Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers
Part Three. The Nihilist Logic of Death
Once the sick dogs of war are unleashed, legalized murder has a Satanic logic of its own. In the US case, the agenda from December 8 onward was how to end the war as quickly as possible that it did not start and had tried to avoid through appeasement and isolationism.
In terms of Japan and its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (a more brutal but eerie forerunner of the Chinese Belt-and-Road initiative), its war machine was an engine of murder—and fueled from the Japanese mainland. And it was the mainland, that is Tokyo, that the US military from the outset of the war had wished to target, on the theory that decapitating the head of the octopus would render inert its murderous tentacles.
So the daring engineers created a radically different bomber to leap frog over the empire’s assets and, from a long and safe distance, destroy the source of Japanese bombs, shells, planes, ships, and guns—the agents of death—that had been unleashed against Asia and the Pacific for years before December 7th. Yet after investing $2 billion and witnessing the B-17 unfortunate experience between 1942-4, the B-29 was proving to be a colossal failure. There was no such thing as “precision bombing,” especially when buffeted amid a 50-100 mph jet stream, and occasional crosswinds, over cloudy Tokyo, with time over target of about 5-10 minutes, at 25,000 feet above—flying for eight hours, with another eight hours to get back home—all over the empty Pacific (before the capture of Iwo Jima). Uppers and downers were needed to keep the crews going for the 16-hour trip.
So the B-29 suffered from mechanical problems, crew exhaustion, the dangers of taking off in an overloaded plane, the difficulty of navigating by night over hundreds of miles of empty ocean, the anticipated missions of a slow, and often difficult climb to over 25,000 feet, and Japanese fighters and flak. It is misleading, as Ernie Pyle once noted, to call a B-29 sortie a “milk run.” (The rate of loss differed from bomber group to bomber group). True, about 1-2 percent of the planes were lost on an average mission, called the “Sortie Loss Rate” or more bluntly the chance of dying on any given mission.
But the minimum requirement of at least 35 missions meant that a crew could expect, at best, a one in three chance of never making it home. As a child, I remember going through my father’s mission book of the 504th Bombardment Group, looking at some 40-50 plane decals and artwork and asking about the planes in his squadron (e.g. “Did Thumper make it?” “How about ——?” And so on and on.) He usually said, “Nope…that one didn’t get through” and then added short qualifiers like “flak,” “lost,” “crashed on take-off,” “shot down,” “blew up,” “burned up on Iwo…,” etc.
So put all of this in context:
The Americans in Spring 1945, their bloodiest months of the war, had no real hope other than strategic bombing, whether conventional or perhaps eventually nuclear, to defeat Japan—unless they were to replay, at a 100-fold increase, Iwo Jima and Okinawa on the mainland. I omit the now popular idea of discussions of a negotiated armistice, given that the regime’s unconditional surrender was required to discredit and humiliate Japanese militarism, and to offer a different postwar trajectory, with face-saving retention of a culpable emperor under a constitutional system.
The American planners’ dream of a “Superfortress”—what the Flying Fortress was supposed to have been—stocked with computerized and centrally controlled override guns, fast, pressurized, invincible at nearly 30,000 feet, with a ten-ton, high-explosive bomb load, capable of flying 3,200 miles, and masterminded by an improved “top secret” Norden bombsight—proved a bomber fantasy.
Then Curtis LeMay, a coarse, blunt but authentic military genius, recalibrated the B-29, in violation of all its supposed strengths and assets, into a fast, low-level attack, night—huge 4-engine—bomber. And the resulting nightmarish inferno that was unleashed haunts us today, even though in the six months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki the bombers had all but destroyed Japanese war production and shortened the war. We naturally might doubt that two atomic bombs would have in isolation shocked Japan so quickly into surrender had its cities and industries remained untouched until August 1945.
Japan sowed the winds of war with its atrocities, and reaped history’s most lethal single day whirlwind. But the ferocity of the latter, 76 years later, makes us, of a more affluent, safer and leisured world, wish that somehow we could have been New Testament rather than Old Testament warriors.
But then again, the ghosts of those of Nanking or at Bataan, or who surrendered at Singapore, or of those rounded up in China after the Doolittle raid, or of the South Korean comfort women, or of the quarter-million subject to Japanese military crude lab experiments, or of the survivors of the Manilla, Borneo, and Malay massacres—might, well, beg to differ?