Making Meaning of the Crime of Nagasaki:  American Power and Dehumanization in the Nuclear Age

It is on this day, August 9, seventy-seven years ago, that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.  Several air-raid alarms had sounded early that morning, but such warnings had by now become routine.  The Americans had been firebombing Japanese cities for months, and there was little reason to suspect that this morning would be any different. Two B-29 Superfortresses, as the gigantic bombers were called, had left Tinian air base and arrived at Kokura, the intended target, at 9:50 AM, but the cloud cover was too thick to drop the bomb with any degree of accuracy and the planes departed for the secondary target, Nagasaki.  Here, once again, visibility was sharply reduced owing to thick clouds, but then, fortuitously for the animated plane crew, the veil was lifted momentarily—just enough to drop “Fat Boy”, as the bomb was nicknamed, at 11:02 AM.  Nagasaki had thus far not been laid to waste: a deliberate decision, since the effect of the bomb could not be judged if it were dropped on a city that had already been reduced to rubble.  The clouds had parted, and the virginal city was now open to being ravished by “Fat Boy”.

Nagasaki, the Morning After: 10 August 1945. Photograph: Yosuke Yamahata.

At the moment of detonation, less than a minute later, something like 40,000 people were killed instantly.  Over the next five to six months, another 30,000 died from their injuries; the casualties would continue to mount over the years, some succumbing to their injuries, others to the creeping radiation.  At least 100,000 people had died within a few years in consequence of the bombing.  Almost ninety percent of the buildings within a 2.5-kilometre radius of the hypocenter, or “ground zero”, were entirely destroyed.  The following day, August 10, following the expressed wishes of the Emperor, the Japanese government conveyed its surrender to the Allied forces, though the American insistence on an “unconditional surrender” continued to be a stumbling block for several days.  It was not until August 15 that Emperor Hirohito, taking to the airwaves to speak to his people directly for the first time, announced Japan’s surrender.  On September 2nd, the Japanese foreign minister signed the instrument of surrender, and the hostilities of World War II were formally brought to a close.

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese Government, on board USS Missouri (BB-63), 2 September 1945. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki has been, comparatively speaking, little explored and it is similarly less recognized and commemorated than the bombing of Hiroshima three days earlier.  It is, of course, the singular misfortune of Hiroshima that it ushered humanity into the nuclear age and catapulted humanity to new and heightened levels of barbarism.  “Little Boy”, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, killed 70,000 people instantly—at the moment of detonation.  The city was leveled, utterly ruined, and transformed into a mass graveyard.  The graphic photographs that survive tell the same story, but in different idioms.  There is the photograph of a young girl who survived initially but whose eyes were hollowed out; she was blinded by the bright light emitted by the explosion.  Thousands of people were literally rendered naked:  the intense heat and the fireballs stripped them of their clothes, and on one woman’s back the kimono’s pattern was seared into her flesh.  This is one kind of barbarism.

Blinded by the light and by “Little Boy”: Hiroshima, 6 August 1945. Photograph: Christer Stromholm.

It is another if related kind of barbarism to adopt the view, in the words of an American military officer at that time, that “the entire population of Japan is a proper military target.”  Fewer than 250 people who were killed in Hiroshima were soldiers; the targets, in other words, were the elderly, women, and children, Japanese men of fighting age already having left the city to serve in the armed forces or auxiliary services. The hyper-realists have always adhered to the position that, whatever restraints on warfare international law might impose, and whatever the ethical sentiments that soft-headed people may have, war is a brutal business and that at times nothing is forbidden in the pursuit of victory.  Historians generally encompass this view under the rubric of “total war”.

It is still another kind of barbarism, however, to continue to defend both the atomic bombings years and decades later, as many Americans especially do, on grounds that are at best specious.  As late as 2015, seventy years after the bombings and considerable scholarship calling into question the conventional view, a Pew Research Center survey indicated that 56 percent Americans supported the atomic bombings and another 10 percent declared themselves undecided.  Many arguments have been advanced in defense of the use of the bomb.  Some commentators resort to what I have already described as the argument that, in conditions of “total war”, nothing is impermissible.  Since such an argument often sounds crass and unforgiving, others prefer to speak of “military necessity”.  The defense of the bombings often hinges around Japan’s obdurate refusal to surrender on the terms that Americans had every right to impose.  

However, at rock bottom, there is but one fundamental claim on which the proponents of the bombings rest their case.  It is the argument that the atomic bombings saved lives.  We can all envision scenarios, so goes the argument, where one preserves lives by taking other lives.  Had the bombs not been dropped, the Americans would have had to undertake a land invasion, and the battle of Iowa Jima had shown the Americans that the Japanese would be prepared to defend their country to the last man—and perhaps woman and child.  Tens of thousands of American soldiers would have been killed.  The somewhat more sensitive adherents of this view, mindful of the fact that Americans are not the only people fully deserving to be viewed as “human”, insist on reminding everyone that hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians would also have been killed.  Thus, it is not only American, but also Japanese, lives that were saved when the United States decided to unleash destruction on a scale the like of which had never been seen in history. 

President Truman’s remarks on August 11 unequivocally suggest that saving Japanese lives was certainly not on his mind—and neither was it on the minds of the military planners or even the scientists charged with bringing to fruition the Manhattan Project:  “The only language they [the Japanese] seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.  When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him like a beast.  It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”  There is but no doubt that the Japanese had been entirely dehumanized.  In prosecuting the war against Germany, the United States always made it clear that the Nazis, not ordinary Germans, were the enemy; however, no such distinction was observed in prosecuting the war against Japan.  Military planners and most ordinary Americans alike saw themselves as being at war against the Japanese, not just against the Japanese leadership.  The savage lampooning of, and racism against, the Japanese is to be found in countless number of cartoons, writings, and official documents, as well as in the expressly pronounced views of people in the highest positions in the American government and society.  The Chairman of the US War Manpower Commission, Paul V. McNutt, said that he “favored the extermination of the Japanese in toto”, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s own son, Elliott, admitted to the Vice President that he supported continuation of the war against Japan “until we have destroyed about half of the civilian population.”

A case can be made that the United States, in undertaking the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, committed war crimes, even crimes against humanity, and engaged in state terrorism.  Quite reasonably, we may expect that such a view will be aggressively countered, though the argument that the dehumanization of the Japanese—even if precipitated to some extent by Japan’s own wartime atrocities, some on a monumental scale—played a role in the bombings seems to be unimpeachably true.  Those who seek to defend the bombings appear, moreover, to be unable to comprehend that the nuclear bombs were not simply bigger and far more lethal bombs, and that the bombings were not merely a more aggravated and ferocious form of the strategic bombing carried out first by the Luftwaffe and then the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the U.S. Air Force. The atomic bombings breached a frontier; they constituted a transgression on a cosmic scale, bringing forth in the most terrifying way before humankind the awareness that the will to destroy may yet triumph over the will to live.  The sheer indifference to the idea of life, any life, on the planet suggests the deep amorality that underlies the logic of the atomic bombings.  In this sense, we may say that the crime of Hiroshima is the primordial crime of our modern age.

Still, is it also possible to argue that the crime of Nagasaki was yet greater than the crime of Hiroshima?  Why did the Americans have to drop a second bomb?  Why could they not have waited a few more days for Japan to surrender?  The defenders of the Nagasaki bombing argue that, since the Japanese had not surrendered immediately after the Hiroshima bombing, it was quite apparent to the Americans that they were determined to keep fighting on.  The Japanese may have believed that the United States had only one bomb; some argue that surrender was not an option for the Japanese since the warrior culture was pervasive in their society and “Oriental culture” does not permit such an ignominious ending.  On the other side, it has been argued that American military planners had a toy, and what use is a toy if it is not going to be put into play.  

As I have argued, and many others have argued this long before me, the atomic bombings were never just intended to induce Japan to surrender. Before the war had even ended, the United States was already preparing for the next war, and that against a mortal enemy—the Soviet Union. Japan, at this time, was an entirely decimated power; it was, indeed, of comparatively little interest to the Americans.  If this sounds implausible to some, consider that Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, the Director of the Manhattan Project, himself confessed that “there was never from about two weeks from the time that I took charge of this Project any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis.” It was imperative to convey to Stalin that the United States would not be prepared to allow the Soviet Union to spread the poison of communism around the globe and seek world domination; as Secretary of State James Byrnes remarked, “The demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia with America’s military might.”

With Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States sought to deliver a one-two punch:  knock out Japan and put the Soviet Union on notice that the United States was prepared to exercise its Manifest Destiny as the one indispensable country in the world.  “Power corrupts,” John Dalberg-Acton [Lord Acton] famously pronounced; “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

First published under the same title at on 9 August 2022.

Available in a Marathi translation, here.

Available in a Tamil translation, here.

Available in a Telugu translation, here.

*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.]

*The Vanquisher and the Vanquished: Nagasaki and Two Uncommon Lives

Nagasaki After the Bombing --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Charles Albury, posing with a picture of the B-29 bomber & its crew

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, survivor of the Hiroshima & Nagasaki bombings

Tsutomu Yamaguchi and Charles Donald Albury died within months of each other.  The former lived to the ripe old age of 93, and passed away in January this year; the latter died in May last year, at the age of 88.  I was reminded of Yamaguchi this month, as the bells tolled, as they do every August 6th and 9th, in remembrance of the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and when, poring through my files, the obituary of Albury came to my notice, I knew at once that their stories had to be told together.  There is no other way to tell their stories, even if their lives, and obituaries, have never been linked together.

Yamaguchi and Albury never knew each other; neither was known very much to the outside world, even if their names are, or will be, indelibly sketched in history books in unlikely ways.  They ought to have known each other, all the more so since Charles Albury was dispatched to kill not Tsutomu Yamaguchi but the likes of him.  We cannot characterize Yamaguchi’s killing as a targeted assassination; some will even balk at calling it a killing, considering that Yamaguchi survived the attempt to eliminate him by close to sixty-five years and, more poignantly, outlived Albury.   Indeed, Albury would never have known of Yamaguchi’s existence when he was sent on his mission, and I doubt very much that he knew of him at all before he died.   If Albury did know of Yamaguchi, he seems never to have betrayed that knowledge or acted upon it in any way.

No bookie could have placed bets on Yamaguchi’s chances of survival and walked away with a booty.   After hearing Yamaguchi’s story, one might be a thorough non-believer and still believe in miracles.  And, then, as if Yamaguchi’s life doesn’t already stand forth as eloquent testimony to the cliched observation that ‘fact is stranger than fiction’, one is even more surprised to find the lives of Yamaguchi and Albury linked in the strangest ways.  Even the gifts of a supreme artist are likely to be inadequate to describe their association.

Yamaguchi was a 29-year-old engineer at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries when, in the summer of 1945, his boss sent him to Hiroshima on a business trip.  His work wound up in early August and he was preparing to leave the city on August 7th, but before he could do so the bomber Enola Gay dropped ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima and flattened the city, killing 80,000 people.  Yamaguchi survived the bombing:  he was a little less than two miles away from ‘ground zero’ when the bomb exploded, and he escaped with ruptured eardrums, burns on his upper torso, and utter incomprehension at what had transpired.  High up in the sky, Charles Albury, a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force, was in the support plane behind Enola Gay:  as Colonel Paul Tibbets released the bomb, Albury dropped the instruments designed to measure the magnitude of the blast and the levels of radioactivity.

From an altitude of over 30,000 feet, Albury would not have noticed the Japanese engineer.  Yamaguchi could not have appeared as anything more than an ant from that immense height; at any rate, it is reasonable to suppose that the training of those charged with an extraordinary indeed unprecedented mission would have stressed on the necessity of shelving aside the slightest sentiment about feeling something for the hated enemy.  Albury did, however, have the presence of mind to notice that he was a witness to a spectacular sight:  as he told Time magazine a few years ago, he dropped his instruments and “then this bright light hit us and the top of that mushroom cloud was the most terrifying but also the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in your life.  Every color in the rainbow seemed to be coming out of it.”  Robert Oppenheimer made a similar observation when the bomb was first tested in New Mexico:  a more scholarly man than Albury, with some inclination for such esoteric things as the Sanskrit classics, he noted that he was reminded of verses from the Bhagavad Gita when he saw the stupendous explosion – the splendor of which, akin to the “radiance of a thousand suns” bursting into the sky “at once”, turned his mind towards Vishnu.  “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”, says Krishna (the incarnation of Vishnu) to Arjuna.  There is no reason to suppose that Yamaguchi, or any of the other victims of the atomic bombings, experienced anything resembling the beauty of a thousand suns or the most dazzling rainbows.

Unlike other survivors of the first atomic bombing, Yamaguchi had no reason to stay on in Hiroshima; he didn’t have to hunt for survivors among family or friends.  So Yamaguchi headed home – to Nagasaki.  On the morning of the 9th, still nursing his wounds, Yamaguchi nevertheless reported to work.  When his boss sought an explanation for his dressings and unseemly appearance, Yamaguchi began to describe the explosion and insisted that a single bomb had wiped out Hiroshima and much of its population.  You must be mad and gravely disoriented, said his boss:  a single bomb cannot cause such havoc and destruction.  At that precise moment, Charles Albury, co-pilot of the mission over Nagasaki, dropped the second atomic bomb, nicknamed ‘Fat Man’, over the city that had in the 19th century been Japan’s gateway to the West.  Eighty thousand people would perish from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, half of them instantly.   Yamaguchi would become, one might say, thrice born; he survived the blast.  “I could have died on either of those days”, he told a Japanese newspaper only months before he died in January 2010.  “Everything that follows is a bonus.”  A new word, hibakusha, the explosion-affected people, was coined in Japanese to describe the survivors of either atomic bombing; and yet another phrase describes the “twice-bombed” survivors, known in Japanese as nijyuu hibakusha.  Yamaguchi was the only officially acknowledged nijyuu hibakusha, otherwise believed to number around 165.  I don’t believe that there is a vocabulary in any language that can describe what Yamaguchi might have gone through.

Yamaguchi’s wife died from kidney and liver cancer in 2008.  His daughter describes her mother as having been “soaked in black rain” from the bomb.   Her brother, born in February 1945, was exposed to radiation, and would fall a victim to cancer at the age of 59.  Yamaguchi himself struggled with various illnesses but held on to life with tenacity and philosophical composure, displaying an equanimity that might explain the energy he displayed, at the age of over 90, in finishing 88 drawings of the images of the Buddha, representing the same number of temples – or stations – encountered on a religious pilgrimage around Shikoku.  Later in life, after his son passed away, Yamaguchi became an ardent critic of the nuclear race, and he denounced the obscenity of possession of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, his mission accomplished, Charles Albury returned to the US, became a pilot with Eastern Airlines, and settled down in Florida.   He would say, when questioned, that he felt no remorse:  the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had, he argued, saved hundreds of thousands of lives, Japanese and American, lives that would have been needlessly sacrificed had the US commenced a land invasion.  We need not be detained by the fact that this argument is now largely discredited, certainly keenly contested; nor need we ask why a second bomb had to dropped at all, when the Japanese high command had been thrown into utter confusion after the destruction of Hiroshima.  In 1982, while being interviewed for the Miami Herald, Albury stated that he opposed war but would drop the bomb again if the US were under attack.  We know what such ‘opposition’ to war means.  “My husband was a hero”, Albury’s wife of 65 years told the Miami Herald after his death, adding:  “He saved one million people . . .  He sure did do a lot of praying.”  Since Charles Albury felt no reason to be contrite, one wonders why he prayed; and, if he prayed, whether he prayed that he might become a better Christian, or that the souls of the Japanese might be saved.  Still, since prayer is a reclusive matter, a form of communication between the worshipper  and the Divine, one should allow Charles Albury the privacy of his religious beliefs and practices.

The Americans vanquished the Japanese.  So goes the story.  However, pondering over the twisted tale of Tsutomu Yamaguchi and Charles Albury, I believe one can never be certain who is the vanquisher and who the vanquished.  All too often the vanquished have given birth to the vanquisher.  There are many possible readings, but when one places the stories of Yamaguchi and Albury in juxtaposition, it is quite transparent who represents the nobler conception of human dignity.  The ontology of the vanquished, as the life of Yamaguchi shows, always has room for the vanquisher; the same cannot be said for the vanquisher.  In this respect, at least, we might say that the vanquisher is always a lesser person than the vanquished.  I would like to believe that Yamaguchi crossed over to the other side with an ample awareness of this fundamental truth.

*The Mosque at ‘Hallowed’ Ground, Part II: Some Notes on the Politics of Place & Name

One of the most notable elements in the public discourse on the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, which is conceived as a multistory building of which the mosque will constitute one part, is the extraordinary and troublesome ease with which it came to be characterized as the “Ground Zero Mosque”.   The association of ‘mosque’ with ‘ground zero’ informs all arguments emanating from those who have voiced their opposition to this project, just as it becomes the pretext for rendering this ‘Ground Zero’ as “hallowed” ground.  Some supporters of the project, and even those who might profess indifference to the entire controversy, have observed quite rightly that the Islamic center and mosque is in fact two city blocks away from ‘Ground Zero’.  But such an argument presupposes that opponents of the proposed Islamic Center are interested in, and willing to be persuaded by, facts.  If one were interested in facts, one could point to many more that are pertinent to this discussion:  at least two churches – St. Paul’s Chapel, which dates to 1766, and the Church of St. Peter, in what is described as “New York’s oldest parish” — exist in closer proximity to ‘Ground Zero’ than the proposed mosque.  The supposition that adherents of Islam wish to claim ‘Ground Zero’ solely for their own faith is nothing short of preposterous.  But none of this is very germane, since such controversies are never at all about ‘facts’.

If the numerical table begins with zero, let us likewise also commence with ‘ground zero’ and the implications of rendering this as ‘hallowed ground’.  The term ‘ground zero’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “that part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, esp. an atomic one.”  The OED has traced the first occurrence of the phrase to an article appearing in the New York Times on 7 July 1946 (p. E10), wherein it was stated, apropos of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, that “the intense heat of the blast started fires as far as 3,500 feet from ground zero”; as a further illustration of how the phrase has been deployed, it points to the September 1955 of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:  “There was no noticeable contamination even at ground zero at Hiroshima.”  We can see that the OED’s stress on “esp[ecially] an atomic” bomb, to describe the impact on the ground situated directly underneath an exploding bomb, is not misplaced.  Now, within hours of the attack upon the Twin Towers, the phrase ‘ground zero’ began to be used by American reporters:  the intent, it is reasonable to infer, was to suggest that that the destruction of the World Trade Center (and a portion of the Pentagon) was America’s Hiroshima (and Nagasaki).

It is precisely this sleight of hand, this tacit attempt to draw a parallelism between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the one hand, and the terrorist attacks upon some of the most iconic structures of the American landscape, that must be decisively repudiated – and, at the same time, affirmed for very different reasons than those which are summoned by those who speak of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’.  The parallelism is gravely suspect, and not merely for the reason, if at all that is a reason, considering that the loss of one innocent life is too excessive a loss, that the 3,000 odd victims of the September 11 bombings are a much smaller number than the more than 200,000 dead from the atomic bombings:  more importantly, unlike the attacks of the September 11 suicide bombers, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were authorized by the President of the United States.  The wanton destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an act of state; the same cannot be said of the September 11 attacks.  If, further, we are to identify the suicide bombers of September 11 as Muslims, as everyone has so effortlessly done so, even if it might be with the implicit encouragement of the terrorists themselves, should we not also identify Truman and the members of his war cabinet as Christians?  And, so, let us concede that the attacks of September 11 also call to mind the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:  if the atomic bombs forever altered warfare, ushering in an altogether different register of the mind at war and bringing forth a new conception of terror, we might well say that the September 11 attacks have similarly necessitated a radical rethinking of the conditions under which war might be waged.  Let those who seek to sanctify ‘Ground Zero’ also understand that the terrorism of the atomic bombings is the underpinning of all modern forms of terror.

Even as the controversy over the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ continues, many Americans have begun to describe ‘Ground Zero’, where the Twin Towers stood and then collapsed, as “hallowed ground”.  Obama himself sanctified this usage when, in the White House iftar dinner last week, he declared: “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”   Some Americans, at least, will at once recognize the hallowed provenance of “hallowed”, as it calls to mind the address, “short, short, short” (in the author’s words), delivered by Lincoln at the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on 19 November 1863.  The north and the south were in the grip of “a great civil war”, proclaimed Lincoln, “testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”  Let us leave aside, so that we can get to the notion of “hallowed ground”, the obvious temptation to probe whether some American commentators are not convinced that the United States today is similarly faced with a test of endurance:  if the likes of the grunting troglodytes on the right are to be believed, America’s future is jeopardized both by enemies from within (so-called liberals and leftists, whatever these anodyne terms mean in the US) and from without (Muslims).  Here is what Lincoln was moved to say:  “We are met here on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.  But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Thus, to render Ground Zero as “hallowed ground” is at once to lay claim to the legacy of Lincoln, the most hallowed figure in American history, and to render the space of Ground Zero as ‘sacred’.  Lincoln significantly abjures the idea that the ground can be rendered hallow:  “But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.”  It is human sacrifice that consecrates a ground as sacred, and what is sacred is a form of being rather than a form of becoming.  For the present purposes, though, it suffices to note that the opponents of the proposed Islamic Center are firmly attached to the idea that ‘Ground Zero’ is sacred space and that the construction of the mosque would desacralize this space.  If it is sacred, then it is sacred for a religion, or – as is the case with some religious sites or cities, such as Jerusalem — sacred for several (but not all) religions.  Yet, what makes ‘Ground Zero’ sui generis as a sacred site, if at all it is sacred in the same way that Gettysburg is hallowed ground, is that the adherents of perhaps all the faiths — and certainly Muslims — were present in the Twin Towers, and we know as well that more Muslims have paid for those bombings than the practitioners of any other faith.  Those who would deny Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, have thus arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That opens further the doors of the Islamophobia that has already crept upon the United States.

See also Part I, The Controversy and the Meaning of ‘America’


Part III (forthcoming):   Islamophobia and the new Anti-Semitism in the US