No Combat Experience, No Opinion: Parallels in Pro-bombing and Pro-choice Rhetoric
by John Whitehead
Paul Fussell, a literary critic and World War II veteran, wrote an essay in the 1980s with the arresting title “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” A passionate defense of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fussell’s essay is still sometimes invoked today by bombing supporters.
However, Fussell’s argument is seriously flawed—and notably similar to one used by advocates for abortion access.
Fussell’s argument resembles the standard defense: dropping atomic bombs on two cities forced Japan to surrender without a costly US invasion of Japan and thus ultimately saved more American and Japanese lives than were lost in the bombings. Bombing supporters emphasize the extreme violence of the US-Japanese war, US plans to invade Japan in late 1945, and the invasion’s probable high casualties. Many aspects of this defense are unsound, such as claims that more lives were saved in the long run and that this justifies indiscriminate bombing.
However, Fussell’s defense is fundamentally quite different from the standard version. The heart of his essay isn’t the total number of lives saved versus those lost but the experiences and attitudes of American troops. Fussell’s theme is the role of “experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views.”
For those combat troops who would have been involved in an invasion of Japan—and Fussell was one—the atomic bombings and war’s subsequent end seemed a reprieve from near-certain death.
Fussell quotes various combat veterans, but the essay’s most powerful passage is on his own reaction:
My division, like most of the ones transferred from Europe, was to take part in the invasion of Honshu… I was a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that [the invasion of Japan] would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all. (Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, p. 28)
Fussell contrasts his and other veterans’ combat experience with the lack of such experience among various critics of the bombings. Journalist Bruce Page was only nine years old in 1945, while historian Michael Sherry was “going on eight months old, in danger only of falling out of his pram.”
Even contemporaries who served in the military Fussell deems inadequately experienced, if they didn’t see combat. Historian David Joravsky “came into no deadly contact with the Japanese”; and veteran J. Glenn Gray “experienced the war at [headquarters] level.” The economist and bombing critic John Kenneth Galbraith “worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington” during the war, Fussell observes. He adds, “I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.”
The Experiences Left Out
The attitude toward the atomic bombings among veterans such as Fussell, who had already been through the horror of combat, is entirely natural and understandable. Had I been in their situation, I’m sure I would’ve had the same relieved reaction. I don’t condemn Fussell or other combat veterans, as people, for being glad for the war’s end and, by extension, for the atomic bombings.
However, I will critique Fussell’s essay for not being persuasive. I see three crucial problems with his argument:
First, Fussell assumes, almost without question, that the only options available for ending the Pacific War were either an invasion of Japan or atomic bombing. He largely doesn’t consider the option of the United States and Japan reaching some kind of negotiated truce.
Second, Fussell doesn’t consider that the combat troops’ understandable personal concern about what happened next in the Pacific in 1945 didn’t necessarily make them the best judges of the situation. Desperate, often traumatized, people with a significant personal stake in a situation don’t necessarily make the kind of careful, far-seeing decisions that should ideally shape foreign policy.
Third, and most important, Fussell’s argument from personal experience ignores a crucial set of personal experiences: those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s residents. For those tens of thousands of Japanese whom the bombings killed, maimed, or forever deprived of family members, “sheer, vulgar experience” provided a very different conclusion about the correctness of dropping the bombs. As one commentator observed, the “experience thing cuts both ways.”
I see no reason why the experience of Allied combat troops slated to invade Japan should trump that of the men, women, and children killed in the atomic bombings. Fussell laments that combat veterans who support the bombings “have remained silent about what they know.” Yet the voices of at least 100,000 residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have also been silenced, in a far more definitive way.
Granted, a bombing advocate could respond by arguing that a diplomatic resolution to the war was unrealistic; that a government’s first responsibility is to take care of its own people, including its troops; or that the bombings ultimately saved more lives than were lost. Whatever one thinks of such arguments, though, they make Fussell’s appeal to personal experience irrelevant. These arguments involve a dispassionate assessment of the situation, the kind of armchair theorizing that Fussell scorns when done by bombing opponents. The personal experiences of combat veterans, powerful though they are, don’t prove anything by themselves.
“No Uterus, No Opinion”
Fussell’s claim that only one group of people, those directly affected by an act of violence, can credibly make judgments on this act is similar to claims made by advocates for abortion access. While Fussell argues that only combat troops slated to invade Japan can speak with authority on the atomic bombings, pro-choice advocates sometimes argue that only women can speak with authority on abortion.
This is reflected in the slogan “No Uterus, No Opinion.” It’s reflected in the (highly questionable) claim that most pro-life leaders are men who will never be pregnant. Alesha Doan, a pro-choice public-affairs professor at the University of Kansas, comments that “I think [abortion] has been defined as exclusively a women’s-rights issue that therefore has to only be dealt with by women.” (Doan and other pro-choicers have even expressed concern about this attitude, in some cases because it alienates potential pro-choice male allies.)
Moreover, this pro-choice emphasis on experience could be taken a step further to exclude anyone who hasn’t been through a crisis pregnancy—much as Fussell rejects the perspective of troops who didn’t experience combat. The cartoonist Lynda Barry, who writes powerfully about getting an abortion amid dire personal circumstances, sounds a similar note as Fussell, writing of anti-abortion protesters, “Those people out there, they come from another world. They’ll never know what it means to come from our street.” (Harper’s Magazine, November 1992, p. 46)
However, the position that only women or only those who have faced crisis pregnancies can speak credibly on abortion has the same fundamental problem as Fussell’s position. This stance excludes the interests of other people centrally concerned with abortion: the children in the womb who are killed by it. Again, the experience thing cuts both ways. One could turn around the familiar slogan to say “No Threat of Death by Dismemberment, No Opinion.”
Pro-choice advocates could respond that a human organism in the womb doesn’t have the same rights as a pregnant woman. Or they could argue that the woman’s rights trump whatever rights the child in the womb might have. However, as with the atomic bombings, raising these types of arguments again moves us away from direct personal experience and into larger abstract issues that someone can analyze without having “sheer, vulgar experience.”
Personal experience certainly matters, especially in situations as serious as war or crisis pregnancies. People who face such situations deserve our utmost sympathy and support. Those of us who haven’t faced these situations – and never will – should be exceedingly humble and shouldn’t condemn people in these situations.
We also shouldn’t let our lack of experience lead us to abandon our own judgment or concern for the lives of all the people involved. Rather, we should apply ourselves to finding nonviolent responses to situations that are all too often dealt with through violence, whether from a suction machine or an atom bomb.
For more of our posts on the theme of men’s say in abortion policy, see:
For more of our posts on the theme on the atomic bombings and their aftermath, see: