Thank God for the Atom Bomb
posted at 4:14 pm on May 24, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
The title of this short piece is actually the title of an essay by Paul Fussell, the writer, literary and cultural critic who just passed away at the age of 88. His New York Times obituary notes his “withering scorn for the romanticization of war,” which was due, in part, to his own experience of battle in World War II as an infantryman wounded in southeastern France. His most well-known book is probably The Great War and Modern Memory (about World War I), of which Steven Hayward at Power Line says:
Fussell managed the extraordinary feat of weaving together a spare account of the salient military and political facts with a sweeping survey of the literary impact of the Great War, in neither case overdoing it.
Hayward calls Fussell a “typical postwar liberal,” a description that I wasn’t aware of when I encountered his essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” In it, he fiercely defends the decision to drop the atomic bombs that ended World War II.
“I want to consider something suggested by the long debate about the ethics, if any, of that ghastly affair,” he wrote on the 42nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Namely, the importance of experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views about that use of the atom bomb… I’m talking about… having to come to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death….Arthur T. Hadley said recently that those for whom the use of the A-bomb was ‘wrong’ seem to be implying ‘that it would have been better to allow thousands on thousands of American and Japanese infantrymen to die in honest hand-to-hand combat on the beaches than to drop those two bombs.’ People holding such views, he notes, ‘do not come from the ranks of society that produce infantrymen or pilots.'”
Fussell went on to argue that those who did have firsthand experience of World War II combat were “not elaborately educated,” and thus were unlikely to articulate the benefits of dropping the bombs when critics, who had been nowhere near the war’s devastation, heaped scorn on the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan.
“In general, the principle is, the farther from the scene of horror, the easier the talk,” wrote Fussell of those who wrung their hands over the bomb decision after the fact.
In his essay, Fussell spoke for those “not elaborately educated” fighting men. He took on the bomb’s critics with a muscular ferocity, and I found myself cheering him on with every paragraph I read. The argument that people of conscience — even soldiers — recoiled from the bombs’ punishing blows, Fussell dismissed as “canting nonsense.” “The purpose of the bombs was not to ‘punish’ people, but to stop the war.”
At the very end of the essay, Fussell reveals his liberal stripes with some criticism of Ronald Reagan and nuclear policy, but up until that moment, I was marching with him, saying a dozen or more silent “hear, hear’s.” I urge readers to get hold of this excellent essay before the bomb anniversaries this summer.
I have my own personal reasons for saying “Thank God for the atom bomb.” My father was on a ship in the Pacific when the bombs were dropped. He, along with his other Army comrades, would probably have been involved in the invasion of Japan had the war not been ended those first weeks of August 1945.
RIP, Paul Fussell, and thank you for speaking for the “not elegantly educated” man who was my father.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.