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Opening Arguments

Retrofitting the past

Today is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima:

 Given the moral and ethical complexity of the act, Hiroshima has been fertile ground for revisionist historians. Was it necessary to drop the bomb at all? Some of the scientists involved in its creation wanted it to be dropped on an uninhabited forest as a salutary demonstration of what it could do, allowing people to extrapolate that image to a densely populated city.

[. . .]

Others raised the issue of why it was necessary to drop a second bomb on Nagasaki when the effects on Hiroshima were so horrific.

But as with all history, it’s necessary to avoid retrofitting the past with the values of a different age.

[. . .]

The closer defeat came, the more fanatical the Japanese became. Attacks on American naval forces by nearly 3,000 of the suicidal Kamikaze pilots sank more than 40 Navy ships (the precise number remains disputed), damaged 368 more and, killed 4,000 sailors, wounding more than 4,800. 

At Potsdam, Churchill noted: “We had contemplated the desperate resistance of the Japanese fighting to the death with Samurai devotion… in every cave and dug-out… to conquer the country yard by yard might well require the loss of a million American lives. Now all this nightmare picture had vanished. In its place was the vision—fair and bright indeed it seemed—of the end of the whole war in one or two violent shocks.”

We've heard all the arguments for and against using the bomb. What made this article stand out for me was the observation about the dangers of "retrofitting the past" with today's values. 

The same argument is made here, in a different context:

Some Democratic Party groups are renouncing their once-egalitarian idols, the renaissance genius Thomas Jefferson and the populist Andrew Jackson. Both presidents, some two centuries ago, owned slaves. Consequently, the two men have been suddenly deemed unworthy of further liberal reverence.

 [. . .]

Applying the morality of the present in crude political fashion to ferret out the supposed race, class and gender immorality of the past is a tricky thing. Picking saints and sinners can boomerang in unexpected ways.

[. . .]

The past is not simplistic “gotcha” melodrama in which we convict figures of history by tabulating their sins on today’s moral scorecards.

Instead, history is tragedy. It is complex. Moral assessments are dicey. With some humility, we must balance past and current ethical standards, as well as the elements of the good and the bad present in every life.

 And we must avoid cheap, politicized moralizing that often tells us more about the ethics and ignorance of today’s grand inquisitors than the targets of their inquisitions.

We are often told that we must learn from history. To do that, we have to accept its complexity. Accepting the flaws in people who accomplished great things helps not only better understand the present, but how we got from then to now. Judge your neighbors by today's standards, not your ancestors.