Hiroshima — war crime or not?

65 years on, with the United States having finally decided to commemorate the bombing, the historica

Lots of the papers today are filled with news stories about the 65th anniversary of the world's first atomic bomb attack, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. There has been much discussion of how, for the first time, a representative of the United States -- Ambassador John Roos -- decided to attend. The United States is, of course, the nation that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, making it the only country on earth to have used nuclear weapons against another nation.

Two pieces in particular caught my eye. First, the report by the Independent's acclaimed war correspondent Robert Fisk, on the front page of that paper, in which he writes:

On the surface, it's all very simple. Most of us seem to believe the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime. I certainly do. The Japanese were already talking of surrender. That Caesar of British historians, A J P Taylor, quoted a senior US official. "The bomb simply had to be used -- so much money had been expended on it. Had it failed, how would we have explained the huge expenditure? Think of the public outcry there would have been . . . The relief to everyone concerned when the bomb was finished and dropped was enormous."

I agree with Fisk (and with A J P Taylor!). I still can't quite understand how defenders of the US decision to nuke those two Japanese cities can argue, in good conscience, that it wasn't a war crime. To use atomic bombs to literally incinerate hundreds of thousands of men, women and children? If that's not a war crime, then what is? And even if we were to accept that the nuclear strikes were somehow unavoidable, and the only way to end that horrific war and prevent further (largely American) casualties, would that then make them morally correct and permissible? Since when do the ends justify the means?

So I was interested also to read the leader in the (paywall-protected!) Times which was, I assume, written by Oliver Kamm, an ardent apologist for the US strike on Hiroshima. The Times leader says:

The bombings of Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki were a terrible act of war. But they were no crime . . . It seems incredible, but even the destruction of Hiroshima was not enough to force the Japanese cabinet to accept that the war was lost. The xenophobic fanaticism of a powerful constituency within it believed that Japan should resist till the literal extinction of its people. Recent research by Sadao Asada, a historian at Doshisha University, demonstrates beyond reasonable dispute that only the use of the A-bomb -- at Nagasaki as well as Hiroshima -- enabled the "peace party" within the cabinet to prevail . . . President Truman, who ordered the bombings, insisted that his decision had shortened a war and prevented huge casualties. The historical evidence strongly suggests that he was right.

Despite the one-sided view ("beyond reasonable doubt") presented by the Times leader writer (Kamm?), the fact is that an intense historical debate continues to rage over whether or not the use of the A-bomb by the Americans was necessary to end the war in the Pacific. Revisionist historians such as Gar Alperovitz argue that the US political and military leadership knew the bombs were unnecessary, other than to make a geopolitical point about postwar American primacy, because, as the US Strategic Bombing Survey put it in 1946, "in all probability" Japan would have surrendered even without them.

I'm not going to get into the details of the complex, historical debate here. But I will leave you with these quotations, courtesy of Doug Long:

GENERAL DWIGHT EISENHOWER
(Supreme Commander of Allies Forces in Europe)

". . . the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."

Ike on Ike, Newsweek, 11/11/63.

GENERAL DOUGLAS MacARTHUR
(Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan)

MacArthur biographer William Manchester has described MacArthur's reaction to the issuance by the Allies of the Potsdam Proclamation to Japan: ". . . the Potsdam declaration in July, demand[ed] that Japan surrender unconditionally or face 'prompt and utter destruction'. MacArthur was appalled. He knew that the Japanese would never renounce their emperor, and that without him an orderly transition to peace would be impossible anyhow, because his people would never submit to Allied occupation unless he ordered it. Ironically, when the surrender did come, it was conditional, and the condition was a continuation of the imperial reign. Had the general's advice been followed, the resort to atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been unnecessary."

William Manchester, "American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964", pg. 512.

ADMIRAL WILLIAM D LEAHY
(Chief of Staff to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman)

"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

"The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."

William Leahy, "I Was There", pg. 441.

JOHN McCLOY
(Assistant Secretary of War)

"I have always felt that if, in our ultimatum to the Japanese government issued from Potsdam [in July 1945], we had referred to the retention of the emperor as a constitutional monarch and had made some reference to the reasonable accessibility of raw materials to the future Japanese government, it would have been accepted. Indeed, I believe that even in the form it was delivered, there was some disposition on the part of the Japanese to give it favourable consideration. When the war was over I arrived at this conclusion after talking with a number of Japanese officials who had been closely associated with the decision of the then Japanese government, to reject the ultimatum, as it was presented. I believe we missed the opportunity of effecting a Japanese surrender, completely satisfactory to us, without the necessity of dropping the bombs."

McCloy quoted in James Reston, "Deadline", pg. 500.

HERBERT HOOVER
(former President)

". . . the Japanese were prepared to negotiate all the way from February 1945 . . . up to and before the time the atomic bombs were dropped . . . if such leads had been followed up, there would have been no occasion to drop the [atomic] bombs."

Quoted by Barton Bernstein in Philip Nobile, ed., "Judgment at the Smithsonian", pg. 142.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times