the same level? Isn’t our having “second thoughts”, even 65 years later, evidence of our morally superior approach to the war?

    wgsullivan:

    Yes, the situation is very different today. Our modern atomic bombs, for instance are far more powerful. All the more reason, then, to make sure we are solidly grounded in Catholic moral principles regarding their use.

  • Andy0

    Michael Baruzzini
    Thank you for your response. As evident of the method we engage in war today we have learned from our history. The war we encounter today has a high respect for civilian loss, so much is the attention to this fact that the enemy is using it to their advantage and to our detriment. There is no good war, only a moral war to the best of our abilities.

    As long as evil tries to reign, good must always prevail or we are just as evil to have ignored.

    Thank God I live in a Country that protects Freedom, and proceeds to bring it to all nations. Thank you America.

  • Joe DeVet

    As much as I am grateful to the Greatest Generation (my father included) for winning WW II, and as much as I can sympathize with the stated justification for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, it must be said that all of the above comments offered in justification of the bombings violate Catholic moral teaching.

    It is probably true that ending the war with Japan this way saved millions of Japanese civilian lives, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of American or Allied lives. Still, that trade-off does not justify doing evil (deliberately targeting civilians) in order to achieve a good outcome. Those who think it does accept the premise of Caiaphas–let’s sacrifice one man (Jesus, he was referring to) for the sake of the nation (Israel.)

    Those who point out the barbarity of the Japanese miss the mark as well. The barbarity of the enemy does not justify becoming like him. It does not suspend the moral code for us.

    Believe me, I sympathize with Truman on his decision to drop those bombs. But we must be clear on moral principles, else we end up on the losing side of the real war, the war in heaven. We’re assured of victory, but we have to choose which side we’re on!

  • Joe DeVet

    PS. I offer the Catechism on just war, on double effect, and on the three elements which must be present to constitute a morally-justified act.

    Also, for a comprehensive treatment of this whole subject (Catholic moral teaching), which corrects a number of theological mistakes in this area, I offer the marvelous work by John Paul the Great, “Veritatis Splendor.”

  • Mary

    I was only a child on August 6, 1945, but I remember how people paraded the streets in joy that this war would be over soon. We didn’t know how much suffering the bomb over Hiroshima caused to innocent people or how much suffering was caused by the Japanese leaders in other countries during that war. I only learned those truths many years later. But I recently read a book entitled Pedro Arrupe, Essential Writings by Peter Hans Kolvenbach. (Fr. Pedro Arrupe was Superior General of the Jesuit order from 1964-1983, prox). In 1945 he headed a seminary in Japan, a few miles from Hiroshima. The day of the bomb the author writes

  • Mary

    . . . continuing after pressing the wrong key . . .
    “while celebrating Mass on the first morning after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, he turned to face a mangled, bleeding, uncomprehending congregation of survivors: ‘I saw before my eyes many wounded, suffering terribly . . . ”

    The book is more about St. Ignatius of Loyola, but these words about that day gave me pause to meditate on so much suffering in the world. It doesn’t mean that we should never resort to violence to end violence. There are so few answers to great suffering in the world – especially in wars.

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