In Japan August 9th and all the commemorations and remembrances that are every year connected with this date are already over for another year. Here in the UK there are still a couple of hours left. This morning I read an article someone had posted online about the decision by the United States to use atomic bombs to end the Pacific War. While the points it made were ones I had read before, specifically, that Japan was already defeated, but that the US had dropped the bombs to test its new weapons and also to warn the Soviet Union not to try to invade Japan, the quotes from high-ranking military personnel against the bombings were new to me. It all got me thinking about what was done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and so I have had these thoughts going round and round in my head all day.
The official line is, I suppose, that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (August 9th) were necessary to end the Pacific War, that without them the war would have dragged on, and even more people would have lost their lives. This is based on the events in Okinawa, where Japanese civilians fought and died or committed suicide, and there was massive loss of life on both sides. It was believed, apparently, that the same pattern of events would have unfolded across Japan. Certainly, Japan was already on its knees. And equally certainly, the Japanese people believed their leaders (as did the people of the other countries involved in the war) and would have done what they were told. But the atomic bombs? Were they really necessary? Were they really the most appropriate and most expedient way to end the war?
I am no historian, though I do find history fascinating. I really don’t know whether the decision to use the atomic bombs was the correct one. That is why I chose a blur for a picture at the top of this post, because I just don’t know.
But emotionally I know that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wrong. There is something deep and instinctive that reacts in me, that just screams that it was wrong. Even if you want to argue that one atomic bombing was expedient, ended the war, how do you justify the second, over Nagasaki, three days later? And so today I have had three things replaying in my mind, and all I can do is lay them out and wonder if, in writing, I reach some kind of understanding.
Over twenty years ago, when I was first living in Japan, I met a woman who attended the same church in Yokohama. She was maybe ten years older than me and was from the Pacific North-West of the US. Her parents had worked in some capacity on the atomic bomb programme and she was absolutely adamant that it had been right to drop those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t remember discussing it with her in any detail, I just remember her being totally convinced and insistent that the bombings were necessary. It came up in conversation, and it just hung there.
Several years later, in the summer of 1995, I was in Washington DC and went to the exhibition at the National Air & Space Museum of part of the Enola Gay. It was the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombings, and there had been quite a lot of controversy about the exhibition. The original plan had been for a more balanced, comprehensive examination of the events, but after pressure from veterans’ groups the display had become much more narrowly focused.
I remember seeing part of the Enola Gay, and a sign on it telling people that there was no danger of radiation from it. I remember wondering at the mindset that accepted the inflicting of such a diabolical weapon on a whole city, but felt it necessary to reassure individuals forty years later that there was no radiation to harm them.
There was a video as part of the exhibition, interviews with surviving crew members, and towards the end a recording of the navy chaplain praying with the crew ‘for the success of the mission’. The video ended quite suddenly; the voiceover explained that the crew flew over Hiroshima and dropped the bomb. The Enola Gay flew around and watched the explosion, then flew home, mission accomplished. The end.
I walked out of the exhibition in a kind of daze, shocked that a priest had prayed for ‘success’ in such a context. How could anyone think that God wanted human beings to do these things? And also shocked that there was no mention of how many people were killed that day. There was such a disconnect between the bombing and the consequences of it.
And then, at the end of the nineties I went to work at the school where I still work today. One year the final year students made posters about their grandmothers in English class. Two wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences in the aftermath of the bombings. One wrote that her grandmother lived outside Hiroshima but went into the city in the days after the bombing. What she saw was so horrific that she had promised herself that she would never speak about it, but according to her granddaughter she did speak and told her children and grandchildren what she had seen. The trauma of it still echoed in her granddaughter’s words. Another student wrote about her grandmother and the elder brother she loved more than anyone else. He was caught in one of the bombings and died in her arms, of radiation sickness. It broke her heart, the student wrote. Although she went on to marry, to have children and grandchildren and a full and busy life, it broke her heart and she was never the same again. And finally, I have a colleague whose mother is from Hiroshima. She was a toddler on August 6th 1945. She was outside the city but saw the flash of the atomic blast, and that flash is her very first memory.
Living in Japan, I don’t think it’s unusual to hear these stories. I have heard other stories, of grandfathers judged war criminals, of people stranded in China, starving and orphaned, of people growing up in occupied Korea, believing, knowing they were in Japan. I am not trying to portray the Japanese people as simply victims, or to pretend that the Japanese aggression in Korea, China and other parts of Asia didn’t happen.
But the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unique in the history of warfare. No other country, as Japan frequently points out, has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Was it necessary to bomb those cities? Did it really end the Pacific War? I really don’t know, because I only have my emotional response, and really, I don’t want to have another response. Some things are so horrific that even being able to comprehend seems beyond my ability. I know the horror is so vast and in knowing that I find I have nothing left to process anything else.