The Trouble With Tibbets

Paul Tibbets, the pilot of Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that delivered the first – and hopefully the 2nd last – nuclear warhead in wartime, who died recently at the age of 92, was an air force pilot of the old school. As a 30-year-old colonel in the US Air Force he was someone content to follow orders, regardless of the consequences, terrible or otherwise.

Throughout the long aftermath of the nuclear bombing, which instantly killed about 70,000 and led to the subsequent death of perhaps 130,000 others, he seemed more upset by criticism of this nuclear act of war than by any pangs of conscience for the deaths he had helped cause. He also took pride in the professionalism with which he achieved his task. Once he was quoted as saying “What they needed was someone who could do this and not flinch — and that was me.”

If an accident of birth had placed Tibbets in Nazi Germany, there is every chance that, had he survived the war, he would have been one of those on trial at Nuremburg for having ‘obeyed orders.’ This attitude of deferring to superiors further up the chain of command and pushing any personal qualms or thoughts to one side is now routinely lambasted by writers, politicians, and other commentators, as if each man and women were capable of being a perfect oracle of moral truth in a morally complicated universe.

Tibbets, along with the the stiff-necked Waffen SS men spouting their routine defence “I vas only obeying orders,” has become a symbol of mankind’s tendency to place its faith in immoral military juggernauts and take a back seat when moral decisions are made. Also, placing Tibbets in such company automatically casts the atomic bombing of Japan in a bad light.

Those who support the atomic bombing are forced to make the argument that although tens of thousands of innocents were killed, millions more were saved by the shortening of the war, which sets the alarming moral precedent of justifying the murder of innocents for a greater hypothetical good. By 1945 the war could have been stopped just as quickly by the Allies offering a negotiated peace with Japan, which at that time was fighting merely for its pride and integrity as a nation in the face of an Allied demand for unconditional surrender. Also, it is often contended that exploding the bomb on an unoccupied part of Japan may have had the same effect of forcing Japan’s surrender.

But such hypotheses, made in cool retrospect, ignore the basic reason why many behave as Tibbets did and why tragedies like Hiroshima happen. They reflect humankind’s limited capacity both individually and collectively to think things through comprehensively, rationally, and morally.

In individual terms, Tibbets seems to have been the type who instinctively knew what he was equipped to do and what he was not equipped to do. He knew, for instance, how to climb into the clockpit of a B-29 and deliver its payload of mass death with unerring accuracy. But he also knew he wasn’t equipped to deal with the wider moral questions and ramifications of the war with any degree of authority, just as a patient being operated on by a surgeon knows that he had better shut up and let the surgeon get on with his work.

On the 60th anniversary of the bombings he said, “We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background. We knew it was going to kill people right and left. But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible.”

Collectively, human society has enough brains, knowledge, and history to arrive at the correct decision, but more often than not several competing ‘correct decisions’ are reached, and then the one that best reflects the mood or instinct of the moment is chosen.

After four years of bloody fighting, accompanied by the necessarily dehumanizung propaganda needed to maintain a war spirit, the mood of America was not to be too particular about the way it employed its new ace card. The fact that Hiroshima and not Tokyo was chosen, however, shows that the Americans weren’t completely carried away by war mania. The preservation of the Emperor and a Japanese government that could surrender on behalf of the whole nation was a rational choice.

Given the subsequent hand-wringing, moral doubts, and regrets that have been produced by American society’s lengthy postmortem of the bombings, the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japanese cities was more a reflection of America’s mood and instincts at the time than a product of its inherent Christian and humanist beliefs. But often instinct, rather than the web of petty rationalizations by which we normally make our most heavily considered decisions, has a Zen-like ability to cut through the doubts and confusion to arrive instantly at the truth.

The real value of the atomic bombing was the way it enabled Japan to do the dishonorable – unconditional surrender – with honor. For someone motivated by the bushido code, as most of Japan’s military elite were at the time, surrender was simply unthinkable. Holding their own lives to be worthless, the only way to make such men accept the idea of surrender was to threaten the utter destruction of all they loved – their families, homes, temples, and the nation itself. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought this possibility into their minds in a way that mass firebombings or a nuclear demonstration on some isolated rock couldn't

Tibbets may only have troubled himself with these issues as he became a focus of the post-war analysis and debate, but, at the time he acted, he was willing to be the unthinking tool of the great, brutal, instinctive urge that ended the war as perhaps nothing else could.

Colin Liddell
Kansai Time Out
November 2007

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