Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Memories of Hiroshima

There was part of me that hoped Hiroshima would still be a pile of rubble when I arrived there in November 1977. Of course I knew it would not be. I was going there to study for two academic years at Hiroshima University, and I knew from the people there and from friends who had visited the city before me that Hiroshima is a beautiful, modern city. Somehow I did not like the idea that a place destroyed by an atomic bomb could recover so well in a couple of decades. Knowing that cities can eventually get over atomic bomb attacks, I thought, might give people the idea that attacking enemies with nuclear weapons is not as dangerous as all the disarmament people claim it is.

Before going to Japan I talked to a friend in Toronto whose parents had died in the atomic bomb attack of Hiroshima. His family had lived in the suburbs of Hiroshima, and they had, as usual on a working day, gone to the downtown area to work on August 6, 1945. My friend was about five years old at the time. He remembers being taken downtown to search for the remains of his parents. Where their workplace had been, nothing was left but a vacant lot filled with rubble. Everything less solid than rock had been atomized. There were no human remains at the site. His parents had apparently turned to vapor almost instantly. One moment they existed, and the next they did not. My friend was eventually adopted by Japanese Canadians in Toronto and lived a pleasant and safe life there. As long as he lives he will never forget the fruitless search for his parents' physical remains.

We were standing in the Asian Studies library when my Japanese-Canadian friend told me about his memories of the days after the atomic bomb attack. Our conversation was overheard by a Chinese woman. When my friend and I parted company, the Chinese woman came up to me and said “I'm glad his parents were killed. They deserved nothing better.” She then told me of her childhood memories of nearly starving to death as Japanese soldiers who had occupied her village ate almost all the available food. She remember seeing Japanese soldiers toss a Chinese baby high into the air and impale it on a bayonet as it fell back to earth.

What can one say when people report such memories? All I could do was listen and wonder how on earth people who have witnessed such horrors can go on with their lives and eventually recover enough to spend most of their waking hours in banal pursuits and superficial conversations. I had had hundreds of other conversations with the Chinese woman. Her favorite topic of conversation was barbecue chicken. Talking about food seems to have pushed all those memories of starvation deep into the shadows of her subliminal mind, just as talking about baseball banished my Japanese friend's memories of the atomic bomb far into the background.

A few months before going to Hiroshima I read a book about Paul Tibbets and the flight crew of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb used in a war. Tibbets eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General and lived to the age of 92. The book I read about him focused a lot of attention on the remarkable finesse Tibetts manifested in the complex and dangerous bombing mission. It also dispelled the myth—one that I had heard dozens of times—that the pilot of the Enola Gay had gone insane from guilt. General Tibetts never, so far as I know, expressed any regrets about his role in the mission. Indeed, he talked as though he was proud of it. One member of the flight crew did eventually end up in a mental hospital, but the story is that he was considered so unstable toward the end of the war that there was a question whether he should take part in the Hiroshima mission. In other words, said the book, he was well on the way to being crazy before the mission and did not get much crazier after the mission.

The book also explained why Hiroshima was chosen as a target for the first atomic bomb. It was chosen because it was not an important military target. It was chosen because it had never been bombed by conventional bombs. Hiroshima had managed to get through the war almost completely unscathed. Why choose such a target? Because the United States military wanted to know just how much damage an atomic bomb would do, so they needed a target in which no damage had been done by anything other than the atomic bomb itself. One might say it was chosen out of scientific curiosity. One might also say that it was a target populated by hardly anyone but civilians. The only military there were those needed to operate a small prison in which about a dozen American prisoners of war were being kept. The American prisoners of war, like the thousands of Japanese civilians were what a later generation of American military people would call collateral damage. The death of innocents is just part of the cost of doing business when the business is warfare. (This is nothing new or especially modern. The Bible is full of stories of Israelites and their enemies putting thousands of women and children to the sword.)

Eventually I worked up the nerve to visit the atomic bomb museum in the Peace Park in Hiroshima. Like most visitors to the museum I stumbled silently through the exhibits, numbed by the horrific photographs, stunned by a chunk of a stone wall that had melted into liquid in the unimaginable heat of the atomic bomb and then resolidified in a grotesque caricature of stone. No wonder so many human beings had essentially been turned to gas by the heat.

When I got home after seeing the atomic museum I tried to put my thoughts down on paper. The moment I tried, I began to sob. Once I began, the sobbing lasted for hours. I sobbed until my ribs hurt and my lungs burned. I have rarely felt so exhausted. Never had I been so aware of the cruelties of war. Never had I felt so ashamed of being human. Never since then have I recovered. Never have I been able to understand why human beings are so willing to inflict pain on others for the sake of getting a bit of land and control over others, so eager to visit magnified suffering on others when others have hurt them.

In August Japanese people commemorate the deaths of their ancestors. In Hiroshima this special religious holiday has a special significance. It is a day for remembering all those who died in the atomic bomb attack, and of those who have died since then of radiation-caused diseases acquired most probably as a result of being in the vicinity of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The deaths are commemorated by putting candles into paper lanterns and letting them float down the river past the Peace Park. I watched the lanterns come down the river on August 6, 1978. At first just a few came. Then more and more came. It was beautifu as a sight. It became terrifying only when one stopped to remember that each beautiful lantern represented the soul of a victim of the atomic bomb. So many beautiful lanterns! So much pain. Once again I was overcome with shame at being human.

During the time I lived in Hiroshima, I talked with many Japanese people about the atomic bomb. I was amazed at how many Japanese people I met who told me the atomic bomb had probably been a good thing that had saved both American and Japanese lives in the long run. Some added that if the Americans had not stopped the war when it did, the Soviets would have invaded Japan and demanded at war's end that Japan be divided as Germany and Korea were into Soviet and Western zones. There is, of course, no way of knowing what would have happened. All one can do is speculate about what might have been if things had not turned out as they did. All one can know for sure is that Americans managed to convince themselves, and quite a number of Japanese people, that killing many tens of thousands of people was unavoidable and ultimately had good consequences.

Since 1979, when I left Hiroshima and returned to Canada, I have heard many times that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many lives. Interestingly enough, the report of lives saved has climbed steadily since 1945. The figure climbs in proportion with estimates of the number of people who died as a result of those attacks. The more we learn of the long-term effects of radiation and adjust the death toll upwards to account for all those who died lingering deaths in years and decades after the atomic bomb attack, the more lives we become convinced were saved by the attack. It is obvious that most of the people in the only nation in history to use nuclear weapons against innocent civilians are not yet capable of coming to the conclusion that the attack was unjustified, let alone possibly an unconsionable evil. Americans, after all, don't do evil. That's not part of the American self-image. Tragically, it is not part of any nation's self-image. And so the evils continue without interruption.