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.