The Trouble with Tibbets

 When called upon to do the unthinkable, Colonel Paul Tibbets didn’t think—he acted

Paul Tibbets, the pilot of Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that delivered the first—and, hopefully, second to last—nuclear warhead in wartime, died in Columbus, Ohio, on November 1 at the age of 92. Tibbets was a pilot of the old school. As a 30-year-old colonel in the US Air Force, he was content to follow orders, regardless of the consequences, terrible or otherwise.

Throughout the long aftermath of the bombing, which instantly killed about 70,000 and led to the death of perhaps 130,000 others, Tibbets seemed more upset by criticism of this act than by any pangs of conscience. He also took pride in the professionalism with which he achieved his task.

“What they needed was someone who could do this and not flinch, and that was me” he was quoted as saying.

Colonel Paul Tibbets
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 put 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 to one side is now routinely lambasted by writers, politicians and other commentators, as if each man and woman 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 “obeying orders” defense, has become a symbol of mankind’s tendency to entrust moral decisions to immoral military juggernauts. Placing Tibbets in such company automatically casts the atomic bombing of Japan in a bad light.

Those who support the 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. The counter-argument says that 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 national pride and integrity in the face of a demand for unconditional surrender. It is also often contended that exploding the bomb on an unoccupied part of Japan may have had the same effect.

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

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 the one that best refelcts the mood or instinct of the moment is chosen.

The Japanese delegation at the surrender ceremony.
After four years of bloody fighting, accompanied by the dehumanizing 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 and regrets that have come from the 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—unconditionally surrender—with honor. For those motivated by the bushido code, as most of Japan’s military elite were at the time, surrender was simply unthinkable. The only way to make men who hold their own lives to be worthless 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 postwar 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.

Metropolis Magazine
23rd November, 2007

Share on Google Plus

About C.B.Liddell


Post a Comment