No Combat Experience, No Opinion: Parallels in Pro-bombing and Pro-choice Rhetoric

Paul Fussell, a literary critic and World War II veteran, wrote an essay in the 1980s with the arresting title “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”[1] A passionate defense of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fussell’s essay is still sometimes invoked today by bombing supporters.[2]

However, Fussell’s argument is seriously flawed—and notably similar to one used by advocates for abortion access.

Fussell’s argument resembles the standard defense of the bombings: dropping atomic bombs on two cities forced Japan to surrender without a costly US invasion of Japan and thus supposedly saved more American and Japanese lives than were lost in the bombings. Bombing supporters tend to emphasize the extreme violence of the US-Japanese war, US plans to invade Japan in late 1945, and the invasion’s probable high casualties. While commonly made, though, this defense of the bombings is unsound in many respects, such as in its claims that more lives were saved in the long run by the bombings and that the lives supposedly saved justify indiscriminate bombing.[3]

However, Fussell’s defense is fundamentally quite different from the standard version. While he touches on similar points to those made in the standard defense of the bombings, the heart of his essay isn’t the total number of lives saved versus those lost. Rather, he focuses on the experiences and attitudes of American troops. Fussell’s theme is the role of “experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views about that use of the atom bomb.”[4]

For those combat troops who would have been involved in an invasion of Japan—and Fussell was one—the atomic bombings and war’s subsequent end seemed a reprieve from near-certain death. From these troops’ perspective, the bombings were welcome and just because they saved their lives.

Fussell quotes E. B. Sledge, a Marine who fought in the Pacific War: “[M]y company was scheduled to be in the first and second waves [of the invasion of Japan]…We viewed the invasion with complete resignation that we would be killed—either on the beach or inland.”[5]

He also quotes William Manchester, another Marine veteran of the war, who provides the essay’s title:

[During the Pacific War], the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion of Japan’s home islands—a staggering number of Americans but millions more of Japanese—and you thank God for the atomic bomb.[6]

The essay’s most powerful passage is Fussell’s recollection of his own reaction to the bombings:

My division, like most of the ones transferred from Europe, was to take part in the invasion of Honshu… I was a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that [the invasion of Japan] would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.[7]

Fussell contrasts his and other veterans’ combat experiences with the lack of such experience among various critics of the bombings. Journalist Bruce Page was only nine years old in 1945, while historian Michael Sherry was “going on eight months old, in danger only of falling out of his pram.”[8]

Even contemporaries who served in the military Fussell deems inadequately experienced, if they didn’t see combat. Historian David Joravsky “came into no deadly contact with the Japanese”; and veteran J. Glenn Gray “experienced the war at [headquarters] level.”[9] The economist and bombing critic John Kenneth Galbraith “worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington” during the war, Fussell observes. He adds, “I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.”[10] From such data, Fussell draws the conclusion, “the farther from the scene of horror, the easier the talk.”[11]

The Experiences Left Out

The attitude toward the atomic bombings among veterans such as Fussell, who had already been through the horror of combat, is entirely natural and understandable. Had I been in their situation, I’m sure I would have had the same relieved reaction to the bombings. I don’t condemn Fussell or other combat veterans, as people, for being glad for the war’s end and, by extension, for the atomic bombings.

However, I will critique Fussell’s essay for not being persuasive. I see three crucial problems with his argument:

First, Fussell assumes, almost without question, that the only options available for ending the Pacific War were either an invasion of Japan or the atomic bombings. He largely doesn’t consider the option of the United States and Japan reaching some kind of negotiated truce.

Second, Fussell doesn’t consider that the combat troops’ understandable personal concern about what happened next in the Pacific in 1945 didn’t necessarily make them the best judges of the situation. Desperate, often traumatized, people with a significant personal stake in a situation don’t necessarily make the kind of careful, far-seeing decisions that should ideally shape foreign policy.

Third, and most important, Fussell’s argument from personal experience ignores a crucial set of personal experiences: those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s residents. For those tens of thousands of Japanese whom the bombings killed, maimed, or forever deprived of family members, “sheer, vulgar experience” provided a very different conclusion about the correctness of dropping the bombs. As one commentator observed, the “experience thing cuts both ways.”[12]

I see no reason why the experience of Allied combat troops slated to invade Japan should trump that of the men, women, and children killed in the atomic bombings. Fussell laments that combat veterans who support the bombings “have remained silent about what they know.”[13] Yet the voices of at least 100,000 residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have also been silenced, in a far more definitive way.

Granted, a bombing advocate could respond by arguing that a diplomatic resolution to the war was unrealistic; that a government’s first responsibility is to take care of its own people, including its troops; or that the bombings ultimately saved more lives than were lost. Whatever one thinks of such arguments, though, they make Fussell’s appeal to personal experience irrelevant. These arguments involve a dispassionate assessment of the situation, the kind of armchair theorizing that Fussell scorns when done by bombing opponents. The personal experiences of combat veterans, powerful though they are, don’t prove anything by themselves.

“No Uterus, No Opinion”

Fussell’s claim that only one group of people, those directly affected by an act of violence, can credibly make judgments on this act is similar to claims made by advocates for abortion access. While Fussell argues that only combat troops slated to invade Japan can speak with authority on the atomic bombings, pro-choice advocates sometimes argue that only women can speak with authority on abortion.

This is reflected in the slogan “No Uterus, No Opinion.” It’s reflected in the (highly questionable) claim that most pro-life leaders are men who will never be pregnant.[14] Alesha Doan, a pro-choice public-affairs professor at the University of Kansas, comments that “I think [abortion] has been defined as exclusively a women’s-rights issue that therefore has to only be dealt with by women.”[15] (Doan and other pro-choicers have even expressed concern about this attitude, in some cases because it alienates potential pro-choice male allies.)[16]

Moreover, this pro-choice emphasis on experience could be taken a step further to exclude anyone who hasn’t been through a crisis pregnancy—much as Fussell rejects the perspective of troops who didn’t experience combat. For example, the cartoonist Lynda Barry, who writes powerfully about getting an abortion amid dire personal circumstances, sounds a similar note as Fussell. Referring to anti-abortion protesters, Barry writes, “Those people out there, they come from another world. They’ll never know what it means to come from our street.”[17]

However, the position that only women or only those who have faced crisis pregnancies can speak credibly on abortion has the same fundamental problem as Fussell’s position. This stance excludes the interests of other people centrally concerned with abortion: the children in the womb who are killed by it. Again, the experience thing cuts both ways. One could turn around the familiar slogan to say “No Threat of Death by Dismemberment, No Opinion.”

Pro-choice advocates could respond that a human organism in the womb doesn’t have the same rights as a pregnant woman. Or they could argue that the woman’s rights trump whatever rights the child in the womb might have. However, as with the atomic bombings, raising these types of arguments again moves us away from direct personal experience and into larger abstract issues that someone can analyze without having “sheer, vulgar experience.”

Personal experience certainly matters, especially in situations as serious as war or crisis pregnancies. People who face such situations deserve our utmost sympathy and support. Those of us who haven’t faced these situations – and never will – should be exceedingly humble and shouldn’t condemn people in these situations.

We also shouldn’t let our lack of experience lead us to abandon our own judgment or concern for the lives of all the people involved. Rather, we should apply ourselves to finding nonviolent responses to situations that are all too often dealt with through violence, whether from a suction machine or an atom bomb.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.

Notes

[1] The essay originally appeared in the New Republic: Paul Fussell, “Hiroshima: A Soldier’s View,” New Republic, August 22 & 29, 1981, 26–30. A revised and expanded version later appeared as the title essay in a collection of Fussell’s works: Paul Fussell, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 13–37. I have relied on the later version of the essay here. This version’s text is available online at https://bit.ly/3lFSpGE; accessed September 18, 2021.

[2] See, for example, Paul Baumann, “Saved by the Bomb?,” Commonweal, October 8, 2020, https://bit.ly/3Ayx9c9; Austin Bay, “’Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,’” On Point column, August 2, 2005, available at StrategyPage, accessed September 18, 2021, https://bit.ly/3kov9Od; Bret Stephens, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2015, https://on.wsj.com/3zt2cF6.

[3] See “‘More Lives Were Saved’: Annihilated Cities and Choosing the Lesser Evil,” “The Wages of War: How Abortion Came to Japan,” and “The Wages of War, Part 2: How Forced Sterilization Came to Japan.”

[4] Fussell, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” 14.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Ibid., 20.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 24, 19.

[9] Ibid., 21, 29.

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] Ibid., 19.

[12] Matthew Walther, “The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Were War Crimes. Full Stop,” The Week, August 8, 2017, https://bit.ly/3u93ioi.

[13] Fussell, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” 15.

[14] For critiques of this claim, see “The ‘Anti-Choice War On Women,’” Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, January 23, 2014, https://bit.ly/2XYQXYb; and “No, Men Aren’t 77% of Anti-abortion Leaders,” Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, July 22, 2015, https://bit.ly/3lXfvZJ.

[15] Ashley Fetters, “Men Aren’t Quite Sure How To Be Abortion-Rights Activists,” Atlantic Monthly, June 10, 2019, https://bit.ly/3oaVi5c.

[16] Ibid.; see also Carla Naumburg, “Actually, I Think Men Should Have an Opinion About My Uterus,” HuffPost, October 28, 2012, https://bit.ly/3AVmTLv.

[17] Lynda Barry, “Forum: She’s Come for an Abortion. What Do You Say?,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1992, 46.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.    

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