August 6th, 2008

summer reading


I can't recall for certain, but I believe it's the Seventh Day Adventists who don't believe in celebrating birthdays. When I first learned this, it struck me dumb. I suppose because I'm used to religion finding sexual things dangerous; it never occurred to me that celebrating a person's birth could be construed in the same light. As with denying humans have sexual impulses, it seems to me that not observing certain anniversaries goes against the nature of being human. It's a part of who we are to look at moments in our individual and collective past and point them out to one another, make them important. We attach a special meaning to those anniversaries and they become part of the glue that holds our culture together.

Today is an anniversary of a monumental event in human history, but I don't think we'll ever really acknowledge it in the United States. We can acknowledge D-Day with equanimity - after all, it reflected well on us in the end - but remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki, talking about those two days in August, is something else again.

Until it was pointed out to me, the element of racism in using atomic bombs in Asia had never occurred to me. But the argument makes some sense. Apparently there were plans to use atomic bombs in Europe, but the combination of the Third Reich falling apart quicker than imagined and the delay in the bombs being ready to use meant Japan became the only real target for them - at least in the sense of timing. The heart of the issue is the eternal question: had things worked differently in Europe as respects timing, would the United States really have used them there? It's difficult to imagine that we would have.

Having said that, I think it's also important to note the realities and assumptions people were working with at that time. The war in the Pacific was a different war than the one going on in Europe. While I'm sure the "war is war" statement holds some truth, there were large differences in fighting style. As the US moved from tiny island to tiny island towards Japan, they met a kind of resistance that was for them both unexpected and horrifying. In the west, it was acceptable to surrender when the odds became insurmountable and defeat certain. This was not the case for Japanese soldiers. They dug in and planned to take as many of the enemy with them as possible when they died. They fought to the last man.

Psychologically and practically, this engendered a different response from the US than our response against Germany. Add that to the fact that things went on months longer with Japan than they did with Germany and one might come to some understanding of just how weary and sick of it all people were feeling. The fact that Japan looked at the devastation wrought in Hiroshima and still didn't surrender says a lot about how both sides were looking at the war at that point, I think.

I've never met an American person from that generation who hasn't said it was a good thing, or if not "good", a necessary thing that ended the war years before it was likely to end otherwise. I've also never met a person from that generation who thinks of it as something to boast about. They don't treat it as something to be ashamed of, but they don't treat it as something to be particularly proud of either.

Perhaps it's that ambivalence, that thinking that it was the US doing what it had to do to save US lives, coupled with the knowledge of just what a price in human terms it cost Japan, that makes it so difficult for us to acknowledge. It was a sad kind of victory. It's an eternal bruise that we'd rather ignore and let heal on its own than analyze and shine a light on.

It's impossible to feel pride and it's also impossible not to feel regret. Like marking the date when a particularly bitter marriage is dissolved, it's the kind of anniversary no one wants to remember.