Hiroshima’s lessons: What the Air Force should remember about Just War and nuclear weapons

Kiyoshi Ota GETTY IMAGES A woman prays for the atomic bomb victims in front of a cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace … Continued

Kiyoshi Ota


A woman prays for the atomic bomb victims in front of a cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing on August 6, 2011 in Hiroshima, Japan. The world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by the United States during World War II, killing an estimated 70,000 people instantly with many thousands more dying over the following years from the effects of radiation. Three days later another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Faced with secular activists’ furor over the separation of church and state, the Air Force recently shelved a mandatory ethics training for nuclear missile officers following a report that the session employed Christian theology and Bible verses.

But for those who believe that religious values have a place in our public life–such as the Geneva and Hague Conventions that Christian ethics inspired–the profound outrage is that our tradition would be distorted and misrepresented to justify the use of weapons of mass destruction. The Air Force shouldn’t be bullied into shelving its theologically-grounded ethics training. But it should fix it.

I write these words from Hiroshima, which I am visiting on the eve of the 66th anniversary of the first wartime use of the atomic bomb. The city is a stark reminder of what happens when we abandon moral standards that have guided us for centuries.

The Air Force presentation cited in the report claims that the Christian “Just War” tradition morally authorizes the use of nuclear weapons. This is categorically untrue. And if we ask military officers, many of whom are Christians, to serve in good conscience, it cannot be on the basis of false teaching.

Over the centuries, the Just War tradition has wrestled with when and how force may be morally applied, in a fallen world, toward the purpose of the greater good of peace.

Unfortunately, the Air Force slideshow fatally amputates half of Just War by only mentioning the jus ad bellum criteria, which concern when and why war may be waged.

It entirely omits Just War’s jus in bello criteria-the standards governing how war is waged-chief among which is the absolute prohibition of intentionally harming noncombatants.

Given that the slideshow later admits that a U.S. nuclear launch “would kill thousands of non-combatants,” the omission may be unsurprising. But it is theologically unconscionable, and it has profound real-world effects.

The “Just” in Just War is not about justification, but justice-it is not there to salve our moral conscience, but to ensure that we do not forget the unrelenting standards of God even in the prosecution of war.

The Air Force slideshow demonstrates the consequences of getting this moral teaching wrong. After showing a collage of Hiroshima dead that includes babies and the elderly, the presentation proposes mitigating factors, including post-war testimony by Germans and Japanese that they would have used the atomic bomb if they had developed it first.

But it is appalling to hold up the wartime authors of the Holocaust and the Bataan Death March as benchmarks for relativistic ethics.

To justify Hiroshima with the assertion that Germany or Japan would have acted similarly is to betray the Just War tradition entirely. It means basing our moral standards on the fickle depravity of our earthly enemy, rather than the North Star of God’s goodness. And this is precisely what happened in World War II, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki forming a tragic coda to the escalating practice of civilian bombing initiated by the Nazis.

As Admiral Leahy, President Truman’s military chief of staff, later wrote of the bombing: “In being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was taught not to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

Those who bear the responsibility of waging armed conflict are often its most thoughtful and sober philosophers, given their intimate knowledge of war’s physical and moral costs. It would be a disservice to deny our military the teaching of this biblically-grounded tradition in relation to nuclear doctrine-whether by omission or misrepresentation. We reject moral absolutes at our peril.

The Air Force shouldn’t shy away from holding nuclear warfare up to Christian moral standards. But we should ask what the consequences would be if we actually told the truth about them.

The Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is chairman of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons, an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance, and the founding director of the Two Futures Project.

  • YEAL9

    If the AF offers this course again, it should start with the following Power Point slide:

    Simplifying the saving of 1.5 billion lost Muslim souls:
    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam

    Simplifying the saving of 2 billion lost Christian souls:
    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!i.e. No Easter, no Christianity

    Simplifying the saving of 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses never existed.

  • shilotoren

    Not going into the historical background of the decision or even the moral questions raised by decision makers before Hiroshima and Nagasaki is intellectually bereft.

    If there was a moral rationale to using atomic bombs against Japan , it was in the fact that doing so would (in the opinions then) end the war quickly and save tens of thousands of lives of USA servicemen. One would think that if the bombs appeared (and historical records fairly concur) to end the war quickly, then that would be a good starting point for this discussion. Instead we get some worthless platitudes about the terribleness of war.

    Imagine if the USa had the atomic bomb in 1936. WW 2 might never have happened. and the lives of 20 or 30 million people might have been spared.

  • LoyalReader

    This is an intriguing editorial. It views and judges decisions made during World War II through the concept of “Just War”, an ancient concept brought to greater prominence by the Catholic Church in the last quarter of the 20th century.
    There are relatively few left who experienced WWII as adults. I am not one of them, but, I remember many conversations with aunts and uncles who lived through and fought in WWII. I never remember the topic of justice or “Just War” coming up. They all said that during the war they were simply focused on their survival. They all had friends or relatives that died in the war.

    My one uncle who served with the Marines in the Pacific, related his unit’s practice of taking no Japanese prisoners because of the atrocities they had seen. Yes, American soldiers routinely killed wounded and surrendering Japanese soldiers. Years later I read of the “blood feud” that existed between the Marines and the Japanese army.

    When I was in high school, I once asked them about the morality of using the atomic bomb on Japan. I’ll never forget their response. They looked at me with disgusted amazement. They reminded me of Pearl Harbor, the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Philippines, and the lives lost retaking the islands in the Pacific. Then they said that it would have been ok with them if we had used the bomb on every single city in Japan, if it would have ended the war even one day sooner.

    In my view, the author’s attempt to render judgment on America’s use of nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities more than 65 years after the fact, smacks of a serious detachment from the reality of those times.

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