Walking on the Old Orchard Beach in Maine with my kids, enjoying a break from the challenges of work, preparing to attend a wedding, a plane flew over. I was reminded that today is a poignant day in history involving a plane.
On this day (Aug 6) in 1945, the Enola Gay, on behalf of the US government, dropped the first atomic bomb in world history on the Empire of Japan. It is estimated that 50,000 people instantly lost their lives, with many more dying in the coming months directly from the radiation effects. The instantaneous loss of human life is staggering.
I recently visited Singapore for a medical conference on geriatric-oncology. Across the street from where we were staying, there was an austere Memorial, a towering, four-sided white spire. It commemorates the massacre of 50,000 Singaporeans, most of Chinese descent, by the invading Japanese during WWII. It is a powerful symbol of human tragedy. Standing there, I was stunned to realize I had no idea about this event, wondering how many other similar examples had been hidden from my awareness. The toll from this war became even more staggering to consider.
Both of these events from WWII are mind-bogglingly sad to reflect upon. The equivalent of a football-stadium full of people, the majority of which were non-combatants, destroyed in a few moments or a few days. Considered out of context, it appears to be two more instances of the mental instability of humanity. So many individual lives wiped out, with us never to know what greatness may have lurked within some of those lost forever. The awfulness of war seems ridiculous when considering these events.
Yet, it is difficult to argue against our countries’ involvement in that terrible war and our efforts to end it as swiftly as possible. The moral worthiness of fighting against the genocidal Hitler and the appropriateness of responding to the bombing of Pearl Harbor seem reasonable responses to irrationality. If anything, the consequences of failing to respond appear worse than what ultimately occurred. Considered in this wider context, doling out a utilitarian, Realpolitik calculus of abstract lives lost, individual events like the dropping of The Bomb to end further bloodshed seem justified, strategically. But what about morally?
How are these two views – the unjustifiable loss of largely innocent life from total warfare and the justified use of force to achieve pragmatic ends – to be reconciled?
I’ve long been uncomfortable with utilitarian justifications for actions; it’s too easy in this few to reduce individual human beings to interchangeable, expendable parts. My original juxtaposition of the Japanese civilian deaths due to the atomic bomb with the Singaporean deaths due to conquering armies hints at such a justification. In truth, this obscures the tragedy of the lives snuffed out on both sides. It also personifies countries, of nationalistic fervor, as if the loss of a part of a country, a certain number of citizens, is a legitimate “trade” for a similar loss of life by another country. This way of thinking can’t be right.
More concretely, we too often fail to consider what an individual life is about. How people are more than interchangeable parts whose further existence is justifiable in the name of “national goals”. That people like Adolf Hitler can consider certain people, due to happenstance of birth, is an extreme example. But a similar version allowed the Emperor of Japan to consider those living in Singapore to be extinguished on similar lines. Whether our use of the atomic bomb to help end the war with Japan was strategically justified, we should not forget the individual lives snuffed out with the effort.
We now exist in a world full of philosophies that too easily think of people as members of specific groups, that those in other groups are “inferior” enemies to be destroyed, rather than as individuals living out their lives as best they can.
Finishing the walk with my kids, I spent an extra few minutes to talk about their individual plans for life, to better understand what makes them each individually happy, and to think about how to better encourage us all to avoid being overly utilitarian regarding others. My hope is that their future will involve less “trade-offs”, especially at the level national governments, of some abstract lives for other abstract lives – with the consequent loss of too many individual lives unlived.