Preparation Assignment for Lesson on
Mass Casualties and Making Decisions About War

This assignment is due on _____________________. Watch one of the films described below and write a short, one or two-page essay answering the question set out below for each movie. Essays will be graded on content, grammar, and punctuation. Responses should be typed.

Grave of the Fireflies: This anime film describes what happens to two Japanese children who are orphaned when their city is destroyed in a conventional incendiary bomb attack. Suitable for ages 13 and up.

Justifications for the fate of Seita and Seitsuko include: (1) it was the fault of the Japanese Imperial Government which started the war, killed millions of civilians and committed war crimes against Allied Prisoners, and then didn’t surrender when it was clear to all reasonable people that Japan had lost the war; (2) Seita and Seitsuko were collateral damage to actions necessary to win the war; and (3) Seita had been working in a steel plant which was a war industry and therefore, in a “total war,” in which the civilian economy is harnessed to the arms industry, he was fair game. Do you agree or disagree with each of these justifications? Explain your reasoning.

Suggested Response: As to Questions 2 and 3 there is no one correct answer. Reasonable minds will differ and any well-reasoned and well-supported answer is acceptable. (1) This justification is irrelevant. The errors, even the crimes, of the Japanese government are not a justification for the actions of the U.S. government and the American people in sending the Seventh Air Force to destroy population centers in Japan. We have to justify our actions based upon our own legitimate interests and in light of applicable ethical principles. If what we were doing was wrong, it cannot be justified by pointing to the wrongdoing of others or even of the people we intended to kill and injure. Each action must be justified on its own merits. Two wrongs don’t make a right. (2) The Allies had a legitimate interest in making the Japanese government and the people of Japan give up on the war. There were POWs in Japan who were being mistreated. There were millions of Koreans in Japan who had been enslaved. These people needed to be liberated. In addition, we didn’t want to give the Japanese time to recover and then start attacking our allies again. Given these legimitate interest, the answer to the question comes down to tactics. Was there another, more humane way to force the government of Japan to surrender? Would a blockade have worked or would that have simply extended the starvation? Don’t we have to give a lot of leeway to the people who were running the war on the American side. They were dealing with a complex and difficult situation against a determined, resourceful, and vicious opponent. It’s easy to be arm-chair generals and second guess what they did at the time. (3) Seita was no longer working in the factory, that had been destroyed. But even when their governments engage in wars of aggression and some of their leaders or fellow citizens commit war crimes, ordinary citizens like Seita are not judged as complicit in criminal behavior. Thus, there is little justification for killing Seita because he had worked in a factory making steel that could be used in the war.


Fat Man and Little Boy: This movie is the story of the Manhattan Project. The dialogue discusses some of the debates about the use of atomic weapons at the end of WWII. Suitable for ages 13 and up.

ESSAY TOPIC: Describe the change in American attitudes toward bombing civilian populations from WWII until the present. How does the willingness to bomb indiscriminately in Japan and Germany compare to what the United States is doing in Iraq?

Suggested Response: The attitude toward civilian casualties has changed drastically since the end of WWII and would not permit cities to be obliterated by nuclear weapons or firebombings. This is probably due in large part to the realization of what the Allies did when they started firestorms in Axis cities with incendiary weapons, the damage suffered by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the limited war value (as opposed to the terror value) obtained by these bombings. In addition, the terrible potential of the atomic and hydrogen bombs and the realization that we are targets should be mentioned. The destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, is an example of this. Even those who disagree with U.S. policy in Iraq acknowledge that the U.S. has not perpetrated the type of wholesale killing of civilians that occurred in WWII.


Hiroshima Maiden: The pain and tragedy of collateral damage are explored by this film. Suitable for ages 9 – 13.

ESSAY TOPIC: Have you ever seen anyone with very bad scars? What was your reaction? If this movie will change that reaction, describe how your reaction will change and why.

Suggested Response: There is no one right response, but it should be honest and from the heart.


Judgment at Nuremberg: This movie is based on the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Suitable for ages 10 and up.

ESSAY TOPIC: What would happen if the Nuremberg principles were applied to the decision to make surprise atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Suggested Response: There is no one right response to this question. Good essays will show that the students are thinking deeply about the issue.


Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: In this comedy, a rogue military officer tries to start a nuclear war. Suitable for ages 10 and up.

ESSAY TOPIC: During the Cold War there were some people who accepted the inevitability of a nuclear war and tried to plan for it. Many people objected that this type of thinking desensitized leaders making them more likely to start a nuclear war with casualties of 20 – 50 million Americans and as many Russians. What do you think?

Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer will point out the following: (1) we should never lose our sensitivity where death and injury are concerned; and (2) during the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia adopted a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which meant that neither side could attack the other directly because there was no defense against the response. Paradoxically, preparing for nuclear war was what kept the nuclear powers from fighting a nuclear war.


Fail-Safe: This film deals with the question of nuclear war begun by accident. Suitable for ages 14 and up.

ESSAY TOPIC: Read the excerpt set out below. Do you agree with General Black or with Professor Groeteschele? State your reasoning.

Professor Groeteschele: Every minute we wait works against us. Now, Mr. Secretary, now is when must send in a first strike.

Secretary Swenson: We don’t go in for sneak attacks. We had that done to us at Pearl Harbor.

Professor Groeteschele: And the Japanese were right to do it! From their point of view we were their mortal enemy. As long as we existed we were a deadly threat to them. Their only mistake was that they failed to finish us at the start. And they paid for that mistake at Hiroshima.

A General: You’re talking about a different kind of war.

Professor Groeteschele: Exactly. This time we can finish what we start. And if we act now, right now, our casualties will be minimal.

General Black: Do you know what you’re saying?

Professor Groeteschele: Do you believe that communism is not our mortal enemy?
General Black: You’re justifying murder.

Professor Groeteschele: Yes, to keep from being murdered.

General Black: In the name of what? To preserve what? Even if we do survive are we better than what we say they are? What gives us the right to live then? What makes us worth surviving, Groeteschele? That we are ruthless and struck first?

Professor Groeteschele: Yes! Those that can survive are the only ones worth surviving!

General Black: Fighting for your life isn’t the same as murder.

Professor Groeteschele: Where do you draw the line once you know what the enemy is? How long would the Nazis have kept it up, General, if every Jew they came after had met them with a gun in his hand! But I learned from them, General Black, oh, I learned!

General Black: You learned so well that now there’s no difference between you and what you want to kill!

Suggested Response: General Black is correct. Groeteschele has become as bad or worse than his enemy. It is important to make children understand the aggressive nature of Russian Soviet Communism and the collective judgment of the American people that it had to be contained. A good answer will refer to this and conclude that a first strike, no matter how helpful it might have been militarily, was morally repugnant. During the Cold War, there were Americans who felt that Russian Soviet Communism was so aggressive and dangerous that- Americans were justified in doing anything to “defend” the country. This included launching a first strike against the Soviet Union. However, a first strike that killed tens of millions of Russians would have been a monstrous act and a crime against humanity; worse than the crimes of the Nazis or the Japanese Imperialists. The decision not to start a nuclear war with a first strike was also the correct decision on practical grounds; the West won the Cold War in 1991 without resorting to nuclear weapons.