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Sheen and Hiroshima

These days there is no shortage of doomsayers. Many across the political and religious spectrum feel a profound sense of disease and uncertainty, even fear, about the present state of world affairs. Despite a shared sense of crisis, there is very little agreement on the source of this crisis. Those of a more conservative or traditional orientation often find the source in the great upheavals of the 1960s.

I would like to begin this column with an observation by a traditional Catholic thinker reflecting on the 1960s in 1974, while these changes were still fresh:

See how much the world has changed? Now, what made it change? I think maybe we can pinpoint a date: 8:15 in the morning, the sixth of August, 1945. Can any of you recall what happened on that day? … it was the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. When we flew an American plane over this Japanese city and dropped the atomic bomb on it we blotted out boundaries. There was no longer a boundary between the civilian and the military, between the helper and the helped, between the wounded and the nurse and the doctor, between the living and the dead – for even the living who escaped the bomb were already half-dead. So we broke down boundaries and limits and from that time on the world has said ‘We want no one limiting me’. So that, you people have heard the song, you’ve sung it yourselves: ‘I gotta be me, I gotta be free’. We want no restraint, no boundaries, no limits. Have to do what I want to do. Now let’s analyse that for a moment. Is that happiness: I gotta be me, I’ve got to have my own identity?”1

The author of this reflection: Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. I admit that despite my own sympathy for sweeping synthesis, the direct line from Hiroshima to cultural revolution seems at first glance a bit of a stretch. Still, entering the anniversary month of Hiroshima in a time of apparent crisis, it seems worth taking a second glance at Sheen’s provocative reflection.

The notion that actions taken during World War II sowed the seeds of our current discord is certainly counterintuitive. Across the range of possible positions in today’s culture wars, few would see the World War II era, the age of “the greatest generation,” as anything other than a time of unprecedented unity; moreover, Americans were united in the most just of all possible causes, the defeat of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Catholics, lay and clerical, pledged their full support for “the Good War” and Catholic participation did much to integrate Catholics into the mainstream of American national life.

Long before Hiroshima, however, the undeniably just purpose of the war—the ad bellum—obscured what for Catholics should have been the deeply troubling nature of the conduct of the war—the in bello. A revolution in airplane technology had transformed air warfare from the romantic, mano a mano biplane dogfights of World War I into the massive bombing campaigns that gave a distinct and unprecedented character to conduct of the World War II. The practice, known at the time as “obliteration bombing,” targeted not soldiers or isolated military installations, but whole cities—which included “military” targets such as arms factories but also unavoidably the civilian populations surrounding those factories. Scholars such as David Bell see the rise of “total war” as early as the French Revolution, yet World War II saw a technological revolution in the efficiency with which civilian populations could be obliterated.

Read more at Catholic World Report 

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