Christian Bergmann: Columnist deeply wrong on Hiroshima

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Firestorm cloud over Hiroshima, near local noon. Aug 6 1945 PUBLIC DOMAIN

I didn’t live through the Second World War. I don’t know what it was like. I can’t even begin to imagine the gravity involved in making the kinds of decisions that would affect entire countries, to the point of even irrevocably impairing them.

If I was in the shoes of President Harry Truman, would I have done any differently? Would I have decided to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

I don’t know. But what I can say with confidence is that, were my conscience formed according to Catholic moral principles, there would be no doubt in my mind that dropping those bombs would be unquestionably evil and in no way permitted by anything in the Catholic moral tradition.

The only question left would be whether to listen to this conscience.

I raise this point because I recently read George Weigel’s limp defence of Truman’s decision in First Things.

I call the defence limp for two reasons.

Firstly, because the moral argument boils down, at the end of the day, to one simple point: the decision saved lives. Incalculable lives.

Maybe many more lives than would have been saved by taking other routes of action.

Secondly, because even though he acknowledges it is almost impossible to defend the decision according to traditional just war reasoning, and the moral norms of Veritatis Splendor, his only counterpoint is that those norms had been broken long before anyway.

Pope Francis prays as he visits the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki, Japan, 24 November, 2019. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring

By the end of the article, it seems as though Weigel has stared down the entire tradition of Catholic moral thought and said, ‘But he’s not Hitler’. As if that is a sufficient moral thought process.

Weigel isn’t the only Catholic who holds this defence of the bombings. I have heard many faithful and devout Catholics, as morally uncompromising as they come, treat the bombings in the same way.

It was a necessary evil, they’ll say (suddenly finding that language acceptable). The innocent lives were ‘collateral damage’. I find this sudden shift in morals bewildering.

The Catholic Church has expended immense amounts of energy combating diverse forms of moral relativism – whether in blatant or more ‘situation-ethic’ guises – because we believe that regardless of the situation, we can and should make moral judgments about what is right and wrong that are universal and objective and binding, that no circumstance can alter.

The direct taking of innocent life (in an abortion, say) is an obvious example of this.

No situation, no matter how traumatising, justifies abortion precisely because of the innocent and helpless human life now involved in the decision.

The argument that the bombs saved lives (no matter how many) just doesn’t wash. The ends never ever justify the means.

In Melbourne, where I live, we have undergone one of the world’s longest and most stringent lockdowns because of the coronavirus.

I know this is incomparable to the Second World War (I’m 27 and live in 21st century Australia – nothing is comparable), but the rhetoric I keep hearing from our Premier and from newspapers is about saving lives ‘whatever it takes’.

Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945.
Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945.

‘Whatever it takes’ is not a moral calculation. It is the abandonment of moral calculation. It is the abandonment of a genuine process of moral reasoning and prudential application.

And we forsake it to the detriment of our souls and the souls of others.

The Second Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) a document that binds us in religious submission of intellect and will, says this: ‘Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation’ (GS, 80).

Weigel can defend this decision all he wants. He just can’t be a Catholic and defend the decision.

In doing so, you are defending, unquestionably, a crime against God and against humanity.

As Pope Saint John-Paul II said in Veritatis Splendor: “When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the “poorest of the poor” on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal” (VS, 96).