I woke up this morning and a sentence reverberated in my still somewhat drowsy head: “When treading in the midst of death and destruction, someone needs to take responsibility.”
Where does that line come from? I haven’t a clue. It just popped into my head.
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Perhaps it has something to do with what I have been reading of late, which is a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atom bomb.
In his own way, feeling he has blood on his hands after the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the atomic bomb attacks of August, 1945, Oppenheimer did take responsibility for the resultant death and destruction.
More on that momentarily.
When I taught my courses in ethics, I always started with the three basic questions that needed to be answered in any ethical situation: 1) Who makes an ethical decision, 2) By what criteria(n) is an ethical decision made, and 3) To whom or what does one owe an ethical obligation.
That first question bears on the whole issue of responsibility. In answering that first question there are essentially two responses, an authority makes ethical decisions, or you do.
If the former, then your only responsibility is to obey.
According to Talmud in the Tractate Makkot 23b there are 613 mitzvot, or Torah commandments. For the observant Jew, their religious duty is to obey. For non-Jews, there are the seven Noahide laws. And they, too, should simply obey.
If you are in the military and an officer gives you an appropriate order, it is your duty to obey. Other authority figures, from governors to councilmen to
policemen to bosses, give orders, and it is generally expected that you obey.
There are exceptions. One ought not to obey an illegal order, an order that violates criminal law. Indeed, attempts to shield oneself from blame for an illegal act by claiming “I was merely obeying orders” has been serially rejected over the years.
Think of the officers and other enlisted German soldiers as well as the leading industrialists at Nuremberg and other post-World War II trials who tried to excuse their actions by claiming they were merely obeying orders. The courts rejected their arguments, saying that certain orders were “crimes against humanity” and should never have been obeyed.
In the history of the United States dating back to 1799, military officers have also been held to account for obeying an illegal order. During the war with France, President John Adams authorized the detaining of any ship entering or leaving a French port. A Naval captain then detained a neutral Dutch ship.
The Dutch sued in maritime court and won. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court which wrote that naval commanders “act at their own peril” when following illegal orders, even from Presidents.
Perhaps the most famous American example of the “I was merely following orders” carrying no weight occurred during the Vietnam War when a Lieutenant William Calley supervised what has come to be known as the My Lai massacre.
He was court martialed and imprisoned, though he claimed he was simply following orders. Tellingly, those who gave Calley those orders were never held to account.
Here’s the rub. It takes a great deal of fortitude to reject an authority’s order when such a situation arises. One feels a ponderous weight when choosing to disobey an order from a recognized authority.
It is more comfortable – far more comfortable – to simply obey. It seems safer, more risk-averse.
Then, there is that other option when asking who makes an ethical decision. Many respond by saying you, and you alone, make the ethical decision. Just you. You decide. And that means that you bear the full responsibility for your decisions, your ensuing actions, and the reverberating consequences of your decisions and actions.
That can be a ponderous weight, indeed. Existentialists in particular emphasize the singular individual as the one making ethical decisions and bearing full responsibility. Hence the emphasis of existentialists on guilt and dread experienced by those whose decisions – sometimes lack of decisions – lead to tragic and heart-rending results.
Existentialists valorize the freedom of the individual over against the masses that would lead one to act in only a certain way. One always has the freedom to choose their own path, writers like Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Jean-Paul Sartre will argue.
One could put this all on a continuum, with freedom, or in a political context liberty, on one end and security on the other. To choose one’s own path ethically is an expression of freedom, of one’s liberty, but it brings with it a heavy responsibility and risk of loneliness and guilt. To simply obey an authority would seem more safe, but at a price of abandoning oneself to conformity.
So there’s your choice. Do you want security, or do you want liberty. Know that the more one tends toward security the less liberty one will be able to exercise.
These days, it would seem security and conformity win out.
Culturally, though, I think we tend to admire those who risk all to express their liberty in freely choosing their own path, and thus bearing full responsibility for their choices and actions. Who doesn’t get a secret thrill hearing Johnny Paycheck’s ode to liberty, “Take This Job and Shove It.”
What is less admirable, indeed quite disheartening, are those who hide behind authority so as to never take responsibility for their choices and actions. Think of Gen. Milley, Defense Secretary Austin and Secretary of State Blinken vis a vis Afghanistan. No responsibility to be found among those three.
By contrast, think of Marine Lt. Colonel Stuart Scheller, who, angered at the loss of life among fellow Marines, publicly demanded that senior military leadership be held accountable for the disaster that was the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Scheller, himself, subsequently was held accountable and removed from the Corps for his actions, while Milley and Austin and Blinken still refuse to take responsibility for theirs.
And who does the public admire more? Lt. Colonel Scheller, of course. He was true to his beliefs and acted freely in choosing to do what he did. The other three are rightfully seen as mere toadies emasculated by their own careerism.
In fact, the avoidance of responsibility is endemic to the elite political class in this country.
Think of the mess that is our southern border. Who is stepping up to take responsibility? How about the spiking murder rates and tsunami of released felons on our urban streets? Who is stepping up to take responsibility for that?
How about inflation, lack of Covid testing, pathologies among our young people after missing school for nigh on two years now? Anybody? Anybody at all?
Maybe this is all what prompted my slumbering notion that “when treading in the midst of death and destruction, someone needs to take responsibility.”
Which brings us back to Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer, or “Oppie,” was a brilliant physicist who made a name for himself by being at the forefront of the remarkable early 20th century revolution in physics with the advent of quantum mechanics.
Many of the world’s leading physicists were German. Oppenheimer, in fact, trained in quantum theory at Göttingen in Germany, a leading research site for this new area of physics.
However, many German physicists – particularly those who were Jewish – left Germany for England and the United States when it became obvious what direction Germany was going under Hitler. Among them were physicists Edward Teller, who was instrumental in the development of the hydrogen bomb, and Leó Szilárd, who first developed the notion of a nuclear chain reaction.
Now, what cutting-edge physicists knew, and about which a slumbering public was totally unaware, was that in atomic fission there was an unimaginable potential power of destruction, if one could only unlock the key and manage to control it.
Without doubt, physicists who remained in Germany were just as aware of the potential as were American and British scientists. Thus, during the war, the race was on to see who could militarize and then unleash atomic destruction on an unsuspecting world.
Oppie became the director of the Los Alamos, NM, site of the Manhattan Project. Run by the United States Army, the project’s purpose was to do research on the possibility of militarizing atomic energy. Los Alamos was where the bomb was ultimately to be built and tested.
On July 16, 1945 the first atomic device was detonated at the Trinity site in the New Mexico desert. Known simply as the “gadget,” the device was the equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT and produced a mushroom cloud that extended eight miles high with a crater 10 feet deep and over 1,000 feet wide.
Famously, Oppenheimer quoted a passage from the Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita while witnessing the event: “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” That line itself is an indication that he was taking responsibility for the death and destruction that would surely follow.
The first uranium atomic weapon, “Little Boy,” was dropped by the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay on August 6, 1945 at Hiroshima. As temperatures on the ground reach 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, buildings melt and human and animal flesh are vaporized. 80,000 are instantly killed.
The second, “Fat Man,” a plutonium weapon, was dropped August 9, 1945 by the American B-29 bomber Bockscar at Nagasaki. Between 40,000 and 75,000 Japanese die instantly, with a blast radius a mile wide.
The bombings are controversial to this day. Many argue a demonstration bombing with Japanese observers should have occurred to convince Japan that resistance was futile.
On the other hand, there were only so many bombs. And because of the Japanese warrior ethos, there would be an incredible blood-letting of both Japanese and American soldiers were there to be a traditional invasion. It can be argued that many American children have dads after the war because the atomic bomb was used against Japan.
Still, such unbelievable death and destruction. When theoretical physics turned its attention to a “super” bomb, a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb,
Oppenheimer opposed its development for humanitarian reasons.
He lobbied President Truman against the development of thermonuclear weapons saying he already has blood on his hands after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman shot back, “No, I have blood on my hands.”
Truman, who had already decided to go ahead with the hydrogen bomb development, then kicked Oppenheimer out of his office, not wanting to hear any second guessing on the matter.
For his part, Oppie accepts his role in the development of the atom bomb, at least in his role as a scientist, as one who seeks knowledge regardless of where the path of knowledge goes.
But he was thoughtful in the acceptance of his role: “Nor can we forget,” he writes, “that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
When treading in the midst of death and destruction, someone needs to take responsibility. To his credit, and unlike the many modern elites who simply slink away, J. Robert Oppenheimer did just that.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.
Featured photo by stymeist at Pixabay