Memorial Day 2016. My original title for this post was “Don’t hold your breath that the Japanese will ever apologize for their war crimes.” On reflection I see that this sentiment conveys too much anger and confuses my main points. They are:
- We should do all that we can to prevent more wars.
- We should recognize all victims of war, not just those who are politically convenient.
The second will help towards the first goal.
If it were up to me, no American President would visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki until the Japanese government apologized for Pearl Harbor, for their invasions of Korea, Manchuria, China among many others, and for all the atrocities their troops committed in the 1930s and 40s. That’s not going to happen in my life time, and certainly not in the remaining months of President Obama’s term in office. So he went. Demonstrating once again that he’s a better man than I and that we can show the world how to open up to those whom we’ve hurt without disowning our reasons for doing so.
The right-wing nationalists who currently control the Japanese government would like the world to forget past crimes, and to sympathize with the Japanese as “victims.” While his visit to Hiroshima may have been misused towards these ends, in his speech President Obama recalled all the victims of the terrible war that Hiroshima brought to an end.
In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death. There are many sites around the world that chronicle this war, memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism, graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity.
He called on us to get beyond who was right and who was wrong, but to see “humanity’s core contradiction” in the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.
Perhaps President Obama’s example will lead more Japanese to tell their government to own up to the unspeakable depravities Japan inflicted on its neighbors. For instance, to stop demanding that the Koreans remove the statue in memory of the comfort women from the front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
In 1997, the Chinese students at Princeton University organized an academic symposium to discuss the Rape of Nanjing on its 60th anniversary. In their openness to hear all sides, they even invited Japanese scholars who deny or minimize the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the rape of tens of thousands of women and girls. Even their commitment to openness was tested when one of the Japanese professors blurted out that the Chinese had brought these horrors on themselves. (The pictures from this event are too horrific to show here.)
When I was a little boy in the 1950s, I remember public service advertisements on city buses aimed at showing the horrors of war. Since I was the older brother of three infants born during that decade, the picture of a baby crying on the platform of the Shanghai train station after a Japanese bombing still haunts me.
Both this picture and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima should continue to be used to remind us all that once we “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war”:
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds …
I admire President Obama’s courage in getting Americans like me to confront my contradictory feelings about Hiroshima. I hope that the Japanese people see his visit as an example of how they still need to face up to their own historical crimes. At the end of 2015, there was much fanfare about an agreement between Japan and South Korea in which Japan supposedly apologized for its treatment of Korean sex slaves during WWII. Not so publicized was the visit the next day by the wife of the Japanese Prime Minister to Yasukuni Shrine where she paid her respects to the memorials for convicted war criminals. Nor that Prime Minister Abe refused to offer a personal apology to the surviving women. Nor that this so-called apology left out the daughters of China, the Philippines, Australia, South Pacific Island nations, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Taiwan.
Sometimes, however, I wonder whether President Obama can be too high-minded. In this he reminds me of President Carter. I am glad that neither were president during World War II. I’m glad that Harry Truman was there to make the decision that ended the war. Harry had experienced the horrors of war in the trenches of France during World War I. He came to the Presidency through the rough-and-tumble, morally challenged machine politics of Missouri. As the last few years in Syria have shown us, hesitating or refusing to choose among bad alternatives can only lead to worse consequences, including hundreds of thousands of deaths and the destruction of a whole society. If we’d had a more “high-minded” president during World War II, events might have rolled on while he dithered or took the “high road” of an invasion, which probably would have meant 1.7–4 million American casualties, including 400,000–800,000 fatalities, and five to ten million Japanese fatalities.
Despite that, I hope that any failing of President Obama in his visit to Hiroshima was an excess of high-mindedness. It would be obscene to think that this visit followed his trip to Vietnam merely as part of some geopolitical strategy to counter the ascendency of China. So much for the rhetoric remembering all the victims of World War II. Some media reports have praised President Obama, but dismissed Chinese expressions of concern that focusing on the dead of Hiroshima may encourage Japan to continue not to recognize the unspeakable depravities its soldiers committed throughout Asia.
One of the first steps towards promoting the end of war is to stop picking which victims of previous wars deserve more reverence than others. That selection reinforces the moral calculus that begins with the belief that “our lives are worth more than theirs,” which both leads to war and enables the horrible decisions that war requires.
President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima woke me up to the importance of honoring the dead of Hiroshima as much as the dead of Pearl Harbor, Nanjing and Shanghai. I fervently hope that geopolitics do not muddle that message by picking which dead matter more.