America’s Troubling Firebombing of Japan

Prior to the better-known atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which have also been subject to controversy and ethical discussion), the United States executed a series of “firebombings” against Japanese cities that claimed more lives in a single night — over 100,000 civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly — than the more infamous atomic strikes that followed months later.

Jacobin examines the various problems with the campaign, on both a strategic and ethical level (e.g. there were little to no military or economic targets, virulent anti-Japanese racism may have motivated the attacks, etc.)

In January 1945 — two days before Franklin Roosevelt was to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Yalta — the Japanese were offering surrender terms almost identical to what was accepted by the Americans on the USS Missouri in the Japan Bay on September 2, 1945.

The Japanese population was famished, the country’s war machine was out of gas, and the government had capitulated. The Americans were unmoved. The firebombing and the nuclear attacks were heartlessly carried out. If anyone is guilty of disregarding the “context” of the firebombing of Tokyo, it’s the sycophantic and biased American historians who deride these critical facts.

What little criticism that exists of the firebombing is attacked for failing to put the bombing in proper context and not providing alternate solutions for ending the war. These attacks are also riddled with “they did it too” justifications.

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 U.S. military because their government killed civilians in other Asian countries is an indefensible position, in any moral or ethical framework.

One can see parallels with the equally controversial Allied bombings of Dresden, which killed 22,000-25,000 civilians for little strategic merit.

What are your thoughts on these largely undiscussed (at least in popular discourse) actions? I recommend reading the whole article to get a wider picture of the positions for and against this decision, and whether the usual justifications have any merit.

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