Friday, August 06, 2010

In Memory: Hiroshima

Today is Friday, 6 August 2010.

On this date in 1945, the USA/USE dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, becoming the first, and thus far, only nation to employ a weapon of mass destruction.

The reasons for the atrocity were fundamentally two: one a grievous error in military strategy, and the other a deliberate political decision of state.

When the live-fire segment of the Great Pacific War began on 7 December 1941, the American High Command knew that the strategy of the Japanese Imperial Army was to descend on a southerly axis, attempting to overrun the western Pacific Rim: the Philippines, French Indochina, the British colonies (Burma, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore), the Dutch East Indies, Australian New Guinea, New Zealand, and Australia. Once the Japanese offensive was halted by the Allied (largely American) military, two strategies presented themselves.

The first strategy was infantry-centred (which became known as “island hopping”): assaulting and re-taking selected islands, re-tracing the course of the Japanese invasion, until the Japanese Home Islands were reached and conquered. The major role of navy and air power was tactical support of the infantry. (The Army Air Forces would, once the advance was sufficiently close to Tokyo, begin a strategic bombing campaign. However, as in Europe, this did not prove decisive.)

The second strategy was navy-centred, and rejected for reasons I will discuss in a separate column. This strategy would have proceeded from the fact that building an empire based on an island or group of islands with insufficient natural resources was an untenable project in the Twentieth Century.

Originally, as Napoleon said, armies marched on their stomachs, which is to say, their feet and foodstuffs. Then, armies marched on feet and hooves, which required foodstuffs and fodder. By the beginning of “World War Two”, armies moved on their feet and internal combustion engines, which required foodstuffs and oil. The greatest single military weakness of the Empire of Japan was that it had to import 90-95% of its oil requirements.

Thus, in order to expand permanently, Japan had to conquer its sources of oil (primarily China and the Dutch East Indies), then import that oil and other natural resources to the Home Islands, where it would support the manufacture of the various infrastructures necessary to exploit its new possessions, the quaintly-named “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Naval Marshal-General Isoroku Yamamoto, the great architect of the naval strategy of the expansion, had said that, for the first six months of a war, his military would “run crazy”. After that, if it came to a war of attrition, the odds would turn against Japan.

The more efficient strategy for the USA/USE would have been navy-centred. It would have constructed a large fleet of submarines to choke off the flow of oil tankers and cargo vessels to the Home Islands. Infantry action would have been restricted primarily to re-taking a very select number of islands, from which large air fleets could bomb convoys and selected industrial targets.

One Japanese general in occupied China is recorded as boasting that he didn’t fear the possible entry of the USSR into the Pacific War, for he would prevail with a few millions of soldiers, even were they to be reduced to bamboo staves as weapons. Patriotic bravery and sticks are all well and good, but useless against an enemy who can mow one down from a distance, by machine guns, tanks, artillery, and carpet bombing.

It’s obvious that a navy-centred strategy would have been successful with smaller loss of life, and probably in a shorter time, than the infantry-centred strategy. No invasion of the Home Islands would have been necessary, and no use of The Bomb.

One myth of the Great Pacific War, used by many to rationalize use of The Bomb, is that otherwise an invasion of the Home Islands would have been required, resulting in the deaths of a million American soldiers and countless Japanese. Piffle. By August 1945, the Japanese Empire was virtually exhausted, militarily and economically, its importing lifelines all but choked off, and would have fallen soon at any rate to an intensive naval blockade. The infantry-centred strategy had achieved a similar effect, but with far greater destruction of lives and property. (The figure of a million dead Americans was a fiction concocted by McGeorge Bundy, meant to boost sales of the memoirs of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, which Bundy was co-writing. Bundy would later serve Kennedy and Johnson as National Security Advisor, and play a prominent role in prosecuting the Second Indochina War.)

The true motivation for using The Bomb was to demonstrate its unique destructive capabilities to the wider world, thereby announcing what was obvious: that the USA/USE had become the one great hegemonic power. In the language of young people today: to show the USSR and the rest of the world that “you all our bitches now”.

At the acceptable price, to Harry S Truman and the American High Command, of the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki of more than 250,000 human beings, and of the insured beginning of a ruinous nuclear arms race which continues to this day.

Western Union would have been cheaper.


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