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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