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Who Lost the Culture?

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 05, 2020

Most regular visitors to this site would probably agree that our culture is broken. When did it break? Maybe we lost the culture in 1973 when the Supreme Court presumed to make the “right to abortion” the law of the land. Perhaps the sexual revolution of the 1960s marked the beginning of the end. But our cultural decline may have begun as far back as 75 years ago, in the skies over Hiroshima when the Americans dropped history’s first atomic bomb on that city.

The Fifth Commandment decrees, “Thou shalt not murder.” God’s law applies to everyone, including soldiers and presidents. Killing an enemy combatant during battle in a just war is not murder. Even mistaken killings in the fog of war are not murder. But when a soldier deliberately kills a prisoner, or a non-combatant, or innocent civilians, he commits murder. These distinctions, conceptually uncomplicated, are crucial.

The “total war” doctrine that advocates the use of every possible means to bring a quick victory fails to distinguish between murder and justifiable killing. Those who advocate total war use the Caiaphas Principle, the morality of “the ends justify the means.” Caiaphas, the high priest who conspired to crucify Jesus, justified the murder for a greater good: “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (Jn. 11:50; Jn. 18:14)

The arguments in favor of the atomic bombings are familiar. The bombings were necessary, advocates tell us, to end a vicious war and to stop the slaughter. Casualty estimates for an invasion of Japan were catastrophically high for both sides. The entire Japanese population could be classified as combatants. (Osama bin Laden used the same logic to justify the attack on the Towers. So do Hamas terrorists when they bomb Tel Aviv discotheques.) So dropping the bomb was the least harmful of all the evil available evil choices. The central argument is desperately compelling: Better that one city (or two) should die than the whole nation.

But the arguments failed to persuade many prominent military leaders such as Admiral William Leahy, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, and General Dwight Eisenhower. They asserted that with the Japanese on the verge of defeat, the bomb was not only an act of terrorism but unnecessary for victory.

Admiral Leahy, White House chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war, wrote in his 1950 memoirs that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Moreover, Leahy continued, “in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

President Dwight Eisenhower recalled in 1963: “I told him [Secretary of War Henry Stimson] I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”

The distinguished English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe repudiated the attacks as grievous violations of just war principles. She wrote:

If it was such an outrage when the Germans practiced unrestricted submarine warfare during the First World War, how then had it become justifiable for the United States to practice unrestricted bombing during the Second?” She added, “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions. …for with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case. In the bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end.

Fulton Sheen, during a talk to school students about sex, said the moral turning point of the country was “8:15 in the morning, the 6th of August, 1945” when the world changed:

The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima blotted out boundaries. There was no longer a boundary between the military and the civilian, between the helper and the helped, between the wounded and the nurse and the doctor, and the living and the dead. For even the living who escaped the bomb were already half dead. So we broke down boundaries and limits and from that time on the world has said we want no one limiting me. … You want no restraint, no boundaries. I have to do what I want to do.

Years ago, the renowned Catholic theologian Joseph Pieper privately observed (to a friend of mine) that Americans need to come to terms with the immorality of the World War II atomic bombings before we can make real progress in stigmatizing abortion. The moral arguments justifying abortion and the bombings are remarkably similar: The actions are necessary as “a lesser evil” or to “prevent a greater evil.”

But suppose the Bomb was indeed militarily necessary to win the war? I have not met a single person who supports the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who would justify the up-close-and-personal murder of a child for the same reason—even to win a war. But somehow the act of killing the same child and non-combatants—men, women, children—is “the correct choice” when we target them with bombs from an altitude of 20,000 feet? The greater the distance, the easier it is to keep a crime from stinging a conscience. Out of sight, out of mind. But God’s ways are not our ways. The Fifth Commandment indicts, or consoles: Thou shalt not murder.

We break our culture, and we damage our immortal souls, when we try to justify the crucifixion of Innocence using the Caiaphas Principle. The restoration of every culture in every generation begins with a conscience enlightened and healed by Jesus, accompanied by our firm resolve to sin no more.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jlw5094538 - Oct. 21, 2020 11:26 PM ET USA

    Thank you 10,000 times, Fr. Pokorski, for this clear and fearless analysis of fundamental moral law. Abortion and nuclear bombing (or the use of WMDs) are ideologically conjoined products of hell. They are the willful shedding of innocent blood to procure one's ends, always attempting to justify itself with innocent intentions and always failing because of the depravity of the means. I do not think as a nation we will repent abortion until we repent Hiroshima/Nagasaki. Kyrie eleison.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Oct. 09, 2020 1:33 PM ET USA

    It's a weapon that should never have been used to end a war that should never have been started. There, now everybody's guilty. Nothing is new under the sun. Ecclesiastes chapter one.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Oct. 08, 2020 5:29 PM ET USA

    "If true, even if Truman and his advisors had reason to believe that, the argument that the A-bombs (and the Tokyo firebombing) targeted 'noncombatants' disappears." If WHAT is true? Weigel's citation of some researcher's claim? The researcher's claim of Japanese plans? So what? That the Japanese would have SUCCEEDED in turning everyone, toddlers included, into "combatants"? I would not stake my soul on such a gamble. Besides, they were not YET combatants, so your argument disappears.

  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Oct. 08, 2020 1:43 PM ET USA

    George Weigel's article cited a researcher who claimed that the militarists running Imperial Japan were planning to turn all civilians into combatants in the event of an Allied invasion. If true, even if Truman and his advisors had reason to believe that, the argument that the A-bombs (and the Tokyo firebombing) targeted "noncombatants" disappears. In any case, Truman was not a moral monster or anything close to it, for making the decision to drop the bombs. There was too much ambiguity.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Oct. 07, 2020 12:42 PM ET USA

    It quite simple: is it morally right to commit evil in order that good may result. End vs means, right? Moreover, it requires that we know what the end will actually be. That violates the uncertainty principle. But nobody in the political class would run on this kind of platform--"I categorically reject the use of atomic or nuclear weapons."

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Oct. 07, 2020 7:07 AM ET USA

    Of the many wrong turns our country has made, I don't think the decisive one could have been the decision of so few people. You could make a better case against the country as a whole for the terror bombing of cities using conventional bombs, which was more widely known and more widely practiced. One of the biggest obstacles to Japanese surrender was the insistence on unconditional surrender. Many lives could have been spared if we had told them what we were going to do.

  • Posted by: stan.sienkiewicz3391 - Oct. 06, 2020 9:51 PM ET USA

    Dear Fr. Pokorsky, I came to the same conclusion that dropping the two atomic bombs was immoral and hypocritical. As a child who had uncles in WWII and Korea I had a deep sense of patriotism and still do. I never asked their opinion of the bombs but I thought being a good military supporter that they droppings were justified. But as I became older and saw a broader picture of life I came to reach your conclusion. If bombing London was wrong, if killing innocent is wrong, why isn't this?

  • Posted by: netram66 - Oct. 06, 2020 8:16 PM ET USA

    Is it true that the target site of the second atomic bomb drop was on the Catholic Church of Nagasaki?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 06, 2020 11:13 AM ET USA

    I don't know the actual history, but years ago I heard that the Russians targeted our military installations while we targeted their cities. It was said that they never did buy into Robert Strange[love] McNamara's "Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)" consequentialism. I suppose the same twisted thinking that can result in the murder of an innocent child in the womb can come up with a rationalization (proportionalism, as you point out) for the murder of thousands of noncombatants.