*When the War Came Home: India and the Second World War

Review of Yasmin Khan, The Raj At WarA People’s History of India’s Second World War (Gurgaon, Haryana:  Random House India, 2015).   Published as “When the War Came Home”, The Indian Express (29 August 2015), p. 25, with slight modifications.  .

World War II has never much been on India’s horizon, excepting of course the role thought to have been played by the Indian National Army and Subhas Chandra Bose, who remains a legendary figure, and not only in his native Bengal, in moving India closer to liberation from colonial rule.  Most Indians have long believed that this was not their war, and there is a case to be made for the view, notwithstanding the mobilization of over two million Indian soldiers who served in Europe, Africa, and Asia, that the Second World War is best understood as part of a long history of bitter struggle for supremacy in Europe.  In the nationalist narrative, it is the Quit India movement that hogs the limelight.

Yasmin Khan, an Oxford-based historian whose previous book on the making of India and Pakistan, The Great Partition, was well received, notes in her introduction that while researching the Partition of India she came to the awareness that the war years were critical in helping shape the political conditions that would lead to negotiations for independence.  She subscribes to the argument that has been advanced by many scholars and commentators that the Congress, owing to its declared position of neutrality and its consequent banishment into political wilderness, found itself confronting political realities at the end of the war that it could not comprehend (308). Jinnah openly declared that the war “proved to be a blessing in disguise” (135):  the Muslim League found itself ascendant and took every opportunity to reiterate the threat of a Hindu Raj.  At Aligarh Muslim University, the entire atmosphere had changed within a few years such that by 1942 the idea of Pakistan commanded wide allegiance among Muslims (136).  But Khan avers much more than that, making bold to state that in the aftermath of the war there was a “new belief in the power of violence to release India from colonial control” (x), and she conveys the centrality of the war as an Indian experience with the argument that “the war delivered decolonization and the Partition of 1947—neither of which were inevitable or foreseen in 1939” (xvi).

Independence, as we know, did not occur overnight, and Khan is quick to recognize “the considerable achievement of the nationalists over the long duration” (xvi).  The strengths of this volume, however, lie elsewhere, in the mass of material that Khan has assiduously gathered from numerous archives and hundreds of sources and in the extraordinary stories, often juxtaposed with startling effect, which lend credence to her view that “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did” (xiii).  Her book is unprecedented in scope, peopled by a motley group of characters, and rich both in detail and in its unique insights into the socio-cultural and military history of the war years. Her endeavor, in the first instance, is to underscore the signal part played by India in the war, to make visible to those who remember, for example, only the Blitz the contributions of the “Asian merchant sailors who kept the British ports going” (319), not to mention the back-breaking labour of those who built the 500-mile Ledo Road through the mountains of northern Burma to link India to China (259-63).

British Indian Troops in Florence, Italy.

British Indian Troops in Florence, Italy.

Secondly, she strives to show the untold number of ways in which the war impacted ordinary people throughout the country:  recruitment officers often made their way to the remotest villages, the “War Fund” imposed burdens on people already living at the brink of poverty, paddy fields were requisitioned—usually with inadequate compensation—to build over 200 aerodromes, and wardens patrolled the streets of major cities to ensure that blackouts were being observed.  Khan’s India in the war years had room enough for 10,000 Poles escaping ethnic cleansing by the Soviets and Nazis (123), a camp in Ramgarh, Jharkhand, where over 50,000 Chinese soldiers received training (271), and 22,000 American black servicemen who, already intimately familiar with racism, encountered a Calcutta where at the only service swimming pool there were “white days and black days” (268).  Many histories have sought to convey the impression that the war barely touched India, once we leave aside Subhas Bose’s theatrics; but the effect of Khan’s narrative is to suggest the near total immersion of a society into a war in which, wrote Orwell, India had become, “it is hardly an exaggeration to say, the centre of the world” (93).

African American Servicemen Riding Rickshaws in India, July 1943.  Source:  National Achives, Wsashington DC.

African American Servicemen Riding Rickshaws in India, July 1943. Source: National Achives, Wsashington DC.

What lends Khan’s history poignancy is her ability to draw the reader into the lives of common people and her ear for nuance and irony.  One of the most sensitive subjects for Indians was the recruitment drives, and Khan notes the moral pressure that women, in a patriarchal society, were successfully able to apply “in determining whether their sons left home for the war or not” (227).  In Rajinder Dhatt’s family two brothers who fought for the empire returned home safely but the third, whom the mother kept close to her bosom, died of typhoid (312).

The Bengal Famine, with the numbing accounts of bodies littered on the streets, the proliferation of beggars who had been reduced to skeletons, the acute shortages of food and clothing, and the requisitioning and destruction of boats that eviscerated a people and their lifestyle, appears and reappears throughout Khan’s book.

The Bengal Famine Inquiry Report, Khan says, was published the same week that VE Day was announced.  Even as Khan indicts the British for their cynicism and callousness, she hints at the enormity of the tragedy in quoting a British woman in Calcutta who, when shown pictures of starved concentration camp inmates from Buchenwald, commented thus: “The German atrocities apparently do not compare with the Bengal famine so the pictures don’t shock the folks out here” (299).

While there are theoretical and historiographic questions to be asked about what exactly are the contours a “people’s history”, Khan’s history has paved the way for a more complex understanding of the Second World War as India’s war too.

India in 1940.

India in 1940.

*India, Pakistan, and the Narcissism of Minor Differences  

India and Pakistan are so close and yet so far apart.   One is tempted into saying that no two countries are so similar, and yet the two countries have gone to war, and have been nearly lured into war, on several occasions.   The distance from Amritsar to Lahore, the two greatest cities of the undivided Punjab, is a mere 53 kilometres.  A super-fast train, of the kind found in Japan, China, and in most of western Europe, would have traversed this distance in 10 minutes.  However, approaching the border from either end, travelers must navigate the shoals and eddies of the modern nation-state system at Wagah.  On the Indian side, the last station is Attari; from here, it is a mere 3 kilometres to Wagah; and, in between, one might say, is “no man’s land”, where the “formalities” that are necessary at border crossings are transacted.

The distance from Wagah to Lahore is 29 kilometres, and a tad less is the distance from Wagah to Amritsar.  But this is one crossing that is not meant to be navigated at will, and certainly not in a vehicle of one’s choosing.  One might cross on foot, provided one had a visa; more commonly, the crossing is attempted on the Samjhauta [Agreement] Express, as the train that ferries Pakistanis and Indians across the border is optimistically if not gallantly named.   But supposing one was looking to take a journey from Amritsar to Lahore in one’s own car, as one might from, say, Seattle (Washington State, USA) to Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada).   Google Maps tells me that on Interstate 5, I can cover the distance of 147 miles in less than 3 hours.  However, when I put in Amritsar and Lahore into Google Maps and sought directions, I was advised, as would anyone else who cared to undertake such an exercise, that the distance between the two cities by car is 5,385 kilometres and would ordinarily be covered in 110 hours!  If, like most drivers from South Asia, one cannot be even remotely bothered by posted speed limits, one might perhaps knock off a few hours, though I suspect that the continuous transgression of such limits, in certain parts of Tibet or the PRC, may pose some hazards.  Why, however, mention Tibet at all?   The stated route takes one not due west, but rather south to New Delhi (as if in tacit acknowledgement of the fact that no such trip would be possible without the mandarins that staff the corridors of power at the Secretariat), and from there southeast to Uttar Pradesh and thence to Nepal, and then west and largely north through Tibet and China to just east of the eastern border of Tajikistan before one makes one’s descent through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK, though, naturally, it is known as Azad Kashmir in Pakistan), Islamabad, and finally through Pakistan’s province of Punjab to Lahore.  What else need one say about the impossible distance that intimacy often creates?

Google Maps:  Driving Directiosns from Amritsar (India) to Lahore (Pakistan), a distance of 53 kilometres.

Google Maps: Driving Directiosns from Amritsar (India) to Lahore (Pakistan), a distance of 53 kilometres.

It is characteristic of the peculiar relationship into which Pakistan and India are now bound that Wagah chiefly occupies a place in popular lore as the site of one of the most unusual rituals of the nation-state system.  Tourists flock in numbers each evening to see, shortly before sunset, the Beating Retreat Ceremony:  across the divide, the two countries lower their flags and armed soldiers stage a highly orchestrated set of maneuvers.  For the ethnographer of nationalism, Wagah is as rich a site as any to comprehend the semiotics and rituals of the modern nation-state and the mobilization of symbols and sentiments in creating a nationalist sensibility.  Pomp and ceremony have long been handmaidens to nation-state exhibitionism; and there is, of course, no nation-state without a national flag.  What is most striking about the spectacle is that the audience, at either end of the border, are permitted the sight of the other but no more, the thought of intimacy but nothing that would occasion its realization.

Every Indian visitor to Pakistan has recounted the warmth with which he or she was received in that country; Pakistan feels very much like ‘home’.  Much the same can be said of Pakistani visitors to north India.  It is also apparent that, in some fundamental respects, the two countries, notwithstanding their shared heritage, have moved in different directions; nevertheless, the sense of what is common to both is overwhelming.  Why, then, the distance?  Many people are inclined to argue that the animosity that exists between India and Pakistan reflects not the sentiments of the people of the two countries but rather is an attribute of the logic of the nation-state system and the zero-sum politics that shapes the foreign policy of each country.  This is unquestionably true; and, similarly, there can be no gainsaying the fact that what NGOs describe as people-to-people contacts are likely to make a much greater difference in facilitating peace than ministerial-level dialogues, meetings between foreign secretaries and other bureaucrats, and yet more state-sanctioned conferences.

Still, once one has conceded that enhanced civil society interactions are the sine qua non of a peace between Pakistan and India, the nagging feeling persists that there is something a bit more  inexplicable which characterizes the relationship between India and Pakistan, producing distance when is there is so much intimacy.  In a number of his writings, Freud noted the tendency of people who are very close to each other to exaggerate what divided them:  he referred to this phenomenon as the narcissism of minor differences, sometimes substituting “small” for “minor”.  His magisterial essay of 1930, Civilization and Its Discontents, offers a commentary on this dynamic with an observation about “communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other.”  Elsewhere he had occasion to comment, “Every time two families become connected by a marriage, each of them thinks itself superior to or of better birth than the other.  Of two neighboring towns each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt.”  The Scots and the English, Shias and Sunnis, Serbs and Croats, Hutus and Tutsis:  to these pairs, and to the loveless rivalries that beset English football clubs, one might add Pakistan and India.  It may, perhaps, require more than the display of brotherly and sisterly sentiments to bring Pakistan and India out of the curve of enmity.

*Manzanar, Part Two:  The Japanese-American Journey into Wilderness

Manzanar, one of ten internment camps or war relocation centers set up in the United States to contain the Japanese-Americans, the majority of them citizens of the US, was no Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, or Treblinka.  Manzanar had neither gas chambers nor ovens; in three years, about 150 internees passed away, either from illness or old age.  In contrast, a million died at Auschwitz alone; similarly few walked out of the other camps.  Many people will suppose, not without some reason, that this fact alone distinguishes Manzanar and the other “relocation centers” from Nazi concentration camps.  (Much fewer people are aware of the earlier precedent which gave rise to the idea of the concentration camp, namely the camps into which enemy men, women, and children were mercilessly thrown by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.)  Nevertheless, Manzanar was surrounded by barbed wire; eight watch towers, zealously patrolled by military police and fortified by large searchlights, were installed at the camp’s perimeters.

Manzanar agains the backdrop of the Eastern Sierra Mountains. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

Manzanar agains the backdrop of the Eastern Sierra Mountains.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

None of the exhibits at Manzanar’s Visitors Center furnish any clues into the discussions that have animated some scholars, who have asked why euphemisms such as “relocation centers”, even “transit camps” and “reception centers”, were used to describe camps patrolled like maximum security prisons.  Some scholars have thus been prompted to describe the internment camps as “concentration camps”. In this respect, as in many others, Manzanar’s Visitors Center remains entirely evasive about some fundamental questions that touch both upon the entire course of American history and the continuities between European and American modes of colonization of the ‘Other’.

Violently uprooted from their homes on the West Coast, largely from the urban settlements of northern and southern California, Japanese-Americans were sent into the wilderness.  The eminent mid-century Harvard historian of American intellectual history, Perry Miller, had described the Puritan “errand into wilderness”. That was a different sojourn, one undertaken in the name of religious freedom, spurred by the desire to fulfill God’s prophecy and inspired by the desire to populate what was conveniently believed to be barren land.  But it was “wilderness” indeed to which Japanese-Americans were dispatched—and not only because they were herded like sheep or brought to a place that was inhospitable.  When rights are violated, trust is eroded, the ugly specter of treason and disloyalty looms large, and the seeds of suspicion, anger, and resentment are planted, the foundations for the integrity of both self and civilization can be descried as having been seriously compromised.

By September 1942, Manzanar was home to 10,000 internees housed in slightly over 500 barracks organized into 36 blocks.


Every attempt was made to instill “normality”:  with the encouragement of the Wartime Civilian Control Administration, the internees formed a board of advisors amongst themselves. Over time, Manzanar came to have a bank, general store, and barbershop; some of the internees took to gardening, while others took to music, art, theater, and sports.  Some internees raised chickens, pigs, and cattle, others grew vegetables, and yet others tended to fruit trees.  Manzanar’s residents even managed to establish a newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press:  publication commenced on 11 April 1942, and with the issue of September 28, 1945, the newspaper ceased publication.

The site of the Manzanar Free Press. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

The site of the Manzanar Free Press.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

The opening issue announced that the camp population stood at 3,302; with some justified flamboyance, an editorial described the four-page newsprint as “America’s youngest newspaper, and in our opinion, one of America’s most unique newspapers.”

Each issue of the Manzanar Free Press was reviewed by government censors, and news of American losses in the first year of the Pacific war, before the might of the American military machine proved to be far too formidable for Japan, was not permitted. The camp was, however, by no means free of political unrest:  rumors circulated about the course of the war, black marketing was not uncommon, and some internees were suspected of being informers.  Differences developed between some who saw themselves squarely as “Americans” and others, many of whom had been born in Japan, who adopted a more critical stance towards their adopted land.  In the Manzanar Riot of December 1942, two internees were killed and another ten wounded when the Military Police unleashed a torrent of bullets to put down unrest.  Nothing aroused more resentment than the “loyalty questionnaire” which was put to the camp’s residents:  “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”  This was followed by another question asking if a person was prepared to offer unconditional allegiance to the United States.

"The Loyalty Questionnaire." Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

“The Loyalty Questionnaire.”
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

To the great credit of some of the internees, they had the courage to reply in the negative.  Some, quite rightly, took it as an affront that they were being asked to give demonstrations of their loyalty when they were not permitted to become US citizens.  The idea that such a ‘litmus test’ was justified when the person had been unlawfully detained behind barbed war was itself offensive in the extreme.  It is striking that in the long course of the war, no Japanese-American was charged with espionage or found giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Manzanar’s exhibits are certainly not short on details of camp life; and the National Historic Site valiantly if futilely attempts to convey the conditions under which internees were housed and the manner in which life unfolded day after day.  As I reviewed the exhibits and toured the grounds, a number of other questions came to mind.  It appears, for example, that internees were “rewarded” for their labor, receiving between $12 and $19 a month:  some wove camouflage nets and produced experimental rubber for use by the military.  Should one view Manzanar, in part, as a labor camp?  Can the state ethically put to use, for purposes of defense, the labor of those very incarcerees viewed as potential traitors?   Should one view the incarceration of Japanese-Americans merely as an aberration, which has been the tendency, perhaps chastened only by the recognition among liberals that constitutional democracies must be ever vigilant to safeguard the liberties which are all too easily abrogated when the country appears to be under threat?  What, to broach an entirely different set of questions, is the politics of such “historic sites” and exhibits:  in what manner do they educate, how if at all are they an expression of repentance, how do they obscure some questions while illuminating others, and what is the relationship of such displays of the past to the task of hegemony?

*Manzanar, Part One:  History, Heritage, Humbug, and the Internment of Japanese-Americans

"Welcome to Manzanar":  Plaque at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

“Welcome to Manzanar”: Plaque at the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

Shortly after the conclusion of World War II, Eugene Rostow, a professor of jurisprudence at Yale, and subsequently a prominent civil libertarian, penned an article for Harper’s Magazine (September 1945) entitled “Our Worst Wartime Mistake.”  In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, 2,000 Japanese-Americans, “the most dangerous of the persons” believed to be capable of harboring loyalty to the Japanese Emperor rather than to the American Constitution, were taken into custody; “each arrest”, the then Attorney General reported, “was made on the basis of information concerning the specific alien taken into custody.  We have not used dragnet techniques and have conducted no indiscriminate, large-scale raids.”  But this was not even remotely America’s “worst wartime mistake”:  shortly thereafter, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were packed off to camps in remote parts of the United States, there to spend, in most cases, the rest of the war years.  Some were resident “aliens”, a word which continues to resonate among those who have lived in the United States, often for decades, without taking up American citizenship; others, however, were citizens of the United States.  That distinction, which still determines whether a person gets finger-printed or not upon arrival at an American port of entry, was wiped out in an instant, no doubt a casualty of what was deemed to be an emergency which stipulated that the protections ordinarily available to American citizens would no longer be conferred upon a class of people who, merely on account of their ethnic origin, were now viewed as potential traitors to the land that they had adopted as their own.

Plaque at Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

Plaque at Manzanar National Historic Site.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

We may leave aside for the moment the question whether the unlawful internment of all Japanese-Americans, barring those who lived in Hawaii, was the “worst wartime mistake” of the United States.  No doubt Rostow, writing after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the firebombing of other Japanese cities and towns, was thinking only of “mistakes” with respect to the conduct of the US government against some of its own citizens.  A little more than two months after the commencement of hostilities between the United States and the Japanese Empire, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066, which authorized any designated military commander to prescribe or name “military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”  Though this document did not by name mention any racial, ethnic, or religious group, it was to be the instrument by which, in the first instance, the removal of Japanese Americans, over two-thirds of whom were Americans citizens, from the West Coast to the American heartland was effected.  The executive order also provided, in benign and innocuous language, for the “transportation, food, [and] shelter” of the presumed convicts (for they were treated as such), and it is this provision which led to the eventual incarceration of the Japanese Americans in what were euphemistically termed “relocation centers”.  The story of the internment of Japanese-Americans has now been told in hundreds of books, and, as liberal democracies often do, Japanese-Americans have even been tendered an official apology.  Unlike many “apologies”, on the politics of which I have written at some length in numerous places over the last fifteen years, the apology to Japanese-Americans was accompanied by material restitution (to the amount of $10,000 to the family of each person that was “relocated”), and that, not surprisingly, at a time when Japan was at its height as an economic power.  Nearly ten years before Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act which acknowledged American wrong-doing to Japanese-Americans, Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel had published Japan as Number OneLessons for America (1979).  Perhaps, if another Muslim empire should arise within the next generation or two, the Muslims of America will also find themselves being offered an “apology”—though I very much doubt they will be receiving even a nickel from the American government.

The apology to Japanese-Americans is of course part of a grand narrative common to the United States and the West, the centerfold of which is the argument that the West, though it may have erred grievously in partaking of a history of exploitation and imperialism, is possessed of the unique capacity to admonish itself, correct its shortcomings, and even, as in the case of one Pope or the other, seek the forgiveness of those it has victimized.  The willingness of the former West Germany to seek the forgiveness of the Jewish people, and thereby concede the barbarity of its past, is routinely cited as the greatest instance of this capacity for self-correction, and receives greater resonance from the frequent juxtaposition with Japan, a country which—on the conventional view—has been reticent if not niggardly in recognizing the enormity of its own war crimes.  Korean “comfort women” who worked as sexual slaves in Japanese-run wartime brothels are routinely trumpeted as an illustration of the barbarousness of the Japanese, though, to take only one instance, there is scarcely a discussion of the mass rapes of German women by victorious American troops at the end of the war.  And, though this point scarcely needs elaboration, no American president has yet offered an “apology” to the Japanese for the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  What the Japanese ought to understand is that they need not seek an apology:  the word apology not only connotes the meaning of being sorry, but also conveys the impression that the person rendering an apology begs forgiveness of those whom he has injured; moreover, what is tacitly present when we offer an apology is the idea that we shall endeavor not to repeat the deplorable conduct of which we stand indicted.  No elected American official is, of course, ready to seek the forgiveness of the Japanese for American war crimes against their country; besides, considering the hysteria which has led the likes of John Bolton, who is routinely granted access to the op-ed pages of the New York Times, to advocate the nuking of Iran, there is little reason to believe that there is any overwhelming sentiment in the United States against the use of nuclear weapons if that thing called “national interest” demands such a course of action.

Recently, in an effort to imagine what it might have meant to be “relocated”, without a relocation allowance, I paid a visit to Manzanar, which is located some 200 miles to the north-east of Los Angeles on Highway 395; to its east is Death Valley, and to its west is Sequoia National Park.  Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States, is slightly to the south-west. The landscape is very much what one expects of the western United States:  massive expanses of land, roads seemingly without end, the overwhelming sense of being confronted by infinity.  The land even today seems desolate, hostile, unforgiving:  if the idea was to relocate Japanese-Americans to a “relocation center” where they could not make contact with the enemy, and where the enemy itself could make no inroads, then Manzanar was well-chosen.

The original entrance to Manzanar Relocation Center. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

The original entrance to Manzanar Relocation Center.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

The Visitor Center at Manzanar National Historic Site, seen from the south-west. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

The Visitor Center at Manzanar National Historic Site, seen from the south-west.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

Manzanar, from the Spanish, means “apple orchard”; but its history begins with the Paiute Indians, who (thankfully) did not come into contact with the Europeans until the 1820s, perhaps even a little later.  Homesteaders and miners forced their way into Paiute lands in the early 1860s and the US military helped “relocate” over 1,000 Paiute Indians to Fort Tejon in 1863.  (America has been spectacularly good at “relocating” others throughout history—but that’s the subject of a book.)  There are other arresting chapters of the history of Manzanar and the Owens Valley:  this, too, is the subject for a long disquisition on how Los Angeles acquires its water.  Jack Nicholson got only a broken nose when he started nosing around, being overly inquisitive about the water flowing into Los Angeles and the parched gardens of the wealthy; the Indians, typically, were relocated when they were not killed outright, and they all got broken hearts.

In the aftermath of the war, Manzanar was torn down and the camp was dismantled; the barracks in which the internees were held were taken apart.  The camp was officially closed on 21 November 1945.  However, history, heritage and humbug conspired, as they have done so on thousands of occasions in the United States, to have Manzanar declared a California Historic Landmark in 1973; nearly two decades later, George H. W. Bush, that great custodian of liberties, signed into law a statute which declared Manzanar a National Historic Site.  The onus to remember the past, allegedly in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, is of course deeply scarred into the sensibility of western modernity:  thus the triumphant place of history in the radical, liberal, and conservative imagination alike.  The same sensibility also encourages every ethnic group to assimilate into the fabric of American society, and yet retain pride in its own heritage:  thus the ascendancy of identity politics on the American campus and elsewhere, which is now a non-negotiable element of the discourse of American multiculturalism.   The other word for all this is humbug—but I shall delve into Manzanar, the “National Historic Site”, in the second part.

*How To Speak of Hiroshima?

The liberal imagination has seldom clubbed Auschwitz and Hiroshima together.  Auschwitz was both a labor and extermination camp, and more Jews, Roma, and others deemed “undesirables” were killed at Auschwitz than in any other camp in the Third Reich’s vast machinery of death.  One of Auschwitz’s more remarkable survivors was the Italian Jewish chemist Primo Levi, whose 1947 memoir of his year in hell, If This is a Man, is a gut wrenching description of the arts of living in a place fashioned for death.  Auschwitz’s gate bore those words which are seared into everyone’s memory, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work gives freedom”).

The entrance to Auschwitz, with the 'welcoming' sign:  'Arbeit Macht Frei', "Work Shall Make You Free"

The entrance to Auschwitz, with the ‘welcoming’ sign: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, “Work Shall Make You Free”

But the sense of the macabre scarcely stopped there.  In one of the many priceless gems which adorn his inimitable book, Levi informs us that at one of the delousing stations appeared this distich:  “After the latrine, before eating, wash your hands, do not forget.”  It must be a certain kind of German fastidiousness which insists that one must go to one’s death after one has rendered oneself ‘clean’.

Dead Bodies Piled Up at Auschwitz

Dead Bodies Piled Up at Auschwitz

Auschwitz has become synonymous with unimaginable evil, and the German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his equally if differently remarkable book Minima MoraliaReflections from Damaged Life (1951), sought to convey the unspeakable horrors of Nazi annihilationism with the aphorism that ‘there can be no poetry after Auschwitz’.  Not so curiously, Adorno had nothing to say of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which took place a little more than six months after the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz.  The Western imagination, even at its best, has balked at the notion that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are inextricably linked.  Auschwitz has no defenders—barring some Holocaust-deniers—and it provokes no “debate”, leave aside the questions that animate the amateurs who devour the smallest tidbits on Auschwitz.  Though most commentators in the United States and elsewhere in the West like to pretend otherwise, there isn’t much of a “debate” on Hiroshima either.  Those who live in the global South at least should not be fooled into thinking that a great many people in the West have been agonizing over the moral choices that faced the United States when it was galvanized into orchestrating the utter destruction of Hiroshima and later Nagasaki.  Like much else that has characterized the conduct of colonial powers and liberal democracies, Hiroshima has been digested as what Margaret Thatcher used to call TINA, ‘There is No Alternative’.

The inability to view Hiroshima and Auschwitz as bearing a close family resemblance tells us a great deal about the contours of the modern West and its genocidal instincts. The Guardian newspaper has characterized Auschwitz as “the largest mass murder in a single location in human history”, and similarly Hiroshima can accurately be described as the largest mass murder in something like an instant over the course of human history.  Nearly a million people were butchered at Auschwitz, which was established as a labor camp in May 1940; once the Nazi leadership had issued the call for the ‘Final Solution’, Auschwitz II was rolling in business as an extermination site.  “Little Boy”, the bomb carried by the “Enola Gray”, named by the pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets after his mother, no doubt in glorious celebration of the universal injunction to ‘honor thy mother’, killed around 50,000 people on contact or very shortly thereafter.

Zykon B Gas Canister

Zykon B Gas Canister

Zyklon B, the agent of death at Auschwitz, was first tried out on insects; the poisonous gas was then used on the Roma before it was deployed to kill Jews en masse.   The German literature of the period is rife with the invocation to kill Jews, the Roma, and the mentally unsound as those who were encroaching upon the living space of the superior race.  Yet the idea that vermin had to be stamped out was far from being distinctly German; indeed, eugenics, or the notion that the human race could be improved by weeding out undesirables, had its greatest advocates in the United States.  The Japanese were but “a nameless mass of vermin” and the “yellow dogs” were a drag on the human race.

Canisters of Zyklon B, used extensively at Auschwitz.

Canisters of Zyklon B, used extensively at Auschwitz.

The historian John Dower was, if anything, understating the gravity of the problem when, in his study War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986), he suggested of American officials and strategists that their “stereotyped and often blatantly racist thinking contributed to poor military intelligence and planning, atrocious behavior, and the adoption of exterminationist policies.”

Harry Truman, whose life is a testament to mediocrity triumphant, was charged with the onerous responsibility for framing the public discourse on the military use of the atom.  While aboard the cruiser Augusta, he was brought news of Hiroshima.  The obscene happiness with which he received news of the Enola Gray’s successful mission is signified by his words, “This is the greatest thing in history.”  The White House press release in Truman’s name on August 6th, the first official announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima, again celebrated the work of the scientists, headed by the Sanskrit aficionado Robert Oppenheimer, as “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.”  It was accompanied by a warning to Japanese leaders that if they did not accept “our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”  On land and air, Hitler had similarly declaimed, Germany would unleash the full force of its mighty military machine on its foes.  At least one senior American military official, Major-General Raymond Hufft, recognized that had Germany or Japan won the war, it would have been the Americans and the British who would have been put on trial for war crimes.   We may need many more such insights before we learn to speak, in a political and moral vein, of Hiroshima.

Nuclear Destruction:  Hiroshima after the Bomb

Nuclear Destruction: Hiroshima after the Bomb

*Hiroshima and American Exceptionalism

Seventy years after the United States waged what to this day remains the only instance of nuclear warfare in history, Americans persist in subscribing to the view that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, whatever the moral perils of such an undertaking, were justified by exceptional circumstances.  It is taken as an unimpeachable fact that the nuclear attacks on the two Japanese cities saved lives:  on this argument, the invasion of Japan would have energized its fanatic residents to a renewed defense of their country, and the war might have stretched out for several more months and even longer.  The proponents of this view have advanced an apparently noble kind of moral calculus, whereby the atomic bombings not only saved American lives but the lives of their very antagonists, since a long protracted war would have decimated what remained of young Japanese men.  If this argument be stretched a bit further, the United States was animated not merely by the desire to preserve the lives of its own youth but by the reverence for all human lives.  Furthermore, Japan’s unconditional surrender, which the United States had insisted upon as the condition for bringing hostilities to an end, is described by those who justify the bombing as having been wholly precipitated by the picture of utter devastation unleashed upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  An obdurate country, slavishly holding itself in subjection to the writ of the Emperor, had left no other recourse.

Hiroshima before the Bombing

Hiroshima before the Bombing

It is also characteristic of the United States that, on every anniversary of the bombing, a supposed “debate” is thought to take place among Americans vigorously arguing in support of, or in opposition to, the atomic bombings.  Certainly, some arguments resonate more strongly now than they did in 1945 or in the years immediately thereafter.  The end of the war had brought forth a new adversary in the Soviet Union, one reason among others why German war criminals tried at Nuremberg were, barring the first set of some twenty odd Nazis who had occupied the highest positions in the Third Reich, handed down insignificant prison terms when they were not simply acquitted.  If a demonstration had to be furnished to Stalin of the immense and unmatched military prowess of the United States, nothing was calculated to achieve that effect as much as a new super-bomb which was immeasurably greater than anything witnessed thus far.

Hiroshima after the Bombing:  photograph taken from the Red Cross Hospital, about 1 mile from the site of the bomb blast

Hiroshima after the Bombing: photograph taken from the Red Cross Hospital, about 1 mile from the site of the bomb blast

If the war-time rape of enemy women is merely the way in which rapists convey messages to enemy men, the nuked cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by this reckoning, were intended to show to an emergent world power under the dictatorship of Stalin the probable consequences of embracing the enmity of the United States.  Furthermore, now that “multiculturalism” and “diversity” have become enshrined as the very armor of a liberal democracy, there is greater willingness to acknowledge that the atomic bombings were, in good measure, prompted by a vicious racism that made it all too easy to dismiss the Japanese people as vermin who merited nothing but complete annihilation.  The chairman of the US War Manpower Commission, Paul V. McNutt, spoke for many people when he publicly declared that he “favored the extermination of the Japanese in toto.”  Elliott Roosevelt, the president’s son, admitted to Vice President Henry Wallace that he supported the continuation of the war against Japan “until we have destroyed about half of the civilian population.”   These views were by no means atypical.

The Morning of the Holocaust:  Two Victims with Severe Body Burns

The Morning of the Holocaust: Two Victims with Severe Body Burns

What is astonishing, however, is the indisputable fact that even the enlarged parameters of the liberal critique of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still do not permit the probing of more fundamental questions and a robust critique of the entire course of American history.  Two considerations, but there are many more, might be brought to the fore.  Why, for instance, did American planners target Hiroshima, a city of comparatively moderate military significance?  American scientists, military strategists, and politicians were keen to assess the impact that a nuclear bomb might have on its target.  In the months preceding the nuclear attacks, dozens of Japanese cities and towns had been firebombed.  Large portions of major Japanese cities, including Tokyo, had already been reduced to ashes.  A nuclear bomb thrown on Tokyo would have been “wasted” and it would have been difficult to measure its impact.  Hiroshima had yet to be ravished; it was virgin territory:  never mind that most of the casualties were bound to be civilians.  Or consider Roosevelt’s speech describing December 7, 1941, when the Japanese initiated war with a lightning attack on Pearl Harbor, as “a date which will live in infamy.”  Most people have naturally supposed that Roosevelt was lamenting the treachery of Japan and its declaration of hostilities against a peace-loving nation. But tacitly what Roosevelt, and millions of Americans, had in mind was another kind of infamy, the supposition that the United States uniquely reserves the privilege to unilaterally bomb other countries, and that any nation which dares breach Fortress America must contemplate its own doom and destruction.

This was truly "Little Boy": years later, with the advent of the hydrogen boy, "Little Boy" would have been the dinosaur of the new atomic age.

This was truly “Little Boy”: years later, with the advent of the hydrogen boy, “Little Boy” would have been the dinosaur of the new atomic age.

The narrative of American exceptionalism, as is well known, has enjoyed remarkable longevity, and every American president has subscribed to it, not excepting the quasi-African American Barack Obama who is frequently on record as having pronounced America as the world’s one indispensable nation and the greatest force for good in the world.  Let us suppose that we affirm this narrative, so long as it perfectly well understood that the United States singularly retains the sinister distinction of having carried out an attack of nuclear terrorism—not once, which would be shameful enough, though it is doubtful that the word “shame” is any more part of the lexicon of American society, but twice. There is scarcely a nation-state whose conduct might be described as irreproachable, and there are a great many countries where scandalously the better part of too many people’s lives is squandered in securing a mere two meals for the day.  We can easily recognize that America has been a land of opportunity for many; nevertheless, in the intellectual laziness and moral stupor which characterize the conduct of most Americans, evidenced in their steadfast refusal to question the role of their country in precipitating one of the greatest moral and spiritual crisis to have afflicted humanity with the atomic bombings of Japan, America remains qui.te exceptional.

[Published as “Superpower’s Superbomb”, Indian Express, 8 August 2015.]