*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

*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.