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Commentary: Some bombs create red glare; others, red ink

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 17, 2010 - "This sucker could go down." -- George W. Bush, explaining the banking crisis of 2008 in layman's terms

The University of Chicago is a prestigious institution. Its physics department was crucial in the development of the atomic bomb; the economics department played a leading role in the propagation of modern free-market/supply-side economic theory; and its department of political science gave us neo-conservatism. It's tempting to liken the destructive power of the latter two to that of the first, but upon reflection, such a comparison seems unfair to the Bomb.

In late 1942, Enrico Fermi activated the world's first atomic reactor at the university. That breakthrough ultimately led to the weapons that would devastate Hiroshima and Nagasaki two and a half years later, thus ending the war in the Pacific while ushering in the Nuclear Age.

Oddly enough, Harry Truman's decision to deploy the A-Bomb turned out to be one of the most humanitarian events of the 20th century. Because to date we have been able to resist the impulse to destroy ourselves with them, as of this writing it's safe to assert that nuclear weapons have saved far more lives than they've taken.

Latter-day critics of Truman's action conveniently overlook the context in which his decision was made. Casualty figures in the Pacific had traced a clearly upward trajectory as the conflict progressed, culminating in the war's last major land offensive, the battle for Okinawa.

That horrific campaign is remembered as the "Typhoon of Steel" -- a reference to the singular ferocity of the combat it entailed. Casualties were atrocious. From April 1 to June 21, 1945, some 12,513 American troops were killed and 38,916 were wounded. The Japanese sustained an estimated 110,000 killed, with another 10,000 or so captured or missing in action. Additionally, 100,000 to 150,000 civilians were either killed or committed suicide during the conflict.

This carnage followed the earlier bloodbath at Iwo Jima that took place in February and March of the same year. There, more Americans were killed in five weeks than have been lost in nearly nine years of war in Afghanistan and seven years in Iraq -- combined. In all, 6,821 Marines died and 19,217 were wounded. A Japanese garrison with an estimated 20,000 troops yielded 18,375 fatalities and only 216 POWs -- a documented survival rate of less than 1.2 percent.

And these savage conflicts were mere dress rehearsals for the anticipated main event: the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Casualty estimates for that outing ranged from 200,000 American dead to five times that number.

Small wonder history records that after making the decision to drop the Bomb, Harry Truman turned in early and got a good night's sleep. He'd not only taken innumerable American boys out of harm's way (my father, among them), but also spared much of the civilian population of Japan further suffering.

While both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were primarily civilian targets, the lives lost there don't begin to compare with those destroyed in other cities by the Army Air Corps' fire-bombing campaign -- conducted with conventional weapons -- that was already well underway and for which there was no end in sight.

In fact, the battle for Iwo Jima was waged to secure a safe haven for disabled B-29s returning from these raids. As it's easier and cheaper to replace a squad of riflemen than a bomber and the men trained to operate it, the decision was made to expend Marines to salvage B-29 crews so the bomb-runs could continue uninterrupted. Such are the cruel economics of warfare.

The terrible devastation wrought by the Bomb ended further bombing while rendering plans for an amphibious invasion unnecessary, thus resulting in an immediate net gain of human life. Later, the haunting images of nuclear destruction would prevent the Cold War from metastasizing into a hot one.

If only we could find a corresponding silver lining in the dark cloud of the so-called "Chicago School" of economics. Led by Milton Friedman, who won a Nobel Prize while on the faculty at the University of Chicago, this group of theorists espoused a dogmatic faith in the self-regulating virtues of the free market. Essentially, they advocated undoing the New Deal -- an idea that seemed agreeable to the neo-con brethren of Leo Strauss in the poli-sci department.

Kindred spirits of the free-marketeers, supply-side economists contended that governments could increase their tax revenue by cutting tax rates. A chief proponent of the gain-more-by-collecting-less school of taxation was Norman Ture, also of the U of C.

Supply-side theories hit the mainstream during the 1980 Republican presidential primary. Ronald Reagan was a strong advocate. Bush I, at the time a rival for the party's nomination, decried the idea as "voodoo economics," though he later became a reluctant convert once he was named Reagan's running mate.

The rest, as they say, is history. Reagan's experiment with supply-side budgets plunged the nation into then-record deficits and his chief economist, David Stockman, wrote a book confessing that the whole thing was basically a parlor trick.

After assuming office, the elder Bush, exhibiting a patrician concern for the nation he governed, became alarmed by the state of the union he'd inherited. He ultimately committed political suicide by reneging on his infamous "read my lips" pledge and raised taxes.

His successor managed to get an additional tax hike enacted. That increase, buoyed by a booming economy he had little to do with, allowed Bill Clinton to turn over a $300-plus billion budget surplus to the next president.

George the Lesser apparently thought the concept of noblesse oblige meant that he had an obligation to his fellow nobles, whom he once referred to as "the Haves and the Have-Mores." He consequently slashed taxes on upper income brackets, deregulated the banking industry, then sat back and waited for the twin genies of supply-side economics and the free market to work their magic. At the behest of his neo-con advisors, he also launched the ill-fated invasion of Iraq.

His personal Hiroshima arrived in September 2008, when a bankrupt government trying to wage two foreign wars on its credit card was confronted with the sub-prime market bust and the imminent collapse of the international banking system.

So there you have it: a devastating application of theoretical physics that actually saved lives and the disastrous application of radical political and economic theories that destroyed them -- different kinds of bombs with a common ancestor.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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