This may be a first for the Bubble: A discussion about the morality of dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to bring about the end of World War II. Many faithful Catholics in America are confused on this issue, so let's try to get clarity.
First, please understand that confronting this issue did not come easy for me. When I finally came into my Faith twenty years ago after realizing that the Church is what she claims to be, I had to bend my will on a number of major issues. One of those issues was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. I had always been a supporter of that action, but I had to reverse my position. Once I decided that following Christ and His Church was more important to me than even my strong American sensibilities, there was no other option.*
Now, you all know how much I love and admire Dennis Prager. He is a Jewish scholar and commentator who is brilliant and logical and good, and it is his motto that undergirds my blog: "I prefer clarity to agreement." Recently, as part of the ongoing Prager University videos (which I normally adore), a priest gave a talk about why it was not wrong to drop the atom bomb on Japan. I cringed. I have no idea how the priest was able to argue that error in light of Church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear:
Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons—especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons—to commit such crimes. (CCC 2314)There is no wiggle room here.
Now, I understand that many people of good will argue that The Bomb was simply the only course of action to preserve our nation, our freedom, our way of life, the lives of millions of innocents that may have perished if we didn't act, etc. They say that our action reduced net suffering and prevented the deaths of many more innocents than it caused, and that we mitigated a greater evil by performing these military strikes. That is the justification I used myself, and it's what I hear most often from supporters of the bombings.
But Catholics know from moral theology and Moral Reasoning 101 that we have no permission to sin, even if we mean to bring about a greater good. We've discussed before that the ends do not justify the means, ever.
Think about it logically: If we are permitted to commit evil in order to bring about good, then what on earth can't be justified? If we may target and kill a few hundred thousand non-combatants to win an important war, then why may others not kill a few million in gas chambers or gulags to save a nation and a way of life? Hypothetically, if I could save the whole world and all her treasures by torturing and murdering just one child (maybe your child?), I should do it, right?
Evil is evil and we may take no part in it, even to bring about a greater good. Heck, there is not a genocidal dictator who has ever lived who did not justify his crimes against humanity by appealing to what he believed to be a greater good.
Psychologically speaking, there is something else about the nature of the atomic bomb that lulls even good Catholics and good Americans into perceiving it as morally licit: When great distance lies between a killer and a victim, the conscience tends to deaden. Catholic Answers' writer Christopher Check ("Dropping the Atomic Bomb was Wrong. Period.") refers to retired Army Ranger Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's findings on the topic:
...while psychological trauma is not uncommon among infantrymen who have been in close combat, Col. Grossman did not find “a single instance of psychiatric trauma” associated with long-range killing. That includes the pilot and crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Super Fortress that dropped “Little Boy” on the people of Hiroshima. Indeed, Enola Gay’s pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, went to his death claiming that he never felt guilt or lost sleep over having dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Indeed, he flew reenactments of the event at air shows.
Grossman provides eerily antiseptic testimony given by Allied bomber pilots and crews who firebombed Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo. These campaigns together claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 noncombatants, mostly women, children, and elderly (because men of fighting age were off fighting). The bombers reported feeling “fascination” and “satisfaction” but not guilt or regret.
Grossman’s argument should provoke us to ask if many people’s comfort with the bomb does not derive, at least in part, from a condition of distance from the event. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 180,000 civilians. Would supporters of the bombings be as sanguine if a battalion of Marines had been sent into the same cities to bayonet an equal number of women, children, and elderly?
I am an American patriot and I love my country more than anything other than my Faith and my family. Accepting the fact that the U.S. was dead wrong in dropping The Bomb was one of the hardest things I had to do when I embraced the fullness of the Catholic Faith. But it was not hard for me to understand the moral principle: We don't target and kill innocent people, no matter what the cause, no matter the potentially disastrous outcome if we don't. We are to serve the good, not bring about the good. We act virtuously in our every action, and we leave the outcomes to God.
It is better, as Christ said, to lose our life to save it, than to save our life and lose it. What does it profit any of us to gain the whole world but lose our soul?
This world and this life are not the end. Winning a war or preserving a nation or even preserving the entire earth is not worth going to hell for. The priest in the Prager University video may be right on every other issue of the Faith, but he is dead wrong on this one.
We must think with the mind of the Church, act as Christ would act, and leave the outcomes to God.
*Bending one's will to think with the mind of the Church is not a case of "blindly following". For perspective on this, read here.