What gets left out of the story is the background.
The weapons were used to end a terrible war. Japanese troops -- four million of them -- were expected to fight to the death as the Allied counteroffensive caught up with Japan, and the Japanese home islands were about to be invaded. Worse yet, many Japanese civilians were expected to fight and die as well. In what seemed like a bizarre sense of national honor, it is as if the nation of Japan were going to go down fighting, committing national suicide, rather than surrender.
The use of the atomic weapons on Japan compelled Japan to surrender, thus saving millions of Japanese lives -- essentially saving Japan itself.
All of this is on top of the calculations regarding the dreadful number of casualties the Allied forces were likely going to take in an invasion of Japan proper.
Beyond that, though, we should also consider why it was important to end the war with an Allied victory; that is, why defeat of Japan, and not some negotiated settlement, was the desired outcome.
The Japanese had, long before the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, earned a reputation for sadistic brutality as an occupying force. A case in point is the Japanese seizure of Nanking (now spelled "Nanjing") -- an occupation so horrific and criminal that it is known to history simply as the Rape of Nanking or the Nanking Massacre.
The criminal brutality of the Japanese soldiers in Nanking was well documented, due in part to the large numbers of foreigners who were in the city. Some excerpts from Robert Gray's Translation of a book about the Nanjing Massacre will help tell the story. I should warn you that the passages quoted below are quite graphic and disturbing; the links provided have photos that are far more disturbing. (There are a few links in the original texts that I did not reproduce.)
From Chapter III: Cruel Slaughter Along the River:
On the afternoon of December 14th, the Japanese troops suddenly threw open Yijiang Gate and charged forward from the city towards Zhongshan Wharf and Xiaguan Station. Wielding machine guns and rifles, they recklessly fired upon the refugees and indiscriminately tossed grenades into the crowds. Panic-stricken, angry and in despair, thousands upon thousands of refugees were toppled. Some refugees who were still able to put up a struggle and were unwilling to allow themselves to be killed by the Japanese tossed themselves in the river and committed suicide. In the end, those left standing on the banks of the river were forced into the water by the Japanese and drowned en masse. After a short while, tens of thousands of people had lost their lives under the murderous blades of the Japanese soldiers.
On December 16th, more than 5,000 people who had taken refuge in the Overseas Chinese Center (now 81 North Zhongshan Road) were bound together in groups and transported on large trucks to Xiaguan Station to be killed. The corpses were disposed of in the river.
There were various places along the river where the killings occurred on a larger scale. These areas included Straw Sandals Gorge, Swallow Cliff and Goddess of Mercy Gate. [These and most other massacre sites discussed in this document may be located on the map of major massacre sites in Nanjing located in Chapter I.] Prior to the occupation of Nanjing, those unable to escape to far-off areas scattered in groups to the outskirts of town. Moreover, those fleeing from the frontlines (amongst whom were a large number of wounded and sick soldiers) increasingly attempted to squeeze into the suburban districts and the area along the Yangtze River. For a short while, those without the means to cross the river organized themselves into a refugee village in order to maintain some semblance of order necessary for their survival. But soon after the Japanese forces occupied Nanjing, they began to scour the countryside. They rounded up and bound large numbers of refugees, about 50,000 in total, who were detained for several days without provision of food or drink. A large number of the sick and wounded starved or froze to death. Finally, those who survived the ordeal were driven to Straw Sandals Gorge where they were brutally slaughtered.
From Chapter IV: Slaughter in the Outskirts of the City:
When the Japanese forces reached Purple Gold Mountain, they gathered up the more than 2,000 refugees in the area, marched them to the foot of the mountain, and buried them alive.
Before the Japanese invaded Nanjing, the Chinese army staged a resistance at Misty Flower Terrace. The battle caused many refugees to scatter to the relative safety of the nearby rural villages and countryside; they dared not move from their hideouts. When the fighting had subsided, large groups of wounded and routed soldiers mixed themselves in among the refugees. But the Japanese ferreted out the soldiers and gathered them together at Misty Flower Terrace. The crowd, about 20,000 in total, was divided into groups and systematically murdered.
Another site of the massacre was a stretch of land on a sandbank just outside of Hanxi Gate. After the Japanese had occupied Nanjing, there were hundreds and thousands of refugees, disarmed soldiers, and policemen who were tied up and marched off, one group after the other, to be brutally murdered on this sandbank. On one occasion, six or seven thousand people were disposed of in this manner all at once, without one machine gun being fired. Group after group was marched to the site, doused with kerosene, and burned to death. The Japanese soldiers stood in clusters surrounding their victims and, amidst the harrowing cries of desperation, laughed and derived pleasure from the scene.
From Chapter VI: Killing Games:
The savage and brutal methods with which the Japanese carried out their killings were so many and varied as to surpass the human imagination. Some Japanese soldiers considered the act of killing people to be a form of amusement.
For instance, there was one incident in which more than 1,000 people who had been bound and marched into a square were separated into rows and made to stand still. Some were wearing long traditional gowns, while others were wearing western style clothing; some in the group were women and there were also children. The entire group was haggard, disheveled, and barefoot. First, the Japanese doused the people with gasoline and then they opened fire on the crowd with machine guns. When the bullets hit their bodies, the gasoline caught fire. The refugees' burning bodies quivered from head to toe causing the whole scene to flicker from the light of the gasoline fires on their bodies. The Japanese soldiers stood by laughing hysterically and taking pleasure from the scene they had created. (See the [two] files from the Nanjing Historical Archives, "A Record of the Miserable Conditions in Enemy Occupied Areas," Volume V (unpublished), and "A Conversation with Liu Rouyuan After His Escape From Nanjing to Hunan.")
There were some Japanese soldiers who tied up groups of several dozen or several hundred refugees and forced them to march to the edge of a frozen pond. The Japanese forced them all to strip naked, break the ice, enter the freezing water, and "go fishing." In a matter of seconds they froze to death. Some tried to resist but were immediately shot and their corpses shoved into the frozen water. In another incident, Japanese soldiers, for no apparent reason, captured a young man and hung him from an electrical wire. Below their victim, they stacked up a pile of firewood. The wood burned slowly until much of the young man's body had been roasted and charred to a crisp. The soldiers, yelling wildly, departed the scene. On another day, the Japanese set a fire on Taiping Road. After the fire had spread, they forced a large number of shop clerks from the area to extinguish it. But while they were in the midst of putting out the fire, the Japanese soldiers used rope to tie up the fire fighters and tossed them into the blaze to be burned alive. The soldiers watched on the sidelines, raising an uproar and yelling excitedly. On yet another occasion, the Japanese bound up a group of refugees, hand and foot, and threw them into a shallow pond. One after the other, they lobbed in their grenades causing an explosive shower of blood and flesh. The assembled Japanese soldiers could not control their laughter. In another case, the Japanese tied up a group of captives and marched them to the Judicial Yuan building. One by one, the Japanese forced them to climb up to the roof of the building. Some people, realizing that their time had come, voluntarily tossed themselves off the building and fell to their immediate deaths. Others, however, had to be forced onto the roof. Down below, the Japanese had built a bonfire. The captives could neither go up nor go back down, and the screams echoed from amidst the flames.
From Chapter X: Widespread Incidents of Rape:
Of all the hideous crimes committed by the Japanese, none were worse than those situations in which women, victims of the same killings as the men, were first forced to endure sexual assault and rape by the Japanese! Frequently, after being raped, the women suffered a cruel death at the hands of Japanese soldiers. "Sometimes the soldiers would use bayonets to slice off the women's breasts, revealing the pale white ribs inside their chests. Sometimes they would pierce their bayonets into the women's genitals and leave them crying bitterly on the roadside. Sometimes the Japanese took up wooden bats, hard reed rods, and even turnips, forced the implements into the women's vaginae, and violently beat them to death. Other soldiers stood by applauding the scene and laughing heartily." (Military Commission of the Kuomintang, Political Department: "A True Record of the Atrocities Committed by the Invading Japanese Army," compiled July 1938)
A resident of Nanjing seized by the Japanese during the occupation of the city was forced to become a cook for the Japanese army. He left the following recollections after he escaped:It was the 16th [of December] and I . . . was walking along the street. The black smoke still hung in the air and the bright red flames continued to smolder. The corpses of my fellow countrymen were so numerous that it was frightening. So many female bodies were among the corpses . . . and eight out of ten had been stabbed in the stomach, their intestines strewn out onto the ground. There were even mothers lying next to their blood-smeared foetuses. . . . The breasts of many of these women had been completely severed from their bodies and, if not cut off, their chests had at least been stabbed with a bayonet so that the blood and flesh were mixed in an indistinguishable mass.
("A Debt of Blood: An Eyewitness Account of the Barbarous Acts of the Japanese Invaders in Nanjing," 7 February 1938, Dagong Daily, Wuhan edition)
Another person who was involved in the work of burying corpses outside of Nanjing had this to say:There were hundreds of corpses strewn all over the countryside; dozens of bodies were laying in sewers, ponds, fields, and haystacks. The tragic scene was beyond description. As for the mutilated female corpses, their faces were ashen, their cheeks broken open, and their teeth dislodged. Blood was dripping out of the sides of their mouths, their breasts had been cut off, and their chests and bellies pierced through by bayonets. Their intestines had been dragged out of their bodies, their stomachs kicked in and their bodies stabbed randomly by bayonets.
("A Pictorial History of the Japanese Atrocities," Dahua Publishing House, published 1946.)
Part 2 of this post will appear on August 9th, the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.