Friday, August 06, 2010

Narrative and the memory of war 

It is a measure of the power of narrative that we publicly grieve more for the deaths of our enemies than those of our allies in a war that is now fading quickly from human memory.


By Blogger antithaca, at Fri Aug 06, 09:31:00 AM:

You're forgetting, we only used the bomb because we're all racists.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Aug 06, 11:41:00 AM:

Former enemies, that is. You may be aware that Japan has been an ally for a few years now.

Also, please note that hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were killed in Tokyo and elsewhere the old-fashioned way, and those folks don't get much in the way of special commemorations either. You're being willfully disingenuous (in order to create your OWN narrative) if you ignore that it was the first use of the A-Bomb that makes Hiroshima stand out. (And frankly, it seems to me we don't even hear that much about Nagasaki either).


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Aug 06, 12:04:00 PM:

I second Anon 11:41

I'd add that many of the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki died the old-fashioned way too, in a firestorm. The first two A-bombs weren't that big by later standards. They were firebrands thrown on kindling.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Fri Aug 06, 12:54:00 PM:

We are now at Hiroshima plus 65, and TigerHawk is correct that memory fades. A generation is passing, and history books are written and attitudes change with the currents of time.

I have blogged and posted previously about my father's circumstances in 1945, as have other commenters here with respect to their family members serving in the Armed Forces at the time -- that the use of the A-Bombs to bring the war in the Pacific to a rapid conclusion was certainly the correct action for the U.S. to take. The race angle that antithaca jokingly remarks about above has been a popular one in academia for most of the past 45 years or so, but does anyone doubt that had Trinity taken place 9 months earlier, there would have been no Battle of the Bulge, and that anyone in Hamburg without 2,000,000 SPF sunscreen would have had a really bad time of it?

For me, though, it is the nonagenerian friends of my late father (who passed away at age 94 in January) -- particulary those who have maintained their very progressive political orientaion -- when they speak with passion about the necessity of Truman's decision, they know what it meant in that moment of time, in a society fully mobilized for World War II. Maybe that attitude illustrates that indeed all politics is personal -- that if you have skin in the game, a loved one in harm's way, you know in your bones that ending an enormous conflict in the fastest possible way is and was the right thing to do.

I am not sure what happens when we reach Hiroshima plus 75 or 85, as that generation fully passes, but I think that it would be a worthwhile PBS or independent project to capture oral history from August 1945 active duty personnel and their spouses. Hearing it from the people who actually lived through that time is powerful.

Whatever the narrative might be on the part of some historians, it strikes me that so many of us are children or grandchildren of those that served during and at the close of WWII, that there is a personal and real history which lives on.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Fri Aug 06, 02:16:00 PM:

I second the prior comments.

I believe the following is true. Please correct me if you think I'm wrong. If you think I'm prolix, just skip on by.

People weren't memorializing or protesting Hiroshima after WWII. Too many other bad things had happened.

If you were thinking about it just after WWII ended, Hiroshima might not have made your Top Ten List of The Worst Things That Happened in WWII, the competition was that bad. Recall that WWII was global and started before Pearl Harbor -- Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 -- Nanking was Raped in 1937, etc etc. So there are lots of candidates.

I'd put the Holocaust at #1, with stiff competition from #2 City Civilian Populations Become Legitimate Strategic Targets, which would actually subsume Hiroshima.

Here's why Hiroshima keeps getting notice today:

1) The way we think about Hiroshima changed with the October 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, the January 1964 release of Dr Strangelove, and LBJ's September 1964 anti-Goldwater Daisy Ad

2) The environmental movement wants to equate Hiroshima with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

3) A dollop of anti-Americanism. E.g., Howard Zinn dedicates pages in his A People's History of The United States to argue that the USA vaporized Hiroshima to keep the Soviets out of Japan, calling it "the first major operation of the Cold War."  

By Anonymous Mr. Ed, at Fri Aug 06, 03:25:00 PM:

Kudos to all for such thoughtful commentary.

"Ignoramus" postulates why Hiroshima stands out in our mind despite greater horrors having occurred during the war.

To me it looks as though the reason for that is not so much the missile crisis, the environmental movement (the ban the bomb movement was there first), nor Zinn.

I think it was the suddenness of Hiroshima and the imagery. It's hard to visualize Nanking or the concept of declaring cities to be a free fire zone. Those are lengthy stories of even greater death. Hiroshima was violence and horrible death condensed into a single stanza and like a powerful poem it lingers.


By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Fri Aug 06, 05:19:00 PM:

Mr Ed's haunting description of Hiroshima applies today -- I'm saying it didn't apply so much in the aftermath of WWII. It started to do so later when we came to the collective realization that we could be on the receiving end. So when we protest Hiroshima today, I cynically submit it's for reasons that have little to do with concern for those who died there.

Once again, I'm prolix. Once again, correct anything that's wrong.

"People weren't memorializing or protesting Hiroshima after WWII -- Back then it might not make the Top Ten List."

After some more research, I'd go even further. Back then when most Americans thought about Hiroshima it was to give thanks for its ending the war ... or to make jokes about it.

Here's my evidence:

The New Yorker was the first to publish John Hersey's "Hiroshima" by dedicating an entire issue to it in August 1946. "Hiroshima" put a human face on the bombing by telling what happened from the perspective of six survivors. It was then sold as a book -- Book-of-the-Month-Club sent it to all its members for free. "Hiroshima" had an impact on our intelligentsia, especially among Manhattan Project scientists.

News coverage of Hiroshima was very different then than it would be today. I suspect there were no mushroom cloud pictures in the news in the days after, nor any pictures of the devastation on the ground .. that these only came out later.

Instead, until "Hiroshima" there had been few accounts that addressed the loss of life and the devastation and none at length. The New Yorker editors knew that even a year later they were ahead of popular understanding and spoke to this in their introduction:

"The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use."

Many were surprised by a New Yorker issue without any jokes or cartoons. The New York Times reported on this the day after publication in August 1946 in a piece called "Time from Laughter":

"Every American who has permitted himself to make jokes about atom bombs, or who has come to regard them as just one sensational phenomenon that can now be accepted as part of civilization, like the airplane and the gasoline engine, or who has allowed himself to speculate as to what we might do with them if we were forced into another war, ought to read Mr. Hersey."

It's also worth noting that until the fall of the Berlin Wall our military planned to use tactical nuclear weapons in certain circumstances. We actually considered using tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam at Khe Sahn in 1968.

Mr Ed's haunting description applies today -- but we've been "educated" over the years. You can add 1950s monster movies, fall-out shelters, Fail-Safe (1964) and Planet of the Apes (1968) to the list of how we got educated.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Fri Aug 06, 05:35:00 PM:

It's not just popular media. I left out the obvious -- no one else had the Bomb when WWII ended.

But the Soviets had the bomb in 1949, years earlier than we expected. Espionage helped them along -- probably by a couple of years.

Then came Sputnik -- no wonder we were paranoid in the 1950s.

Which goes to my point that few in the USA cared much about Hiroshima after the war ended.  

By Blogger OregonJon, at Fri Aug 06, 05:47:00 PM:

In an ideal world we would just note that war is Hell and get on with it. Those who wish to make more of it sometimes start what they cannot finish, so let us just note that the largest slaughter in WWII was by the Japanese in what is called the Rape of Nanking where there were upwards of 300,000 deaths. We might also note there is little Japanese anguish over what they wrought. 'nuf said.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Aug 06, 11:41:00 PM:

Let's see. . .Six days after Hiroshima, the Emperor of Japan surrendered.
'Nuff said.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Aug 06, 11:43:00 PM:

Havent we been doing this for a long time? I mean, The Iliad is a story written by a greek, that tells the tale of the honorable Trojans and their loss at the hands of the less than honorable greeks.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Aug 07, 01:02:00 AM:

"In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force--
Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth's returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best."

-- Robert Browning

You make me tired. Nothing else.


By Blogger JorgXMcKie, at Sat Aug 07, 01:32:00 AM:

My father was a gunny sgt training to be a 2nd Lt and lead men ashore on the Japanese home islands.

He had been a Carlson's Raider and survived Guadacanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, among others.

He believed that without the bombs we would have had to kill between 4-5 million Japanese military and have at least 15 million civilian casualties [not to mention whatever disease, starvation, or whatever deaths after a surrender] to end the war.

He also believed that he would not have made it through the first day.  

By Blogger Georgiaboy61, at Sat Aug 07, 02:15:00 AM:

Unremarked upon is the fact that Pandora's Box was opened vis-a-vis atomic weapons. Interested parties are directed to Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," which details the various discoveries from the 1880s forward into the 1900s, by Einstein, Heisenberg, Meitner, Bohr, and others, up to the WWII era. Someone was going to develop an atomic weapon eventually, it was a question only of when and by whom. Those who condemn that the USA was first, c.f. Marilyn Young and others, should thank the Almighty that we - the Allies - were first. If Japan and Germany had been first, they'd have used it - no question about it. Imagine the technology of the V-2 ballistic missile wedded to the atomic bomb, and you have an idea of what Hitler could have done.

As tragic as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, they pale into insignificance next to the calamity that would have been an Axis atomic bomb.  

By Blogger Georgiaboy61, at Sat Aug 07, 02:21:00 AM:

JorgXMcKie, your father must be quite a man. Marine Gunnies are the real deal, and Carlson's Raiders were more so. He was also a lucky man to have survived island-hopping all the way to Japan. My late father was USN, served aboard destroyer escorts and attack transports in both the Atlantic and Pacific. His ship had six battle stars, including landings under fire at Okinawa, where it was attacked by kamikazes.
They were scheduled to take part in the invasion also. My father was always tremendously grateful for Truman's decision. That didn't change when dad did extensive business in Japan post-war.  

By Blogger Edmund Ironside, at Sat Aug 07, 04:03:00 AM:

The same process of bizarre revisionism has gone on here in the UK about the bombing of Dresden. This despite the fact that the casualties in Dresden were 25,000, whereas the deaths in London from the Blitz were 43,000.
There is a strong meme on the Left that both sides in WWII were evil. I despise them already, but more so for this kind of moral equivalence.  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Sat Aug 07, 05:16:00 AM:

"There is a strong meme on the Left that both sides in WWII were evil. I despise them already, but more so for this kind of moral equivalence"

Two words - Oliver Stone. Surprisingly his recent outburst didn't make me hate him more, but only because I already had complete contempt for him. I read somewhere that the attempt to rehabilitate Hitler and Stalin were motivated specifically by a desire to demean America. Do I ever hate those bastards (i. e. Stone and fellow travelers). And it's not exactly a coincidence that they are antisemitic on top of it.  

By Blogger Jaded, at Sat Aug 07, 06:25:00 AM:

The narrative is no different today then during WWII IF you are a PATRIOTIC, GOD LOVING AMERICAN!

The left likes to make people "feel" bad about WINS at war. It is how a freaking Mosque gets built at ground zero 9 years after 9-11.

War is HELL, people DIE, WE were VICTORIOUS and that just pisses of the left so they change the narrative in their leftist bastions of hell, colleges.

If those bombs hadn't been dropped millions more would have died, simple. If WE had gone into Afghanistan with SHOCK & AWE instead of hearts and minds thousands more would still be alive today!

Thank God for the men and women of the United States Military, making the world a safer place one pathetic hellhole of a Country at a time!  

By Blogger Klatuu, at Sat Aug 07, 09:50:00 AM:

Up until August 9th, 1945, the Japanese had been, for years, a force of monstrous, unspeakable evil. The only reason they are not at the forefront of the world's consciousness when the topic of evil in the 20th Century is discussed is that the Communists & Nazis were even worse.

The most accurate perception of the results of the use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima & Nagasaki is that they were acts of LIBERATION, not only of those subjugated for years by Japanese conquest, but the Japanese people themselves.

The proper context for marking those occasions is celebration. Not unbridled enthusiasm, of course, but sober reflection upon why it came to that pass in the first place, and how fortunate every human being that came afterward is that such terrible weapons were unleashed not by such monsters as the Nazis, Soviets, or Imperial Japanese, but by people who were not conquerors. "...as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."

Hiroshima & Nagasaki have become litmus tests for those who are ignorant and/or inimical to not only the USA, but to human liberty as well. That's a very harsh statement that I would not have made 25 years ago, but time and experience have proven otherwise.  

By Anonymous herrman, at Sat Aug 07, 11:16:00 AM:

And, despite the bleating from some corners, we'd do it again long before we reached the body count of WWII in 1945.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Sat Aug 07, 11:53:00 AM:

There's nothing really new about this silly revisonism. It's the same force that makes us all think the Civil War was about slavery, Woodrow Wilson was a great diplomat, FDR saved us from the Depression and Joe McCarthy was an evil guy.

...and on and on..  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Sat Aug 07, 11:53:00 AM:

There's nothing really new about this silly revisonism. It's the same force that makes us all think the Civil War was about slavery, Woodrow Wilson was a great diplomat, FDR saved us from the Depression and Joe McCarthy was an evil guy.

...and on and on..  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Aug 07, 12:06:00 PM:

The problem is not so much the power of the narrative as it is the desire to appear more noble and self-less than the average person. It's kind of a twisted logic of self-esteem applied to a vestige of Christian values.

Accordingly, enemies are to be grieved more than allies because of course ANYBODY would grieve an ally, but only a TRULY compassionate person would be sensitive enough to grieve an enemy more. After all, didn't Jesus tell us to love our enemies?

And so staking out otherwise insane positions becomes a badge of honor.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Aug 07, 12:19:00 PM:

The narrative is we don't want to see nuclear weapons used again. Ever.  

By Blogger RebeccaH, at Sat Aug 07, 12:38:00 PM:

My father was a G.I. in Europe when Germany surrendered. If not for the atom bomb, he would have been sent to the Pacific instead of being mustered home, and it's a real possibility that I, my children, and my grandchildren would not exist today. I don't care about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan started the war, and our side finished it. Period.  

By Anonymous Ampontan, at Sat Aug 07, 10:09:00 PM:

"the largest slaughter in WWII was by the Japanese in what is called the Rape of Nanking where there were upwards of 300,000 deaths. We might also note there is little Japanese anguish over what they wrought. 'nuf said."

No, not nearly "'nuf said".

We might also note there's a lot more anguish over what actually happened in Nanjing in Japan--and a lot more real research than in China and the US--than you know about. In fact, it could fill a small library.

The reason you don't know anything about it is that it's all in Japanese.

You didn't know, for example, that a not inconsiderable amount of what Iris Chang wrote was discredited information before she even used it (she didn't care), and more was provided by Chinese propagandists that is questionable.

This is not to deny what happened at Nanjing. It is only to say that there is still consierable research being conducted into what happened, and you have no idea what the Japanese really think about it.

But then again, we all know that the average American 30 year old is very anguished about what his or her grandfather might have done in Vietnam, right?  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Sun Aug 08, 02:30:00 PM:

"But then again, we all know that the average American 30 year old is very anguished about what his or her grandfather might have done in Vietnam, right?"

Right, there's never been a movie made about Vietnam and criticism of the war has been entirely suppressed in America. With all due respect, ampontan, GFY.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Sat Aug 14, 07:30:00 PM:

I wrote this today to send to my kids on the anniversary of V-J Day, and thought that with a few edits it would fit here as a coda on Hiroshima - Nagasaki. You'll need to click through to see the two referenced photos.


V-J Day Kiss in Times Square

WWII ended 65 years ago today on Aug 14 in the USA, Aug 15 in Japan -- V-J Day. This was just days after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, which in turn followed the obliteration of most Japanese cities by firebombing that Spring. The formal Japanese surrender was held later on September 2 on the deck of the battleship Missouri anchored in Tokyo harbor.

Emperor Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender to his people on radio on V-J Day. For all but a few Japanese, it was the first time that they had ever heard their Emperor's voice.

Hirohito's radio address to the Japanese people on V-J Day directly referenced the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

"Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, nor to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers." [ Full text ]

Unlike the fall of Germany that Spring, the surrender of Japan wasn't necessarily assured nor expected to be quick. Planning for Operation Downfall was premised on what had just happened on Okinawa -- total resistance including by civilians -- and so projected US casualties of over one million with much higher multiples of Japanese dead. At that point in the war -- combining all WWII theatres including Europe -- the USA had had less than half a million total killed in action.

Understandably, news of the Japanese surrender led to all kinds of spontaneous celebration on V-J Day. This picture from Times Square (taken just after the news got out) captured the moment -- a random sailor grabs a random nurse and ...

[ V-J Day Kiss Photo ]

Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt recalled: "I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I'd hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn't been a nurse, if she'd been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn't have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor's dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact."

He never got their names. Soon afterward, throngs of people crowded into Times Square and it became a sea of people.

It's one of the two greatest photos from WWII ... and it wasn't staged. This one was staged.

[ Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima ]

Actually, there was a first picture taken of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi that wasn't staged. It was a great picture except the flag was thought too small. So they did it again. The battle for Iwo Jima went on for weeks. Three of the six Marines you see in this photo didn't make it off the island.

The beat goes on ....  

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