In 1991 the late Paul Fussell, literary critic and a veteran of combat in Europe, wrote an essay arrestingly entitled: Thank God for the Atomic Bomb. Here is an excerpt:
In general, the principle is, the farther from the scene of horror the easier the talk. One young combat naval officer close to the action wrote home m the fall of 1943, just before the marines underwent the agony of Tarawa: “When I read that we will fight the Japs for years if necessary and will sacrifice hundreds of thousands if we must, I always like to check from where he’s talking: it’s seldom out here.” That was Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy. And Winston Churchill, with an irony perhaps too broad and easy, noted in Parliament that the people who preferred invasion to A-bombing seemed to have “no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves.”
A remoteness from experience like Galbraith’s and Sherry’s and a similar rationalistic abstraction from actuality, seem to motivate the reaction of an anonymous reviewer of William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War for The New York Review of Books. The reviewer naturally dislikes Manchester’s still terming the enemy Nips or Japs, but what really shakes him (her?) is this passage of Manchester’s:
After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion of Japan’s home islands—a staggering number of Americans but millions more of Japanese—and you thank God for the atomic bomb.
Thank God for the atom bomb. From this, “one recoils” says the reviewer. One does, doesn’t one?
And not just a staggering number of Americans would have been killed in the invasion. Thousands of British assault troops would have been destroyed too, the anticipated casualties from the almost 200,000 men in the six divisions (the same number used to invade Normandy) assigned to invade the Malay Peninsula on September 9. Aimed at the reconquest of Singapore, this operation was expected to last until about March 1946—that is, seven more months of infantry fighting. “But for the atomic bombs,” a British observer intimate with the Japanese defenses notes, “I don’t think we would have stood a cat in hell’s chance. We would have been murdered in the biggest massacre of the war. They would have annihilated the lot of us.”
The Dutchman Laurens van der Post had been a prisoner of the Japanese for three and a half years. He and thousands of his fellows enfeebled by beriberi and pellagra, were being systematically starved to death, the Japanese rationalizing this treatment not just because the prisoners were white men but because they had allowed themselves to be captured at all and were therefore moral garbage. In the summer of 1945 Marshal Terauchi issued a significant order: at the moment the Allies invaded the main islands, all prisoners were to be killed by the prison-camp commanders. But thank God that did not happen. When the A-bombs were dropped, van der Post recalls, “This cataclysm I was certain would make the Japanese feel that they could withdraw from the war without dishonor, because it would strike them, as it had us in the silence of our prison night, as something supernatural.”
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