The man who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima passed away last week at the age of 92. Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr. did not die from war wounds or violently at the hands of other people, years before his time. He died in hospice care, in a bed, from heart problems and strokes.
In stark contrast, the more than 100,000 civilians who were killed at Hiroshima 62 years ago were burnt, melted, vaporized, in an apocalyptic act of warfare. Many died painful deaths over a period of days or weeks. Others saw family members consumed by flames. Most were far younger than Tibbets was when he finally died. Thousands were children.
Is now the wrong time to discuss this? Tibbets called it a “damn big insult” when a Smithsonian exhibit commemorating Hiroshima’s fiftieth anniversary attempted to capture some of the suffering.
If he didn’t think that was the right time for such reflection, then perhaps now is as good as any.
Although he was offended to see the victims remembered, he had said that he meant no insult himself when he reenacted the bombing in Texas in 1976, complete with mushroom cloud. He said he slept fine every night. He consistently affirmed he’d do it all over again.
People disagree on whether the nuking was a war crime. The 1946 Strategic Bombing Survey determined it had been unnecessary to the winning of the war. We know that Japan, demoralized from having dozens of cities obliterated in fire bombings, was extending peace feelers. “The Japanese were ready to surrender,” said Dwight Eisenhower, who as a general during that war believed the atom bomb was “completely unnecessary.” Admiral William D. Leahy, General Douglas MacArthur, and many other high officials at the time agreed.
Japan wanted only to keep its emperor. Understandably, the nation feared the consequences of the unconditional surrender that Truman and the Allies demanded. They had reason to fear brutalities exceeding the very harsh treatment of Germany under the Versailles Treaty after World War I, which had come after a mere conditional surrender.
Some have tried to rewrite history and have said that to win the war without nuclear weapons, the U.S. would have had to invade and suffer intolerable losses, that the atomic bomb “saved a million lives.” But there is no reason to doubt that Japan’s cause was lost by mid-1945—even without an invasion. Practically every major city was destroyed. The people were blockaded and starving. Then, perhaps as a show of strength to Stalin, the U.S. government nuked two of Japan’s remaining cities, introducing nuclear warfare to the world, and ultimately, allowed the Japanese to keep their emperor anyway.
Robert McNamara, who worked with Curtis LeMay in planning the pre-Hiroshima fire bombings of Japan, admitted in recent years that he and LeMay were acting as “war criminals.” Does this term apply to Tibbets?
We know Tibbets did not shy away from personal responsibility. He proudly took credit for planning the nuclear attack.
This raises uncomfortable questions: If your government orders you to slaughter tens of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children, to whom and to what do you owe your loyalty? If you’re willing to take credit for your supposed acts of wartime heroism, should you also be ready to accept blame if it turns out you committed an atrocity?
Some might say it’s insensitive to ask now whether Tibbets was a war criminal. Indeed, there is no need to condemn this man upon his passing. Even if he was guilty of a war crime, he is now beyond the reaches of human justice.
But it remains crucial for us to consider the implications of what he did. It is important to our sense of individual responsibility in a world where, especially in times of war, people think mainly in terms of the collective. It is this fallacy in moral reasoning that leads otherwise decent people to commit unspeakable barbarities against their fellow man.
We must not lose track of the individual’s role, even in the chaos of war. For whatever we think of Tibbets, it is the refusal to view people as individuals, the branding of everyone as merely an expendable part of a larger group, which brought about the atomic bombings and so many other horrors of World War II.