Posts tagged Tokyo


Seventy-two years ago last night, on the night of March 9 and the early morning of March 10, 1945, the United States government ordered 334 B-29 bombers, commanded by Curtis LeMay, to drop 1,665 tons of napalm, white phosphorus and explosives on the most densely-populated residential neighborhoods throughout Tokyo. Within the first two hours of low-altitude firebombing the city’s fire defenses were completely overwhelmed. The burning ignited a firestorm that blew through the city streets at 600-1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Over 200,000 buildings were reduced to ash. Over 1,000,000 people were left homeless. About 100,000 Japanese civilians burned to death in a single night on the orders of General Curtis LeMay and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

From The Firebombing of Tokyo, by Rory Fanning, in Jacobin:

Toshiko Higashikawa, who was twelve at the time of the bombing, recalled: There was fire everywhere. I saw one person caught by the claws of the fire dragon before you could say Jack Robinson! Her clothes just went up in flames. Another two people were caught and burned up. The bombers just kept coming. Toshiko and her family fled to a neighborhood school, seeking shelter from fire. The family bottlenecked in a doorway, and Toshiko could hear children shouting: Gya. Help! Its Hot! Moma! Uwa! Daddy! It hurts! Help!

Moments later, Toshiko lost the grip of her father’s hand in the frantic crowd. Her father was holding her younger brother Eichi in his other arm. Toshiko and her sister made it out of the schoolhouse alive. She never saw her father and brother again.

Koji Kikushima, who was thirteen at the time, tells the story of running down a street as fire chased her family and hundreds of others. The heat was so intense she instinctively jumped off a bridge into a river below. She survived the fall. In the morning she emerged from the river to see a “mountain of corpses” on the bridge. She never saw her family again.

Sumiko Morikawa was twenty-four that day. Her husband was off fighting in the war. She had a four-year-old son Kiichi, and twin eight-month-old girls Atsuko and Ryoko. As the fire began to burn the homes in her neighborhood, Sumiko ran towards a park pool with her kids. Nearing the pool’s edge, four-year-old Kiichi’s jacket caught fire. . . .

. . . There were nearly a million casualties that day in Tokyo and countless stories like the ones above. However what is mostly absent from Hoyet’s book are personal reflections from men about what it was like that day. It’s because cities like Tokyo and Nagasaki were essentially devoid of them. . . . The remaining population, and hence the main targets of the bombing, were disproportionately women, children, and the elderly. The majority of the military-age men were away fighting in the war.

. . . World War II was carried out with brutality on all fronts. The Japanese military murdered nearly six million Chinese, Korean, and Filipino civilians by the end of it. However, to argue that Japanese civilians deserved to die — that children deserved to die — at the hands of the US military because their government killed civilians in other Asian countries is an indefensible position, in any moral or ethical framework.

–Rory Fanning, The Firebombing of Tokyo
Jacobin, March 9, 2015

Wartime Logic

Suppose that you have — somehow or another — conclusively proven that there is just no way to have a modern war without bombing cities and massacreing innocent people.[1] That leaves you with a hard incompatibility claim between moralism and militarism — so if you go around morally condemning military tactics (like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say, or the firebombing of Tokyo) because they killed innocent people, then you’d end up having to condemn any modern war at all as immoral, no matter who fought it or how it was fought.

Many people, when they reach this point in the argument, want to shove it at you as if the incompatibility made for an obvious reductio ad absurdum of any kind of moralism about military tactics — Oh, well, if it’s always immoral to bomb cities then you couldn’t have any wars. That’s why it must not always be immoral to bomb cities. I honestly don’t know why so few of the people who give this argument ever even seem to have imagined that their conversation partner might take the incompatibility as an obvious reductio ad absurdum of any kind of militarismOh, well, if it’s always immoral to kill innocent people, you can’t bomb cities, and if you can’t bomb cities, you can’t have any wars. And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t have any wars.


  1. [1]Actually, I think this has been more or less conclusively proven. And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t have any wars.


“It was a different time,” or: moral standards, part 2

At Distributed Intelligence 2007-08-06, Andrew Perraut has an interesting post considering the atomic massacre at Hiroshima in light of just war theory. He argues:

I’m not sure how anyone could argue that this was clearly justified, [as claimed elsewhere by Bruce Bartlett] since it seems, rather, prima facie unjust in the absence of strong countervailing reasons to drop the bomb. If the very existence or sovereignty of the United States would have been compromised by not destroying Hiroshima, perhaps that would be enough, but was that the case? And was it the case that only by deliberately targeting the civilian population we could save ourselves? The second questions is the most important, and most defenders of the decision gloss over it, because there isn’t a good answer. If detonating Fat Man over an isolated military installation would have convinced the Japanese government to surrender, Hiroshima looks less like a military/scientific triumph and more like a war crime.

— Andrew Perraut, Distributed Intelligence (2007-08-06): Hiroshima and Nuclear Weapons

I’d add only that, all things considered, I can’t possibly see how the very existence or sovereignty of the United States is worth a damn compared to the lives of 140,000 innocent people. How many real, individual people could be killed or maimed or otherwise ruined in the name of preserving the lines and colors on a map? If the only way to preserve the United States were the unprovoked, deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, then I’d say that the lives of those people are infinitely more important, and the abstract entity known as the United States properly ought to die.

That said, I’d like to turn my attention to the comments. A commenter named Michael says something very odd in his reply:

That’s not to justify it morally. But, looking at the time, World War II was so brutal and bombing was simply the allied answer to Axis atrocities on the ground and at sea. The firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, as thorough as the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki attest to this. It was a different time and the traditional rules of war had been largely thrown out the window (interestingly we still observed proper treatment of POWs even then).

Of course, it was a different time in 1945. But Hiroshima happened only 62 years ago. This kind of argument might get some kind of grip if we were talking about an event so long ago that it happened in a radically different civilizational context — say, 600 or 6,000 years ago. I would still find it bogus, but I could understand where the arguer was coming from. But we are not even talking about that. We are talking about something that happened within living memory. Paul Tibbets, the man who flew the Enola Gay, is still alive today. Thomas Ferebee, the man who actually dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, died only 7 years ago. As of March 2005, Tibbets expressed no remorse over his acts, saying If you give me the same circumstances, hell yeah, I’d do it again. Sure, time is always passing and things are always changing. But just how soon in the past does something have to be for the war apologists of the world to allow plain old straightforward moral evaluation of the act or the people involved in committing it? Are we next going to throw up our hands about My Lai, or Abu Ghraib, or something that happened last Thursday, on the grounds that It was a different time?

Further reading: