Of Hope and Hiroshima

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 29, 2006 | Destinations: Japan / Hiroshima

One hears a great deal about weapons of mass destruction in these days of semper bellicus.  Some time ago, scientists made the perverse discovery that you can kill mice using very loud techno music.  I would like to see a study proving that you can kill memories using too much television.  Well, ha ha, maybe you can't.  But how else is one to explain why no one is very troubled by America's thousands of nuclear warheads?  Why do they hate us.  What is one supposed to feel toward a weapons stockpile?  Why yes, of course, envy - envy, not horror, and certainly not hate.

On August 6, 1945, America became the first and only country to use nuclear weapons, the weapons of mass destruction par excellence, on people.  It was wartime, you say.  Well, the fact that it was wartime does not forgive the Holocaust.  Countless American soldiers would have died had the A-bomb not been used.  This is speculation, since elevated to specious fact.  The Japanese sneak attacked America, so they deserved it.  Actually the Japanese attacked an American colony (Hawaii was not yet a state) and they did so in part because FDR had delivered them an ultimatum:  get out of Asia or else.  He then cut off their oil supply.  Pearl Harbor provided him with a convenient excuse to enter the war in Europe despite overwhelming domestic opposition.  By the time the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Japanese were already looking for a way out of their failed war, but they were afraid that America would demand an unconditional surrender (America did), which would include the ouster of their beloved Emperor (it didn't).  Truman dropped the bomb to show the Russkies who was boss.  And, just in case there was any misunderstanding, he dropped another.  Thus began the age of the Bomb-O-Gram, of "sending a clear message" to Mr. A by blowing up Mr. B.

In 1963, Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe undertook a series of essays about Hiroshima.  They were later compiled into a slim volume with the modest title Hiroshima Notes.  Better known as a writer of anguished fiction, and especially fiction revolving around his mentally retarded son Hikari, Oe shows that he is also a capable journalist, although his Notes tend more toward speculation on the meaning of Hiroshima than toward the event itself.  His visits to the city were a turning point in his life, as the A-bomb victims teach him a lesson in human dignity.  They are "people who do not kill themselves in spite of their misery".  Most of them, anyway.  Even some who were not victims decided to make an early exit, including a friend of Oe's who hung himself to avoid "impending nuclear doom."

Oe has never been one to mince words.  He calls Hiroshima the "cruelest experience of human history"; an "unspeakable tragedy" that "far exceeds that of Auschwitz" yet receives far less publicity.  The reason for this is obvious enough:  to the victors go the histories, and the American occupational forces in Japan officially suppressed A-bomb matters until the early 50's.  For its part, Japan's leadership was in no hurry to connect Hiroshima to its recent trampling of Asia.  From the Holocaust, the Jews got the right to colonize a nice, but already quite populated piece of Levantine real estate; they got American support to the tune of billions of dollars; they got Schindler's List.  The A-bomb victims got next to nothing.

Oe raises an interesting question.  If humanism implies that people are generally good, forgiving, and strong, could not humanism be a nightmarish philosophy?  He performs a thought experiment.  Suppose the A-bomb were dropped on the Congo.  Presumably the Congolese would be woefully unable to deal with the effects, and thus the act would be denounced as a monstrous crime.  But because the Japanese could cope, the act was not seen as criminal. 

A-bomb victims who could not forgive in any case tried to forget.  Against this tendency, Oe quotes Celine:  "The ultimate defeat is, in short, to forget; especially to forget those who kill us.  It is to die without any suspicion, to the very end, of how perverse people are.... We must report, one by one, everything we have learned about the cruelty of man."  Celine, it should be said, was a notorious anti-Semite and didn't bother to report everything he had learned about the cruelty of the Nazis.  Similarly, Oe does not waste any breath on the Rape of Nanking, although he does acknowledge that the atomic bombings were "one result" of "Japan's wars of aggression against Asian peoples".

Still, Oe believes that Japan's amnesia borders on "moral breakdown."  He mentions the astonishing fact that in 1965 the Japanese government awarded the "First Class Order of the Rising Sun" to none other than General Curtis E. LeMay.  Not only had LeMay helped plan the atomic bombings; he was also behind making the rubble bounce in Vietnam ("Bomb 'em back into the Stone Age" was his Stone Age contribution to military strategy.)  Far from forgetting one who killed them, the Japanese were applauding him. 

The blame game is not Oe's chief interest.  Instead, he hopes that a candid account of the misery caused by nuclear weapons will diminish our worship of their power.  The outlook is hardly encouraging.  As Oe was making his notes, China announced that it had developed nuclear weapons, and recently North Korea confessed to its own nasty little inedible bomb.  Japan's constitution explicitly commits the country to pacifism, and for now it is protected by that happy abstraction, America's "nuclear umbrella".  But the general trend is toward proliferation; barring some simultaneous a-ha by all the world's people, we can expect only more states going nuclear.  A still dimmer thought is that nuclear weapons will be rendered irrelevant by some superior technology.  Loud techno music, perhaps. 

Because A-bombs ended the Pacific War so quickly, their use has been considered during subsequent quagmires, especially Korea and Vietnam.  Which makes one wonder if those who say that America would never drop an A-bomb on white people were not far off the mark.  As late as last year, otherwise sane and well-educated individuals told me in all seriousness that Afghanistan should be nuked lickety-split.  Obviously uranium's charm has not worn off.  Oe believes that "people everywhere on this earth are trying to forget Hiroshima." I'm more inclined to think that they know nothing about Hiroshima to forget. 

You wouldn't know it from CNN, but people are still dying in Japan from "A-bomb disease", which sometimes eerily resembles HIV in its capacity to decimate the immune system.  We've all seen the pictures of a leveled Hiroshima, but they don't do the bombing much justice.  Words, and Oe's words in particular, do.  He shows us an old man and A-bomb victim who tries to kill himself as a protest against nuclear testing, but his affliction has made him too weak physically to do the job.    Oe praises the Hiroshima doctors and their "brute courage to care for over a hundred thousand people with only oil and mercurochrome."  He views through a microscope the "unspeakably ugly" mutated cells of a local plant (and later wonders whether the nuclear age will spawn some new kind of human being.)  Proving the point that no history is ever complete, he quotes widely from a book of drawings called "Flash-Bang", published in 1950 but suppressed by the United States.  In one vignette, a soldier taps his comrades on the shoulder, whereupon "they crumbled down into ashes."  Oe reminds us of the gooey, radioactive "black rain" that fell on Hiroshima a few hours after impact.  In short, he hacks away at the misconception that nuclear weapons are somehow more "surgical" than conventional ones.

The Japanese were not the only victims, nor was the suffering only physical.  An American captain loosely involved in the bombing would ultimately become mentally deranged out of guilt.  In a sense, he too suffers from a kind of "A-bomb disease"; in a sense, we all do.  It is the disease of knowing that the A-bomb exists and that it is proliferating every bit as mindlessly as we are. 

- The End -

Review of Kenzaburo Oe's Hiroshima Notes, Grove Press, 1996.

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