The Most Awful Day

[This piece first appeared at Eternity Road on August 6, 2005. Today being the 101st — yes, the 101st — anniversary of the day I deem “most awful” in post-Industrial Revolution history, and a number of geopolitical trends having bent in the direction of large-scale replays thereof, I felt it appropriate to repost it. — FWP]

On August 6, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, it’s your Curmudgeon’s habit to reflect on the terrible decisions that led to that event, and to ponder whether any of them might have been made differently if their makers had had foreknowledge of the things that we of this time have experienced. He’s done so before, and will probably do so again.

But not today.

Quite a number of commentators have characterized August 6, 1945, when the Enola Gay killed Hiroshima and 130,000 of its mostly civilian residents, as the most awful day in the history of the world: the day humanity exhibited both its ability and its willingness to annihilate itself in toto. It was an awful day, to be sure, but not for that reason. As of that day, we did not have the power to destroy ourselves that completely. Nor do we have it yet today, the dire mutterings of darker souls notwithstanding.

It was an awful day because, in the opinion of President Truman and his key advisors, the atomic bombing of a Japanese city was the least bad of the available tactical choices. Every other means by which they might force the Japanese to surrender had a higher total casualty figure attached. One, the amphibious invasion of the Japanese Home Islands by American troops, had been estimated to produce a million American deaths, to say nothing of how many Japanese would have died in the fighting.

There’s no way to revisit that crucial moment in history and supply those decision makers with the foreknowledge of the next sixty years. Even if one could, there’s no way to know whether it would have made a difference: in the decision they reached, or in the relative quality of the six decades since then. All one can say with certainty is that it was an awful day indeed, one we would certainly have averted if a less awful alternative had presented itself.

But what, then, was the most awful day? If Hiroshima doesn’t take the trophy, what human atrocity could?

Opinions will vary, of course. Some will go by casualty figures; others by broader and more inclusive metrics. Some will argue that calamities other than wars ought to be included in our considerations; others will reply that Nature is indifferent to human concerns, and that only Man’s inhumanities to Man should qualify for condemnation.

Your Curmudgeon’s angle on the matter is, as you might expect, an unusual one.

The Biblical story of Genesis, which your Curmudgeon considers allegorical rather than a literal narration of Creation and the Fall of Man, speaks plainly yet powerfully of the deed of Cain: the archetypal murder propelled by that deadliest of sins, envy. Note that, by the Biblical account, the Fall was an accomplished fact. Man had already been exiled from Eden. Many an analyst would say that Cain’s deed was therefore inevitable; once separated from Divine guidance, someone had to be the first to spill human blood. The use of Cain, the allegorical first child of a woman’s loins, as the protagonist in the story merely emphasizes the immediacy of the peril in which Man had placed himself by the Fall.

That approach to the event has considerable substance. Once Man had been removed from the realm of the eternal and unchanging, all possible changes, both for good and for evil, impinged upon him. Murder was only the most dramatic.

Shall we look forward in time, then? He who considers the number of deaths to be the most important measure would look to the genocides of the century past, or to the deaths of millions in our mass wars. These were genuinely horrible, doubt it not. But to your Curmudgeon, comparing the heights of mounds of flesh tends to miss the point.

The history of Man’s political and moral development records many fits and starts. Some of these are shrouded behind thick veils of time, such that we of 2005 cannot be certain how many persons, or which nations, were affected by them. But we can be reasonably certain about the Enlightenment and the moral revolution it ignited, for it remains with us today. Indeed, as our contest with the savageries of Islam should illustrate, Enlightenment concepts of rights and justice remain the most powerful and critical moral propositions known to our race.

The wars of pre-Enlightenment Europe were as savage as anything of any other time, our own included. Armed men regularly targeted and slew the unarmed when it suited them to do so. What differed was the technology available. To deal death, one had to employ personal skill and exert muscle power, which limited the amount of carnage a single man or a single army could wreak. But there can be little doubt that, had the weapons of now been available to the warriors of then, they would have used them without scruple. The moral level of the time was too low to expect otherwise.

With Enlightenment moral philosophy and the associated political concepts came a great change in warfare: the conviction that the destruction of war ought to be limited solely to those who elected to participate. As those concepts permeated the nations of the West, many of the ancient practices of war — enslavement, rapine, looting, the slaughter of non-combatants, the use of non-conbatants as cover or “human shields” — were put under the cloak of the forbidden, to be scorned by decent warriors and punished by them as they were discovered.

The West saw two centuries of steady improvement in the moral constraints on warfare. Battles came to be ever more regular, ever better confined to a designated, delimited field of conflict. Many battles were actually scheduled; meeting places and times were agreed upon beforehand between the contending forces. Statesmen and thinkers looked forward to a time when death itself might be banished from the battlefield, as an obsolete practice irrelevant to true contests of strength and virtue between the governments of civilized lands.

Until one terrible day in August.

A government with evil intentions had sent two million men marching on a mission of conquest. Its liege lord and top military planners were angry at the stubbornness of a minor power, neutral by treaty, that refused those armies free passage through its lands. The conquest-minded state decided on a strategy of intimidation. An aircraft long kept in reserve was sent aloft on a mission of terror, the first since Hume, Smith, and Locke put their stamp on the moral renaissance of the world.

The aircraft was a Zeppelin, designated the “L-Z” by the commanders of the armies of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II. Its weapons were gravity bombs, thirteen in number. Its target was the Belgian city of Liege, where the Kaiser’s troops had met unexpected resistance to their Schlieffen Plan thrust against France. Its harvest was nine civilian lives: the first civilians deliberately killed by authorized military action in the Twentieth Century.

The date was August 6, 1914.

That, to your Curmudgeon’s way of thinking, was the most awful day. The day a major Western power, nominally committed to individual rights, the rule of law, and the norms of civilized warfare, threw all of that aside in hope of imposing its will on the government of another land. The day the line between combatants and civilians was erased.

That line has not yet been redrawn. Perhaps it never will be.

No material advantage can compensate for the sacrifice of a principle. An inflexible, inviolable principle is a safeguard against villainy, a shield behind which ordinary man untouched by the irrationalities and passions of others can conduct peaceable lives in whatever degree of comfort they can contrive. But once a principle has been violated, it protects no one. Often the first violator is ultimately saddest of all over its loss.

We stand ninety-one years down the river of time from that most awful day. America, braced by its unmatched military power and technology, has regained its grasp on the principles of civilized warfare, but the forces we face have no interest in the notion. It would be a high irony if, having clambered so painfully from the pit of Hell Mankind excavated with the mass slaughters of the century past, we should once again unlearn all virtue under the tutelage of our Islamic foes. It would be an irony to defeat all others if the lesson should eventuate in their complete effacement from the Earth.