For Hiromi, Tomahara, Satomi, Koji, all the others and of course Kenta.
Today is the seventieth anniversary of the first atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. It killed seventy thousand people and within three days, a second one was dropped on Nagasaki killing another forty thousand. Nagasaki was the secondary fall-back target of the mission, because the primary target of Kokura was clouded over.
Kokura had also been the secondary target on the Nagasaki mission, so it twice escaped nuclear annihilation in the space of three days because of nothing more than respectively clement and then inclement weather conditions.
I’ve watched a few documentaries on Hiroshima this week and to some extent or another, they all exhibited some things I find irritating about so-called serious documentaries on historical events.
Too often they were lazy and ill researched. I’m not that picky on details but after watching enough factual errors or critical omissions stack up, you begin to wonder if they were using William Connolly’s politically corrected Wikipedia as a reference source, if not the only source. In this age of easy internet access to a wealth of information, both academic and populist, there’s simply no excuse for such plain sloth.
The laziness didn’t just extend to the raw facts though. Rather than bringing some balance and doing the tough business of coming up with some analytical insight into the event, it was far easier to rush to judgement and frame it all in simple terms of victimhood and assigning blame to a guilty party, which of course in this case was America.
Speaking of which, the liberal media’s through gritted-teeth dislike of America and all things American, usually called racism when applied to anyone else, was never far from the surface, and surprisingly even in the US programs. In a larger sense though, the media doesn’t like “nasty” history unless it’s about ourselves, and it’s definitely frowned upon if you discuss the “nasty” history of foreigners or people we’ve been at war with, especially if we’ve beaten them.
The documentary makers would do well to go back to primary sources and read some of the campaign memoirs of those once easy-going farm boys from rural Minnesota or kids from places like Mobile Alabama, who went out to war in the Pacific and came home years later with a deep and abiding hatred of all things Japanese, simply because of the cruelties they’d seen them perpetrate. For the ordinary allied soldier, the Pacific was without a doubt the most savage campaign of WWII. No quarter was asked and in the end none given.
The memoirs and recollections of the key players of the time are just as frank and just as revealing. Cordell Hull, who’d served as FDR’s Secretary of State or Foreign Secretary for over a decade, remarked once that before every island hop across the Pacific, the military gave their best estimate of American casualties and every time, the numbers were bigger – appallingly and horrendously bigger. Iwo Jima had not long happened and for the first time, total American casualties exceeded Japanese ones.
Twenty thousand men for a small island off Japan that nobody in down home folks America had ever heard of.
Since Japan showed absolutely no sign of surrendering, a mainland invasion of it was already deep into the planning phase and the military were estimating about one million American casualties and Japanese ones in the high teen millions, if not the early twenties and mainly civilian. There was no particular reason to think those estimates would be any more accurate than all the previous ones.
Politically, it was a no-brainer decision. Given a choice between dropping the bomb on such a fanatical and implacable foe who had more than earned universal hatred or accepting casualties optimistically estimated to be half of one percent of the total population of the USA, nobody was going to hesitate for a moment, and despite what an odd revisionist history author likes to punt around, the decision was made by the man who famously had the “buck stops here” sign on his presidential desk.
The ethical case for dropping the bomb was just as strong.
There is this prevalent and commonly accepted idea that when you think about a difficult decision from an ethics viewpoint, it’s somehow about picking your way through some moral minefield and you’ll actually reach the other side unscathed, having come up with some perfectly wonderful solution that actually harms nobody. That’s an easy and self-indulgent notion usually held by those in no danger of ever having to make one of those hard decisions, but yet feel comfortable and superior passing judgement on those who have been obliged to.
Whatever decision you make, and that so often includes not making one, people are going to get hurt. If you can’t accept and work with that simple reality, you shouldn’t be anywhere near a leadership or decision-making role. If you don’t think you could live with making the wrong decision, whatever that may happen to be, you’re in completely the wrong job. And most bitter of all, you also have to be prepared to live with the cost of having made the right decision.
Given that the military clique that actually ruled Japan would never surrender, then the responsibility for the continuing loss of civilian lives has to be laid at their doorstep because from any rational military viewpoint, the war was long ago lost. Surrender was their only humane option and they would never do it.
They actually bear the responsibility for all the Japanese lives lost in the war because it was lost by them on the morning of Sunday December seventh 1941, when they made the imprudent decision to attack America at Pearl Harbour. The arrogance that a resource-poor country like Japan with a population one-third the size of America’s and a fraction of its industrial capacity could actually take on and beat Isoroku Yamamoto’s “sleeping giant” is difficult to comprehend.
From that morning, isolationist America went from a standing army of less than fifty thousand men to four years later nearly eight million men in uniform, all of whom were booted, suited, trained, equipped and deployed in two theatres of operation on opposite sides of the globe. Japan never had a realistic chance of winning a war against something like that.
Since the responsibility for all the deaths lay with Japan for starting a war it couldn’t possibly win and then persisting in fighting on with total disregard to their own civilian casualties, the ethical judgement came down to minimising the loss of life by winning the war as soon as possible. If the only way of preventing the certain slaughter of millions is to take the lives of one hundred thousand people, then that’s the ethically correct choice, whether you like it or not.
Watching interviews of the survivors is both harrowing and moving but too often there’s a subtle spin being introduced exploiting their terrible experiences to suggest a victimhood and that America should be feeling guilty for dropping the bomb on them. If you’re going to play that one-sided game, you’re doing at best manipulative drama and at worst propaganda, rather than honest documentary making.
If instead you want to do some balanced history, then at least include a few references to atrocities like the Rape of Nanking where over a six-week period of murder and looting, the Imperial Japanese army killed by Chinese estimates, three hundred thousand men, women and children and they did it old style, using bayonet, rifle butt, sword and bullet.
It’s Japan’s continued reluctance to fully acknowledge responsibility for atrocities like Nanking and many others committed on the Asia-Pacific rim that continues to poison to this day their relationship with many other countries like China and Korea.
The picture heading up this piece is Japanese soldiers using captured Indian POWs as live targets. I’m sure the average Japanese person nowadays would find it just as repulsive as anyone else in the world but that goes to illustrate the massive cultural change that occurred in the aftermath of their defeat in WWII. The brutal, almost feudal militaristic culture was totally dismantled by the victors and the country has been a true democracy for over half a century, as well as being more prosperous than it’s ever been.
The prerequisite for bringing all that about was winning the war.
I live just outside a village, which itself is a few miles from a provincial town. All our children were born and raised there and it was always a mild concern to both myself and my wife that while it was a good place for them to grow up, they were in danger of ending up by default with a very parochial attitude to the bigger world outside. In an effort to broaden their horizons, we started to put up for two or three weeks a year foreign students in their early teens who were mostly learning English.
We were paid a nominal amount of money that barely covered their food but that wasn’t why we went to the trouble. Our children had the distinct benefit of meeting other kids who did actually live in a far country, did speak a different language and had their own unique cultural take on things. Whether they knew it or not, they learnt some important things from our young guests, especially when on occasion they went and lived with them in exchange.
Over the years we had kids from various places like France and America but settled mainly on Japanese kids because guest parent homes were very hard to find for them as not many people wanted them. The sins of the grandfathers were still being visited on their offspring generations later and as usual, unfairly so.
They were just kids like ours, boys and girls a very long way from home and I have to say not only great muck in houseguests, but a real pleasure to share your own culture with. Once they got over what was a very real culture shock for them, they really got the most out of their time over here. We did build some strong attachments with each other in such a small period of time.
I tell that story because I’ve no doubt that having touched on Japan’s “nasty” history on this anniversary, I’m running counter to a number of comfortable narratives about it, most especially the victimhood one, and am therefore automatically callous, racist or both in some people’s minds. I’m neither but if being thought of as such is the price for discussing a historic event with a semblance of context and clarity, then so be it.
However, I do remember sitting in the garden and teaching a Nihonjin kid how to look, and I mean really look, at a tree and then draw it using pencil and paper. Hours later, despite the fading light of a warm summer’s evening and some gentle nagging from the house to come in, he was still sitting there cross-legged down the garden working away on it and gripped by a new world he’d never known existed. We went to bed leaving the back door unlocked and left him to it.
He was a lovely kid and I’ve occasionally thought staying with us Gaijins perhaps ruined some very detailed parental plans for his future. We all learnt something from each other.
It’s only when people can be honest with each other about their shared history that they can make a start on creating a better one. The alternative is to keep viewing it as a simple matter of goodies and baddies, victims and perpetrators or worst of all, from on top of some smug Mount Olympus of your own perfect moral superiority. With that sort of attitude, you’re just reserving a place for yourself in some future battle of the historical re-enactment society.
As for Hiroshima, Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay that dropped the bomb, was once asked if he was haunted by having done it. He replied. “I’ve never lost a night’s sleep over it, and I never will”.
Seventy years down the line, nobody else should either. On every level, it was the correct hard decision.
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