5. The firebombings and the atomic bombs

Many commentators have compared the Tokyo firebomb raid of 9-10 March to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that followed five months later. One ought to be cautious when making this comparison, as there are significant differences between the attacks. Sherry points out, for example, that Tokyo, unlike Hiroshima, underwent ‘a process of destruction’, one that unfolded over time as the American bombers dropped their incendiaries. ‘The observer’, Sherry writes, ‘could see the destruction take place and watch the thing come alive, becoming some living, grotesque organism, ever changing in its shape, dimensions, colors, and directions.’ (This was Guillain’s experience: not being in the area that was bombed, he and his neighbors stood on their terraces and watched, ‘uttering cries of admiration ...at this grandiose, almost theatrical spectacle’.) There was no such unfolding or ‘process’ at Hiroshima, only what the bomb’s Japanese witnesses called pika-don—‘flash-boom’— an enormous blast, a searing heat and light, with no dramatic narrative, just a climax. Of course, the very singularity of the atomic bomb made it different from other weapons. The psychological effect of being attacked by well over 300 bombers is surely different from that of seeing one’s city devastated by a single bomb dropped from a single plane. Radioactivity, the unseen evil that penetrates the body and keeps on killing and maiming a later generation, was the offspring only of the atomic bomb.24

And, yet, there were also many compelling similarities between these two events, and they make comparison irresistible. Lacking the dramatic explosion and the lingering radiation of the atomic bombings, the firebomb attack nevertheless produced enormous shock of its own, leaving its victims—the accounts say it repeatedly—dazed, vacant-eyed, as if in a bad waking dream. The incendiaries produced no radioactivity, but the heat and flame they generated left survivors with grotesque burns, and the eerily smooth scars called keloids that would become better known as shame-inducing features of atomic-bomb victims. People who experienced either of these events compared them to natural disasters, including volcanoes, typhoons, and most commonly earthquakes, as a way both of normalizing the attacks by naturalizing them and of assigning their causes to other-than-human hands—which may help explain the overall lack of hostility encountered by Americans in Japan after August 1945. Above all, the firebombings and atomic bombings were alike in their unabashed targeting of non-combatants for destruction. Before the March raid on Tokyo, Curtis LeMay might have convinced himself that he was going after military targets; in retrospect he claimed that all one had to do was ‘visit one of these targets after we’d roasted it, and see the ruins of a multitude of tiny houses, with a drill press sticking up through the wreckage’, in order to understand what little distinction existed between industrial and residential areas. As Little Boy and Fat Man were prepared for use that summer, Harry Truman reassured himself that the bombs would be dropped only on military targets. Both LeMay’s and Truman’s claims were delusional. But they represented the decay that had for some years rotted away the barricade separating soldiers and civilians as targets placed in the cross hairs by combatants.25

Two years after the war had ended, David Lilienthal, the chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission, reflected on the end of the distinction between soldiers and civilians:

Then we burned Tokyo, not just military targets, but set out to wipe out the place, indiscriminately. The atomic bomb is the last word in this direction. All ethical limitations of warfare are gone, not because the means of destruction are more cruel or painful or otherwise hideous in their effect upon combatants, but because there are no individual combatants. The fences are gone.

The atomic bombs provided an exclamation point at the end of a continuous narrative of atrocity.26

And yet—again; the very subject of the atomic bomb inspires topic sentences that reverse the story’s course. The men and women who imagined then built the bomb thought they were doing something different from what other makers of weapons did, thought they were engaged in something special. No one recalls the names of those who developed napalm and other incendiaries. No other single weapon project received $2 billion in government funds. (Radar cost more, but it was not a weapon as such.) Knowing what they knew about the power of a nuclear chain reaction, and whatever they may have guessed about the impact of radioactivity beyond the perimeter of the blast, some scientists and some government policymakers felt a need to think especially hard about how, and against whom, the atomic bomb was used. Curtis LeMay was permitted by Air Force strategic doctrine to firebomb Tokyo with many tons of incendiaries, but he made the decision to launch the attack himself. There were no high-level meetings to discuss the use of napalm. The opposite, of course, was true for the atomic bomb.

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