*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’

and

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