As unexpected as it was that the Barbie movie would spark such a widespread and intense cultural conversation, Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer," a film about the brilliant and broken man who became the father of the atomic bomb, has too. The film tells the story of the man who gave the world the power to destroy itself, or as Oppenheimer famously put it, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
Atomic weapons have been a constant source of debate since their initial use to end the war against Japan in 1945. At the time, Christians had a dual reaction. On one hand, many breathed a sigh of relief that the long war was over, that the boys would come home and that there would be no further repeats of the devastation seen at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where Japanese resistance was so fanatical that they fought almost to the last man. On the other hand, Christians shared the widespread sense that a deadly Pandora's box had been opened and that there was no way to go back to a world before "the Bomb."
Certainly, the sheer destruction and the immense casualties leveled on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are difficult to justify. America has also been accused of racist motivations in dropping the bomb and in overlooking the significance of the Aug. 8 Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the weakened state of the Japanese military that late into the war.
The fact remains, numerous factors must be considered in light of some ethical framework. By far the best framework for considering war comes from the Christian contribution of the just-war doctrine. Specifically, in what is known as "jus in bello," just-war doctrine says that for a war, or even part of a war, to be considered moral, it must only be done for the right reasons and in the right ways.
For example, while civilian deaths are inevitable, particularly in modern war, noncombatants must never be targeted. This was recently argued again by Adam Mount in Foreign Policy magazine. He wrote that in dropping the bomb, Japanese civilians weren't merely collateral damage but intentionally killed as an act of terror to scare Tokyo into surrendering. In response, Marc LiVecche wrote in Providence magazine that the attacks were indeed a demonstration to the Japanese government, but the target of destruction were the cities, not the people within them.
It's also significant to keep in mind the pressures of the cultural moment. President Truman faced the brutal question of how to end the immense suffering of a war that had gone on so long, when great suffering would follow no matter what he did. As such, doing nothing would not have been a preferable moral option. The Japanese empire had for years been perpetuating great evil upon its neighbors, leaving millions dead and millions more enslaved.
Had the Americans gone ahead with the planned "downfall" invasions of Japan, the death toll might have made the atomic attacks pale in comparison. Simply blockading Japan without direct attacks of any sort would have left millions of Japanese people to slowly starve before the military caved, something they'd already demonstrated an intense unwillingness to do.
From the comfort and safety of distance and time, it is much easier to issue a simple proclamation. Reality on the ground at the time is not so simple, and theological reflection, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, must be done in the "tempest of the living." Centuries ago, when asked by a Roman officer if he could, in good Christian conscience, continue his work as a soldier, St. Augustine replied, "Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace." Just-war doctrine warns us that any and all actions in a war must not be seen as their own end but only as the means toward a greater end.
War is always awful and sometimes necessary. The great virtue found in just-war doctrine is not that it allows for a clean war, free from doubt about our actions. There's no such thing. However, it can help guide those forced to do terrible things in the face of horrible options.
From Breakpoint, Aug. 8, 2023; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.