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“We shut them the hell up.”

That was the closing line of my argument.

I was in high school (c. 2002). We were having a debate in history class concerning the morality of the use of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. I had opted to stand on the side of Yes, the bomb was right, just, and necessary. Most of my arguments were simplistic regurgitations of every talking point about “the bomb” that I heard growing up. But that last line of my argument, that final punch — “we shut them the hell up” — that was my own intellectual contribution. What a closer, I thought, certain that the emotional weight of it would render all other arguments moot.

But the moment I said it, doubt crept in. Was that arrogant? Was that prideful? Should I have said it? Is that how an argument should be won? I mean, even if it was necessary to win the war, it was a tragedy and tens of thousands of men, women, and children died…right? I still thought I was on the right side of history, to be sure. It’s just that, well, maybe that final punch crossed the line…

Then the opposition walked to the front of the class to make their case and offer a rebuttal. Their main presenter was an Asian American student who had been my classmate since middle school. Clearly my choice of words had shaken him up. It felt personal to him, and he seemed to be on the verge of tears as he addressed my comment. While I hid any outward expression of shame or remorse, I started to feel that what I had said was an awful thing to say. Even though I was still convinced by my own litany of consequentialist arguments, I began to recognize that my filter was off.

My comment and my classmate’s heartfelt rebuke of it stuck with me. And for the next decade, I went back and forth on the issue ad nauseum. I’d take a conscious step toward empathy, contemplate the humanity lost, and be decidedly against the bomb. Then someone would remind me of all the American lives that could have been lost otherwise and I’d be decidedly for the bomb. I’d watch a documentary on WWII, see images of the charred and permanently disfigured humans who somehow survived the blast, and I’d be decidedly against the bomb. Then an older relative would remind me [over Thanksgiving dinner] that I wasn’t alive back then and so I couldn’t possibly understand what was at stake and that I probably wouldn’t even be alive today had the bomb not been used and, again, I’d be decidedly for the bomb. During my last two years at college, every time I visited or passed by my professor’s office I’d see that annoying quote from the Pope (John Paul II) posted on her door. “War is always a defeat for humanity,” it read. And I’d think, well…shit…

A few years after graduating from college, singing, songwriting, performing, and refining my ability to tell a compelling story through the art of song had become a full-time endeavor. And, for whatever reason, the moral questions of history and the problem of violence as it exists today increasingly became sources of inspiration and introspection, subjects I could explore and wrestle with through my art.

In the Fall of 2010, a friend recommended that I read an old tract titled War Is a Racket. It was written by Smedley Butler, a retired Marine Corps General, in between World Wars I and II. Having received two Congressional Medals of Honor (among other accolades), Butler was the most decorated veteran in U.S. history when he wrote this in 1935:

Secretly each nation is studying and perfecting newer and ghastlier means of annihilating its foes wholesale. Yes, ships will continue to be built, for the shipbuilders must make their profits. And guns still will be manufactured and powder and rifles will be made, for the munitions makers must make their huge profits. And the soldiers, of course, must wear uniforms, for the manufacturer must make their war profits too. But victory or defeat will be determined by the skill and ingenuity of our scientists. If we put them to work making poison gas and more and more fiendish mechanical and explosive instruments of destruction, they will have no time for the constructive job of building greater prosperity for all peoples.

Written seven years before the Manhattan Project officially began, these words prompted me to reconsider the moral question of “the bomb.” But I was exhausted from a decade of flying back and forth on the matter. So I held up Smedley’s prophetic warning of a “ghastlier means of annihilating foes wholesale” and the Pope’s annoying “war is always a defeat for humanity” side by side, and said: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s right. But if it’s true that war, even when it is justly and necessarily waged for the ultimate restoration of peace, is always a defeat for humanity, then the bomb, too, even if its use was just and necessary, was a defeat for humanity the likes of which the world had never seen and which I do not ever want the world to see again.

That’s it. That’s the perspective from which I wrote Enola’s Wake right or wrong, I don’t ever want humanity to be so defeated again that it sees no other way out of defeat than to vaporize entire civilian populations in seconds. I don’t ever want such planes to fly again. And so I sing: “Sleep, Enola. Sleep. And don’t ever wake up. I’m sad to have known you and the death that your life was made of.”

The song plays as a bitter eulogy to a wretched woman at her wake. But “the woman” is the airplane known as the Enola Gay — the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The first friend that I played the song for after I wrote it was a fellow history nerd. So I knew he’d “get it.” He described it as an “apocalyptic drinking song” and was actually the one who recommended that I use the phrase “the virtue of progress” (an obscure Chesterton reference, I think) somewhere in the song. And so the first verse was amended:

Her passing was quick and quite a surprise
To everyone under the sun
As the devil’s a catchy tune in disguise
The virtue of progress was won

It was upon the inclusion of that phrase in the first verse that the work finally felt coherent and complete to me. But after I officially released the song and the album, a funny thing happened…

I was confronted, in person and quite unexpectedly, about Enola’s Wake, rebuked for the song’s “clear” message of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. I was told that I had it all wrong and that I didn’t understand and that it was arrogant of me to criticize difficult decisions made by my forefathers from my privileged position in the distant and peaceful present. Well, but, wait, hold on, that’s not necessarily what the song is saying, I responded, sheepishly, wholly unsure of myself or anything. Yet there I was, once again confronted with the need to take a position on this problem that had plagued my conscience for over a decade. But this time, saying “I don’t know” then throwing up my hands in surrender to the moral ambiguity wasn’t good enough. So I dove in.

I dove in to the history, to the humanity, to the witness of archived footage, photographs, and the testimony of survivors, to moral, ethical, and philosophical arguments for and against that I’d heard (or used myself) over the years. I dove in to confront those annoying paradigm-poking words from the Pope (“war is always a defeat for humanity”). I wondered if my church had anything equally annoying to say about the bomb, in particular. I found this:

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. (CCC 2314)

Then I found these words spoken by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1974. Going further than simply calling the bomb a moral evil in and of itself, Sheen saw it as the root cause of a new kind of corrosive and unrestrained individualism. He said:

I think maybe we can pinpoint a date — 8:15 in the morning, the 6th of August, 1945…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.”

Then I read Dorothy Day’s open letter to President Truman, published in The Catholic Worker in September 1945. Disturbed by news reports that President Truman was “jubilant” after the bomb’s success in Hiroshima, she wrote:

President Truman. True man; what a strange name, come to think of it. We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true Man. Truman is a true man of his time in that he was jubilant… It is to be hoped they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers — scattered, men, women and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain on the hills of Easton…

But our Lord Himself has already pronounced judgement on the atomic bomb. When James and John (John the beloved) wished to call down fire from heaven on their enemies, Jesus said “You know not of what spirit you are. The Son of Man came not to destroy souls but to save.’ He said also, ‘What you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto me.”

And then I discovered Fr. George Zabelka, who, even in death, continues to be a tremendous thorn in my side for his proclivity to Christian non-violence. His words are thoughtful, challenging, and paradigm-shifting, and his personal history with the bomb is truly unique. As Plough writes:

Father George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Air Force, served as a priest for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and gave them his blessing. Days later he counseled an airman who had flown a low-level reconnaissance flight over the city of Nagasaki shortly after the detonation of Fat Man. The man described how thousands of scorched, twisted bodies writhed on the ground in the final throes of death, while those still on their feet wandered aimlessly in shock—flesh seared, melted, and falling off. The crewman’s description raised a stifled cry from the depths of Zabelka’s soul: “My God, what have we done?”

In the wake of the immediate blast and the fires that continued to burn throughout the city on the morning of August 6, 1945, the casualties in Hiroshima alone are estimated at 135,000. These images compare aerial photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, before and after the bomb was dropped. It’s surreal to contrast the busy-ness of life before with the emptiness of death after.

For perspective: While the Allied bombing raids that destroyed Tokyo, Dresden, Essen, et al each involved hundreds of planes dropping thousands of bombs, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki each required only a single plane dropping a single bomb. That’s how significant the decision to use these bombs was in the course of human history. And the bombs that have since replaced the most destructive bombs that have ever been used are estimated to be 1,000 times more powerful. It’s mind-boggling. It’s mass destruction, unprecedented and efficient — the virtue of progress for men set on using their God-given creative capacity thus.

In a speech titled Blessing the Bombs, given on the 40th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fr. Zabelka reflected on his time as chaplain of the Tinian Air Force base:

The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians—and I said nothing. I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it. I was brainwashed…

Civilian casualties are to be expected in war. Everyone knows this. Some use it as an argument against war; others use it to dismiss arguments against war. However one regards the term, within the context of war casualties always refers to persons. Aside from obviously being more expeditious, it is certainly more palatable to use the broad category of “casualty” rather than person-to-person particulars like “dead 6-year-old boy, no skin” or “maimed mother of 5, now a mother of just 1” or “baby, approx. 10 months old, charred to the bone.”

In his hauntingly beautiful book (A Song for Nagasaki) about Nagasaki survivor Takashi Nagai, Paul Glynn dives into the particulars of “casualties.” Chapters 19 and 20 are titled, respectively, “When the Sun Turned Black” and “And the Rain Turned to Poison.” In these chapters, Glynn recounts the personal experiences of survivors at various locations in the city in horrific detail. The scene from the schoolyard:

Midori’s nineteen-year-old cousin Sadako Moriyama had just found her two small brothers chasing dragonflies in the Yamazato school yard. She told them their mother wanted them. At that moment, she heard the plane and ran with them to the school shelter. As they entered, they were picked up and hurled to the far wall, and she blacked out. Coming to, she heard the two children whimpering at her feet and wondered why it was so dark. As a little light began to penetrate the gloom, she was paralyzed with terror. Two hideous monsters had appeared at the shelter’s entrance, making croaking noises and trying to crawl in. As the darkness lifted a little, she saw they were human beings who had been outside when the bomb exploded. In less than seconds, they had been skinned alive, half a mile from the epicenter, and their raw bodies had been picked up and smashed into the side of the shelter.


She went outside. The light was weak, as if it were barely dawn. She cried aloud when she saw beside the sandbox four children, without clothes or skin! She stood there transfixed, her eyes involuntarily drinking in the hideous details. The skin of their hands had been torn away at the wrists and hung from their fingernails, looking like gloves turned inside out.


Feeling she was losing her reason, she dashed back into the shelter, accidentally brushing the two victims still squirming and moaning near the entrance. Their bodies felt like potatoes gone rotten. Their horrible animal croaking sound began again. She realized they were saying something. Mizu, mizu. Water, water. That cry was to run like a cracked record in the nightmares of Nagasaki survivors for years.

from the air-raid shelter:

Nagasaki was now burning, and Sakue Kawasaki sat in disbelief inside the Aburagi air-raid shelter. He could see people staggering about outside, naked and swollen like pumpkins. Then came a babel of croaking voices piteously begging for mizu, mizu, but where could he get water? There was a puddle of dirty water outside the entrance to the shelter, and one of the victims crawled over, lowered his lips into it and drank with succulent noises. He tried to crawl to the shelter but collapsed and stopped moving. One by one, the others drank from the puddle and crumpled up motionless. What terrible thirst could drive men to act like demented lemmings?

from the safety of home:

Michicko Ogino was ten years old and enjoying the summer holidays at home. Just after 11 A.M. she was terrified by a giant lightning flash, followed by a horrendous roar, and within seconds she was one of the thousands pinned under the roofs or walls of their homes…


Michiko was hopelessly pinned there, but her screaming brought a stranger who freed her. Outside, she was startled to see evil-looking clouds that twisted and writhed and blackened out the sun. What kind of new lightning had done this? Then she became conscious of a tiny voice becoming hysterical. It was her two-year-old sister trapped under a crossbeam. She turned for help and saw dashing toward them a naked woman, her body greasy, and purple like an eggplant, and her hair reddish brown and frizzled. Oh no! It was Mother! The speechless Michiko could only point to her sister under the beam. The mother looked wildly at the fires that had already started, dived into the rubble, put her shoulder under the beam and heaved. The two-year-old was free, and the mother, hugging her to her breast, collapsed onto the ground. There was no skin left on the shoulder that she had put under the beam, just raw bleeding meat. Michiko’s father appeared, badly burnt too. He watched in dumb helplessness as his wife groaned and struggled to rise. Then all her strength ebbed away, and she collapsed, dead.

and from the local cathedral:

Inside Urakami Cathedral, Fathers Nishida and Tamaya were hearing confessions again after the all-clear. The cathedral was only a third of a mile from where Fat Man detonated and was reduced to rubble in an instant. No one would be sure how many perished inside.

Such scenes were stunningly depicted in this 1983 Japanese animated film Barefoot Gen. The entire film is worth a watch, but if nothing else, consider skipping to the 28:10-minute mark and watching at least ten minutes.

Barefoot Gen takes place in Hiroshima and is based on the personal experiences of Keiji Nakazawa, a Hiroshima survivor. While the carnage and destruction suffered by both cities was horrific, the bombing of Nagasaki carries with it an extra sting, as Fr. Zabelka noted:

The bombing of Nagasaki means even more to me than the bombing of Hiroshima. By August 9, 1945, we knew what that bomb would do, but we still dropped it. We knew that agonies and sufferings would ensue, and we also knew—at least our leaders knew—that it was not necessary. The Japanese were already defeated.

The Japanese were already defeated. And many of our leaders did know that the bomb was not necessary. Japan had been requesting terms of surrender for some time prior to our use of the bombs. President Eisenhower confirmed this in 1963, stating that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” He added, “I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.” And his was not the only voice of dissent among the military command. Admiral William Leahy was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II. Writing in his memoirs a few years after the war, he said:

The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.

But the U.S. was bound and determined that only total and unconditional surrender was acceptable. One could argue that this policy, in effect, prolonged our war with Japan. And if one argues that, then the seemingly cynical words of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey find a troubling credence. Halsey acknowledged that “the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment” and said that it may well have been used because “[the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it…”

So they dropped it. And then they dropped another. And after the second one devastated Nagasaki, a battered Takashi Nagai returned to his home in search of his wife, Midori. All he found in the rubble and ruins, Glynn writes in A Song for Nagasaki, was a “black lump” with “little more than the charred remains of her skull, hips and backbone.” Nagai picked up the pieces of his wife, put them in a pail, sobbed, prayed, then walked to the cemetery to find a place to bury what was left of her.

All of these tragic and horrific scenes are but a microcosm of the suffering humanity I didn’t know I was referring to when, in the ignorance and arrogance of my youth, I stood a proud patriot before my class and proclaimed: “We shut them the hell up.”

That was then. And now? Now I beg in earnest with words from the 25th Psalm: Lord, remember not the sins of my youth…

Opposition to the bomb isn’t new. It cannot be reduced to presentism. It’s simply easier for more people to see more clearly — without the fog of war clouding our collective moral consciousness — that mass destruction of civilian populations is not okay.

My own evolution on this issue has been long and challenging. Maybe my journey resonates with your own. Maybe you’re still on the fence. Maybe you think me a naïve fool. Maybe you think that it’s useless to waste time arguing about something that happened 75 years ago because it’s over and done with and we have bigger fish to fry now. I see this criticism of the discourse raised on social media annually when the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are remembered and argued about for a few days every August. What concerns me about it is this: If one can’t see how or why some action of the past was unjust/immoral/wrong (regardless of popular opinion or approval ratings at the time), it will be much more difficult to discern the actions of the present with a concerted moral consistency and/or to prevent such things from happening again. As that pesky Pope said on his visit to Hiroshima in 1981:

To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future. To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace.

Since my deeper dive into the question I have yet to encounter a cogent moral justification for the bomb. Most arguments offered (including those offered by me in the past) are grounded in consequentialism — the idea that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences. I have found such reasoning to be inadequate, inconsistent, and incompatible with authentic human love. If we approached every moral question through a consequentialist lens, each man using his own beneficiary status as his metric for right and wrong, the world would be chaos. Does the world seem like it’s in good order now? Imagine chaos.

It is my sincere hope that the leaders of our global village(s) will someday possess the wisdom and humility to regard every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants as crimes against God and man which merit firm and unequivocal condemnation. Regardless of what terrible violence humanity may yet inflict on itself before we’re all shuffled off this mortal coil for good, I will do my best to preach and practice the words and example of Fr. Zabelka:

I asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I fell on my face there at the peace shrine after offering flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness—for myself, for my country, for my church. Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This year in Toronto, I again asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas present. I asked forgiveness, and they asked forgiveness for Pearl Harbor and some of the horrible deeds of the Japanese military, and there were some, and I knew of them. We embraced. We cried. Tears flowed. That is the first step of reconciliation — admission of guilt and forgiveness. Pray to God that others will find this way to peace.

Kevin Heider