Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hiroshima, mes amis

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Tuesday will mark the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

(How about a moment of silence in the blogosphere -- or at least here at The Reaction?)

I'm not sure what to write.

Nothing seems appropriate, but I wanted at least to mention these anniversaries and to acknowledge two of the most gruesome events in history. In our sped-up world, a world dominated by present sensations and future-oriented longings, a world in some respects careening out of control, we seem to be losing much of our historical memory. We barely remember what happened 60 days ago, let alone 60 years ago. To some extent, this is necessary, and we seem to be even more aware of this post-9/11. How are we to deal with what happened on 9/11 without at least some irony and self-forgetting? This is why Gilbert Gottfried's now-(in)famous "Aristocrat" joke was so cathartic and why -- as I learned from Wim Wenders's ode to Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo-Ga (***) -- so many Japanese turned to mind-numbing games like pachinko to help them overcome the emotional devastation of World War II (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

But what happens with the passage of time, especially six decades? Who now remembers, for example, that virtually an entire generation was lost on the battlefields of World War I (see Paul Fussell's magnificant The Great War and Modern Memory, as well as Jonathan Vance's fascinating Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War)?

Except in highly nationalistic countries like Serbia (or the philosophically-oriented and deeply patriotic U.S.), where history has been turned into mythology for the sake of national self-identity, modern (and postmodern) societies seem to be losing their connectedness to the past through the encroaching diminution of historical memory. Again, some degree of self-forgetting is understandable (and even advisable), but what happens, say, when Germans forget their Nazi past or the Russians their Soviet past? Or when we all forget that hundreds of thousands of innocent people died at the end of World War II?

Perhaps, as Max Boot has put it in the L.A. Times, the "the atomic bombing of Japan" wasn't "a uniquely reprehensible event," and those who continue to attack the U.S. for its decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki often fail to take into account what would have been the alternative course of events -- that is, a long, drawn-out, and horrendously bloody ground invasion of Japan and its network of outlying islands by mostly American and British forces, leading perhaps to even greater loss of life and an annihilated Japan that wouldn't have been able to recover as quickly and as peacefully as it did. But this doesn't mean that what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki shouldn't continue to be remembered, or that the loss of life shouldn't continue to be mourned. On the contrary, they may be taken a single discrete event that both ended a war and, in more lasting terms, provide us with a sorrowful glimpse into what we are capable of as human beings. We must remember what happened, but we must also learn from what happened.

And the Japanese? I can hardly imagine what Hiroshima and Nagasaki mean to them. Akira Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August (***1/2) tells us something about the long-term, Shohei Imamura's Black Rain (***1/2), based on the Masuji Ibuse's novel, something about the short-term, Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour (***1/2) about historical memory more generally, but the collective Japanese memory of the bombings and their aftermath seems to be mired in complexity and generational drift. For someone like Joichi Ito, who was born in 1966, "the bombings don't really matter," either personally or to his generation:

For my generation, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the war in general now represent the equivalent of a cultural "game over" or "reset" button. Through a combination of conscious policy and unconscious culture, the painful memories and images of the war have lost their context, surfacing only as twisted echoes in our subculture. The result, for better and worse, is that, 60 years after Hiroshima, we dwell more on the future than the past.

Yet about 55,000 people turned up at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park in remembrance of the 60th anniversary of the bombing, with countless others around the world remembering that awful day along with them. Memory may be fading, interest may be sagging, and the remaining hibakusha (survivors of the bombings) may slowly be passing away, but it remains imperative that those of us caught up in the whirlwind of modern life, those of us for whom history may be a burden, remain connected to the past and to the events that have shaped our world and our places in it. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively, are two such milestones of human history.

And we must never forget.

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  • Ok, now that the psycho above debased your comments on Hiroshima...

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki pose certain difficulties.
    1) There is no denying that such a loss of life is horrible.

    2) I can not help but think of the Japanese being targeted because they represent the non-white, the outsider, foreign customs and way of life.... It is easy to kill people who are not conceived of as people. One would think that all our cultural-sensitivity/relativism would prevent this kind of thing from happening in the present, but now we have evil arabs instead.

    3) I have been told that if the bombing did not happen, the war would have continued, resulting in far more loss of life, etc. Some have asserted that this was a humane solution to the end of a bitter and devestating war.

    4) I think that the bombing marked the start of our modern era, in which a single weapon that can eliminate a city and regardless of one's wit, compunction, or luck, you will die. Even if we do not recognize this every day or all that often, it is still a part of our existence in ways we do not recognize. Fear is now a perpetual feature of life.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:04 PM  

  • Thanks, Rachel. I've deleted that comment that you refer to. It was spam. Or some other such nonsense.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 9:19 AM  

  • Great post, Michael. It pretty much sums up my feelings about the bombings. I have read fairly extensively on the subject and I think the bombings were defensible and necesssary, given (1) the apparent fanatical desire of the Japanese government to hold out until the bitter end (even after the A-bombings); (2) the likely consequences of an invasion of Japan (far more death and destruction on both sides); (3) the relative lack of understanding (at least by politicians) of the actual effects of the A-bombs; and (4) the existing context in which civilians had been targeted on both sides--the firebombings of Tokyo killed more people than the A-bombs. Much of the revisionist literature on the A-bombings simply ignores these factors.

    Having said this, no civilized country should be happy or proud of having used nuclear weapons or killed thousands of civilians. Reinhold Neibuhr said that, while war can be justified under given circumstances (ie, WW II), that doesn't make it any less evil. I am very skeptical about making facil moral judgments about the actions of the Allies in the context of a horror like WW II that was forced on us; it's easy for armchair quarterbacks to criticize actions as being immoral. My feeling is that the Axis unleashed the dogs of war and barbarism and it's unrealistic to expect the Allies to have conducted "moral" warmaking. On the other hand, I am equally uncomfortable with our collective unwillingness to recognize the moral compromises that we did make in fighting WW II--primarily, the bombings of the German and Japanese cities. I think this sort of collective amnesia has led over the years to a forgetting of how horrible war is--pace Clausewitz, war is not politics by other means, it's the breakdown of politics. As a result, we have been willing to undertake morally dubious actions in defense of what we consider righteous causes. As Niebuhr said, just because war may be necessary doesn't make it right.

    But I am also bothered by the recent trend in both Germany and Japan of portraying themselves as "victims" of the Allies. In particular, the Japanese right has been trying to whitewash the Japanese atrocities in China and advancing the specious claim that Japan started the war to "liberate" Asia from western colonialism. Funny, the Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinos don't seem to see it that way.

    So I don't think we need to apologize for the use of the bombs--I think the Japanese government should apologize to their people for bringing the destruction on. But we also have no reason to feel proud of it or to ignore the suffering of civilians.

    Lastly, I feel I need to respond to one of Rachellll's comments about the killing of the "non-white" Japanese. This has been a familiar thesis among revisionists and the left but I think it's a pretty weak analysis. It goes without saying that there was much racism toward the Japanese in the United States and an equal amount of racism in Japan about westerners. But I know of no convincing evidence that the Allies used the A-bombs on Japan because they were Asians. After all, we nearly destroyed Germany with bombing as well and probably would have nuked Germany if necessary had the bomb been ready in time. I think you have to keep the context in mind--Japan was ready and willing to fight to the death and Truman was desparately looking for a way to end the war without the huge casualties an invasion would have entailed. So I think the idea that the bombings were racially inspired doesn't really hold up. Obviously, it's easier to kill the so-called "Other" than it is to kill people you know. But in this case, the other was dedicated to continuing a war to the death.

    Do I wish the Allies had considered more seriously the moral consequences of, not just the A-bombs, but of the carpet bombing in Japan and Germany? Yes. Do I think they were morally questionable? In some cases, yes, but, on the whole, no.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:45 AM  

  • It is always good to remember those 2 gruesome and barbaric events in history ... especially at this time.

    It is ironic that at this time, the major proponent of non-nuclear proliferation ... is the only offender on earth's entire history.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:56 AM  

  • I wanted to make another point. I did not mean to imply in my comment above that I think the Japanese civilians, especially the children, "deserved" the bombings or that the Allies should not have tried to avoid them. My point was that, given the circumstances, they were defensible acts that were likely better than the alternatives.

    I heard a story on NPR the other day by an author who collected letters and journals from Japanese at the end of the war. There was a story about school children that were being trained with bamboo spears to use against the American soldiers during an invasion. The bloodbath would have been enormous on both sides. So, I think some context is important.

    But I did not want to give the impression that I did not think the atomic bombings (and the conventional bombings) were not tragedies.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:32 AM  

  • And again, I think it's important to remember what I called a "gruesome" event. The alternative may have been worse, but the point is to remember what actually did happen.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 5:13 PM  

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