August sixth, last week, was the seventieth anniversary of the destruction of the Japanese city of Nagasaki with the second, and last, atomic bomb used in warfare. The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan killed almost 130,000 people immediately, and the eventual death toll was estimated at close to a quarter million people, of whom only about 20,000 were military personnel.
In ceremonies memorializing the event, at least one speaker asked for the abolition of atomic weapons as “inhumane.” That got me to thinking. While there’s no doubt that an atomic weapon is “inhumane,” is there any effective weapon used in war that is “humane”?
The allied firebombing of Dresden in February of 1945 killed 25,000 civilians. The Japanese attack on the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, known popularly as “the rape of Nanking” resulted in 200,000 civilian deaths, according to the International Military Tribunal, largely inflicted by rifles, grenades, and bayonets. Arrows, swords, and trampling by horses resulted in the death of over 200,000 civilians when the Mongols sacked Bagdad in 1258. If my sources are correct, there have been at least seventy wars in the last 2000 years with death tolls exceeding 100,000 people, and almost thirty with death tolls exceeding a million people.
So why are atomic weapons any more inhumane than any other weapons? Given all these wars and deaths, all of these wars that were waged by people, human beings attacking other human beings, what do we mean when someone talks about atomic weapons being especially inhumane?
The word “inhumane” and its linguistic roots mean “not human” or “not having the qualities of a human being.” Yet, obviously, it’s very human for human beings to slaughter other human beings. As far back as archeologists have been able to find human remains that can be analyzed, they find a significant percentage, roughly fifteen percent, of the individuals died violent deaths from weapons.
Today, we use the word “humane” to denote kindly or civilized conduct toward others and showing a lack of cruelty toward animals, but isn’t that almost a combination of wishful thinking and hypocrisy?