From Ground Zero

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Buddha statue partially melted by the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. Photo by Hiromi Tsuchida.

Much has been written about the premeditated nature of the atomic bomb attacks, the extent to which Hiroshima and Nagasaki functioned as laboratories for testing the effects of this horrifying new weapon. The official justification for America’s use of atomic bombs – that it would hasten the end of the war – never made much sense. But then, little about war ever does.

The Japanese code had been broken, and Japan’s messages had been intercepted. It was known the Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies. Japanese leaders had begun talking of surrender a year before this, and the Emperor himself had begun to suggest, in June 1945, that alternatives to fighting to the end be considered. On July 13, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: “Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace…” Martin Sherwin, after an exhaustive study of the relevant historical documents, concludes: “Having broken the Japanese code before the war, American Intelligence was able to – and did – relay this message to the President, but it had no effect whatever on efforts to bring the war to a conclusion.”

– Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

What makes the bombings even more cynical, to me, is that their actual targets, however carefully preserved for the purpose, were wholly incidental. The real, political target of the blasts was the Soviet Union, which had been set to enter the Pacific War on August 8. We could’ve dropped the bombs anywhere, really. In the minds of the military planners, the victims were complete ciphers – zeros, like the fighter planes deployed by the Japanese with such devastating effect. But Japan was the most logical direct target for the new weapon, because the European war was over, and several years of successful propaganda portraying Japanese as uniquely reptilian and fanatical had prepared the U.S. population to accept the official rationale.

Two events associated with World War II in the Pacific virtually obliterated the distinction between combatant and noncombatant, that fragile distinction at the heart of international efforts of the last five centuries to regulate the conduct of war and restrict human and environmental destruction. These were:
– The Japanese onslaught against the peoples of China and Southeast Asia as exemplified by the bombing of Shanghai, the rape of Nanking, and the attacks on civilians as in the “three-all policy” (burn all, kill all, destroy all) directed against rural North China.
– The use of air strikes by the major powers to terrorize and destroy cities and their populations, notably in the firebombing of European and Japanese cities and the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The common element linking these events, directing the awesome technological might of modern war against combatant and noncombatant alike, denied the humanity of enemy populations and legitimated their wholesale annihilation.

– Mark Selden, “Introduction,” The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ed. by Kyoko Selden and Mark Selden

* * *

I visited Hiroshima in 1986. Here’s a prose poem that came out of that visit.


We dropped our duffle at the youth hostel and hustled over to Ground Zero at the Peace Park, the Atomic Bomb Dome – it’s most striking at sunset, they told us. We took care to speak in hushed tones. I was thinking, we Americans are so weird, we take pictures of things you wouldn’t even want to pose in front of. I was thinking, a botched mastectomy. An unfinished stupa. The next morning, in broad daylight, the dome looked sort of lonely, despite the constant stream of tourists that kept circling it. I overheard an Australian say, “If you wanna make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.”


“Remember Hiroshima!” the guardians of national conscience intone, as if this thriving port on a poisoned sea were nothing but a mirage, the real city a platonic Idea translated aloft by Little Boy’s flash. But if that were true, there would be no possibility of speech, tears, atonement, anything. Reduced to stuttering silence like Schoenberg’s Moses, who could resist that Burning, with its final Word?


“But we’re innocent!” the cry goes up – on both sides of the Pacific. To be sure: we were naive, my girlfriend & I. I remember what clarity, unnumbed, could come from shock. Like the vajra in esoteric Buddhism, a double-sided thing, both sudden & impenetrable. I remember how an hour in the museum faced by photo after gruesome photo made us afraid to touch or even catch the other’s eye. And despite our leftist posturing, how really all-American we must’ve been, so typical in our assumption of bedrock national virtue, our proprietary interest in all the military exploits fit to print in a high school history text. When a peace activist confronted us by the Paper Crane Shrine we said Yes – Yes – to each of his accusations. We were twenty years old. The world would have to change.


And Hiroshima? A twinge of guilt still interposes when I recall our lightheartedness the rest of that rainy weekend, as silly and self-involved as only a young couple can be. Forced by poor planning and empty pockets to wander the city all Sunday long, we took turns posing for comic snapshots in front of the city’s unofficial memorials: coffee shops and noodle bars, concrete levees hiding riverside bicycle dumps, playgrounds given over to great yellow monkey-bar castles, a backstreet Shinto shrine where the cedars were already big enough to merit their own collars of sacred rope.

* * *

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) – that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.

Howard Zinn, op. cit.

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the rise of the United States to world domination. On these days of remembrance and introspection, let us pray that the end of empire come soon and be as painless as possible. Let us renew our commitment to bring about in our own lives and through our relationships with others a world where coercive social structures win no allegiance and war is unthinkable.

I encourage those who may be skeptical about the ability of violent societies to become peaceful to check out two scholarly articles recently added to my father’s Peaceful Societies website: “The Peace Puzzle in Ufipa” (review here) and “‘Respect for the Rights of Others Is Peace’: Learning Aggression Versus Nonaggression among the Zapotec” (review here).

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