Pandemic Letter 24 – Anzac Day (25/04/2021)

The bombing by Japan of the United States fleet at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a tactical success, the US Pacific fleet then stationed in Hawaii being largely destroyed.  But it was a strategic disaster recasting isolationist opinion in the US in favour of resistance to Japan.

There had been plenty of warning of war with Japan.  In 1931 the Japanese had invaded Manchuria.  In 1937 the Japanese invaded China.  In September 1940 Japan invaded Vietnam.  On 27 September 1941 Japan signed a treaty of support with Germany and Italy.  The US expected a Japanese attack, perhaps, on its colony, the Philippines – but incompetent US naval leaders did not take adequate precautions against an attack on Pearl Harbour.

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour the Japanese commenced the invasion of Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and Papua New Guinea.  On 23 January 1942 Rabaul was captured.  On 19 February 1942 Darwin was bombed.  Over the following 19 months Australia was attacked from the air almost 100 times.

Of the countries that were at risk of Japanese aggression, only the US had the industrial and military capacity to successfully resist.  The US had the capacity of produce far more ships and planes, far more quickly than Japan.  Between 1939 and 1945, the Axis powers built 1600 new ships.  The Allies, mainly the US, built more than 55,000 new ships.  That was 40 new ships per day, 365 days per year. The US had a far greater capacity than Japan to produce the trucks, tanks, landing craft, ammunition and equipment needed to prosecute the war.

So, the tactically successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was strategically disastrous, ensuring in the long-term Japan’s defeat, once the United States had assembled the required industrial, naval and military resources.

The Pacific war was about access to natural resources.  The Japanese attacks on Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Malaya, and French Indo China, in particular, were an attempt to secure reliable reserves of oil, rubber, tin, iron ore and other material for the manufacture of steel-as well as sugar, pepper, rice and tea.

Despite Australian fears (and propaganda), the Japanese made a decision in 1942, after significant argument between proponents and opponents of invasion, not to invade Australia.  The distances involved, and the resulting stretching of supply lines, the necessary reallocation of military and naval resources, made invasion of Australia just too difficult.  Australia was to be isolated from the United States, and forced into submission without actual invasion.  Nevertheless, there were Japanese attacks on Australia, attacks which had limited tactical objectives (air raids on northern Australia intended to prevent attacks on Japanese positions elsewhere).

Australia, following the outbreak in 1939 of World War II, fought against Germany and its allies, in Europe and the Middle East.  But Australia fought in a second, largely separate war against Japan from 1942, as an ally of the United States.  Australian forces in the Pacific war were engaged, particularly in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Borneo, and the Philippines.

The Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the first battle in history fought entirely by aircraft carrier-based planes, the first sea battle in which opposing fleets never actually sighted each other, ended the planned Japanese invasion of Port Moresby. Australian forces resisted an alternative Japanese advance by land along the Kokoda Trail, hoping to seize Port Moresby, in some of the most hard-fought fighting of the Pacific War.  The Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942 resulted in the loss by the Japanese of the initiative in the Pacific war.  The US after Coral Sea and Midway steadily pushed the Japanese back towards the homeland.

The sea and land battles at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, mainly in the second half of 1942, the Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the Battle for Iwo Jima in February March 1945, and the Battle for Okinawa in April-June 1945, were all Japanese defeats.  The Americans came closer and closer to islands from which they could bomb Japan, and from which they could launch an invasion of the Japanese heartland.

The Japanese were tactically astute opponents, always courageous, usually willing to fight to the death.  In the latter part of the war, as kamikaze pilots, they flew to certain death at American ships.  Rarely did Japanese soldiers surrender, preferring death, even when circumstances were hopeless.  The taking of Japanese prisoners of war was hazardous as, despite a white flag, the Japanese, on occasion, used purported surrender as an opportunity for attack.  On occasion, Allied troops, relying on a white flag as a sign of surrender, were killed or injured by a hand grenade secreted by a Japanese soldier.  Not surprisingly, this made Allied troops cautious about accepting surrender as bona fide.

Japanese mistreatment of prisoners of war was systemic and shameful.  More than half of Australian prisoners in Japanese hands died as result of deliberate Japanese exposure to starvation and disease.  Australian prisoners of war were tortured and killed, and used as slave laborers.

By late 1944, industrial production in Japan had largely ceased as US attacks on Japanese shipping denied Japan the necessary raw materials.

The US bombing of Japanese non-combatants is the most controversial aspect of the response to Japan. Commencing in November 1944 US planes, dropping conventional bombs, systematically destroyed civilian areas, killing 250,000 non-combatants, injuring almost double that number, and leaving one-third of Japan’s population homeless.  On 6 August 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima killing between 70,000 and 160,000 non-combatants.  On 9 August 1945 a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing in total between 39,000 and 180,000 non-combatants.

On 15 August 1945 the Emperor Hirohito in a recorded radio message to the people of Japan stated: “I am determined to save the lives of my people”.  The Emperor stated Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration.

On 26 July 1945 the US, Britain and China in the Potsdam Declaration had invited Japan to surrender.  If Japan would not agree to surrender on these terms, there would be prompt and utter destruction. In dropping the two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima, and one on Nagasaki, the Americans had been as good as their word. Following the Emperor’s radio broadcast on 15 August 1945 President Truman ordered American field commanders to cease hostile action. On 2 September 1945, on board the US Missouri in Tokyo Bay, representatives of Japan signed the instrument of surrender.

What was thought to be 200,000-300,000 American lives likely to be lost in an American invasion of Japan were saved.  Japanese culture saw no option but to fight to the death in the event that Japan was invaded.  Every living Japanese was to be sacrificed rather than suffer the shame of surrender.  All males over 15 were to be part of the military, as were all females between 17 and 45.  Every soldier was to fight to the last. This was the culture which was overcome by Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast.

The case for dropping the two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima, and one on Nagasaki, was a utilitarian one.  Another view is that one may never do evil that good might come.  Dropping bombs on non-combatants is always wrong.  The utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill runs up against the just war theory which condemns the deliberate killing in war of non-combatants. American policy, like British policy of mass bombing of German non-combatants, was utilitarian.

One difficulty with utilitarian reasoning about basic human goods such as human life is that it is literally impossible to measure all the consequences that flow from taking one human life, let alone thousands of human lives.  It is impossible to see into the future to answer the question – what if?  A second difficulty with the so-called utilitarian calculus is how one gives weight to incalculable goods, for instance, human life.  How does one assign weight to an American life as opposed to a Japanese life?  A third difficulty is that in utilitarian reasoning focus is narrowed, and other possibilities are often ignored.  For instance, why was it necessary to insist on unconditional surrender? and occupation of Japan?  Even before the dropping of the two atomic bombs Japan had been rendered harmless.  Who is to say that Japanese non-combatants, exhausted by destruction of their homes and privation, would have in fact resisted American invasion and occupation?  Might a Japanese surrender have been achieved by an atomic bomb in a remote part of Japan?  A fourth difficulty with utilitarian reasoning is that it can be used to justify anything – slavery, unsafe working conditions, underpayment of workers, aggressive warfare, expropriation of property, murder, theft, rape, pornography, environmental degradation, mistreatment of minorities, destruction of families, killing of the sick, the disabled, the handicapped.  One can always pragmatically justify any sort of inhuman behaviour.  Literally, utilitarian reasoning proves too much.

We commonly engage in rough and ready reasoning about non basic goods.  Is one brand of refrigerator to be preferred to another? ought one take the train to work? or run? or drive? should one buy a house in the Blue Mountains or in Wollongong? One readily assesses the pros and cons of different alternatives. But this type of rough and ready cost benefit analysis is of little value when considering basic goods such as human life.

There can be no doubt in the mind of any reader of Pope Francis’ third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (2020), where Pope Francis stands in relation to war.  Pope Francis is against war, not least because of its devastating consequences for human beings.  Pope Francis says it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a just war. Central to Pope Francis’ thinking is the development of nuclear, chemical, biological and space weapons, and the accompanying destructive power of such weapons over great numbers of innocent civilians.

Pope Francis’ comments must be read in the light of technological developments which ensure that any future war between great powers will have terrible consequences, not only for the people of those great powers, but for people generally.  A future war between great powers will involve hacking of computer systems, and destruction of infrastructure critical to the running of modern society-communications, financial systems, health services, power, transport, water.  A war between two or more great powers will be far more devastating than any war we have ever known.  The coronavirus pandemic is a mild foretaste of war involving biological weapons.

Pope Francis’ comments are tentative, and must be read in the light of a two thousand year tradition, and weighed up in their application to particular circumstances. The just war tradition is well summarised in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992):

“All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.  Nevertheless, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defence, once all peace efforts have failed.”

The strict conditions for legitimate defence by military force involve:

  1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain.
  2.  All other means of putting an end to the damage must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
  3. There must be serious prospects of success.
  4. Use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.  The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavy in evaluating this condition.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

The moral law remains permanently valid during armed conflicts.  The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out, does not mean that everything begins licit between the warring parties.  Non-combatants, wounded soldiers and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.

Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are orders that command such actions.  Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out.

The extermination of a people, a nation or ethnic or minority must be condemned as a mortal sin.  One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide. 

Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.

A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons – especially atomic, biological or chemical weapons – to commit such crimes.

Applying the principles of the just war tradition demands prudence, which, on occasion, will lead different minds, acting conscientiously, to different conclusions. The United States resistance to Japanese aggression, upon which Australia depended, illustrates the many decisions made in wartime, often made in circumstances of limited and uncertain information, decisions of great difficulty, but on which the common good depends.

Today the circumstances in which Australia finds itself, are very different from those in 1941.  But, as in 1941, in the event of aggression by a major power heedless of the rights of others, deaf to negotiation, indifferent to international law, without the support of the United States, Australia would be overwhelmed.  The way of life which we now enjoy in Australia, would be at an end.  We cannot stand alone.
We honour all those who fought with valour in the Second World War, all those who were injured or died, in particular, both Australian and US servicemen and women. Those who still survive are in their 90’s or even older.  We, who have benefited from their sacrifices, honour them. 

Michael McAuley
ANZAC Day, 25 April 2021