From Hiroshima to Iraq and Back

August
6 asks much of U.S. citizens, as the date silently demands an
accounting of the decision in 1945 to drop a nuclear weapon on
Hiroshima and unleash on the world the atomic age.
But this date also should compel us to consider our current choices
about freedom and security, an equation that has haunted us since
1945 and is at stake today in Iraq.

Harry Truman’s initial justification for using a nuclear
weapon was that it would save U.S. lives by compelling Japan to
surrender and sparing casualties that would come with an invasion.
But this argument that nuclear weapons were a necessary evil hasn’t
stood up, as legitimate questions have been raised about Truman’s
justification.

Historians
have shown that U.S. officials knew Japan was on the verge of
surrender before the bomb was dropped and that Truman’s
later claims about projected U.S. casualties in an invasion were
grossly inflated. Indeed, many of Truman’s own military
advisers argued against dropping the bomb or dropping it on heavily
populated areas.

There
is widespread agreement, however, about one other purpose: Bombing
Hiroshima sent an unambiguous signal to the Soviet Union and the
world that the United States intended to exert its dominance in
the post-war world, by any means necessary. In other words, dropping
the bomb was a political statement even if it was not a military
necessity. A certain conception of post-war politics led Truman
to incinerate upwards of 100,000 Japanese, mostly civilians, and
start a costly nuclear arms race. It also led the majority of
successive generations of Americans to believe that the risk of
nuclear holocaust was acceptable — that we were, as the saying
went, better off dead than red.

This
five-decade near-consensus that U.S. political goals were worth
the risk of nuclear war remained intact until made irrelevant
by the demise of the Soviet Union. The war in Iraq has made it
clear that a new consensus about how to secure the “American
way of life” is not only desirable but essential.

The
war in Iraq began as a promise to the American people: If you
risk the lives of your children, we can eliminate a leader who
is complicit in 9/11 and has weapons of mass destruction to use
in future attacks. When these justifications proved fictitious,
the casus belli morphed into a war to spread democracy and destroy
terrorists before they cross our borders. This bargain has proven
equally problematic, as Americans and Iraqis are killed in a conflict
that is creating more terrorists and fueling a coming anti-American
century.

The
consequences of the new grand bargain we are accepting with respect
to our way of life and our own security are becoming clear:

–The
economic damage caused by a costly war, not at first honestly
acknowledged.

–The
reputation of the United States abroad, already on shaky ground,
further degraded.

–The
use of torture, targeted assassination of civilians, blackmail
by detaining children and wives, tactics that are illegal or
considered unacceptable in most of the world

— adding to the moral decline in the United States.

–The transformation of Iraq into a training ground for tomorrow’s
terrorists, deepening the hostility toward the United States
and the West in the next generation of Arabs and Muslims.

Will
it take 60 years to understand that in the aftermath of 9/11 the
United States squandered the world’s good will and created
a world in which it had to rely upon the repeated use of military
force abroad to attempt to assure security at home? Can we understand
now that such a policy — no matter what its morality and legality
— is doomed to fail?

In 1945 Harry Truman ushered in the Cold War with questionable
claims about the necessity of using nuclear weapons. In 2005 George
W. Bush tells us we’ll be safer from terrorism if we continue
to occupy a country that had no connection to the 9/11 terrorists
until our invasion and the presence of U.S. troops brought them
to Iraq.

Hiroshima’s
relevance to Iraq today goes beyond encouraging us to question
the president’s initial justifications; it begs us to consider
whether acquiescing to this obfuscation won’t put us on
a course that we later regret.

Sharon K. Weiner is an assistant professor in
the School of International Service at American University and
can be reached at skweiner@american.edu
.

Robert
Jensen
is an associate professor in the School of Journalism
at the University of Texas at Austin and can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.