August 6, 1945, a day that should live forever in infamy. On this date, sixty-five years ago, the United States dropped the only nuclear weapon ever used in combat on the civilians of Hiroshima, Japan. If ever there was a greater conscious act of inhumanity, I do not know. Certainly, this is on par with the intentional slaughter of Jews, Serbs, and Tutsis. The difference is that America is much more efficient in its atrocity. It required no face-to-face contact or more than one sortie to kill at least 78,000 souls (and injure or disable another 100,000). By comparison, the attacks of September 11, 2001 killed approximately 3,000 persons.
How do Americans treat this monumental wrongdoing? Do we attempt to rationalize it? Do we own it? Are we dismissive of the act or judgment against it? My textbook treats it this way: “[Harry] Truman was torn between his awareness that the bomb was ‘the most terrible thing ever discovered’ and his hope that using it ‘would bring the war to an end’…Considering the thousands of Americans who would surely die in any conventional invasion of Japan and, on a less humane level, influenced by a desire to end the Pacific war before the Soviet Union could intervene effectively and thus claim a role in the peacemaking, the president chose to go ahead.” Yes, you read that correctly. The decision to kill thousands of unarmed non-combatants was partly due to a desire to squeeze the U.S.S.R. out of peace negotiations. I mean, you want to keep the odds stacked in your favor and you wouldn’t want an equal like the Soviets to keep you from running rough-shod over the Japanese. If they’re going to be pawns, you want them to be your pawns. The other deciding factor — the more “humane” one — was how the deaths of thousands of little children would save you from sacrificing a lesser number of grown, male soldiers. The inherent — and appalling — assumption in that statement is that American lives are more valuable and more desirable to be saved than Japanese ones (even innocent Japanese children where were in no way culpable for the war being waged around them). Drafted or not, part of the nature of military service is that there is a real potential to lose one’s life; it’s part of the code of war. Childhood does not come with the same inherent risk by definition. Yet, the American government and military intentionally assigned a higher value on U.S. soldiers than Japanese civilians — something that has always gone against the code of war. No wonder Robert McNamara said of the war on Japan: we were war criminals and had the war gone the other way, we would’ve stood trial for the things we did.
In an effort to sidestep any civic responsibility or remorse, history textbooks in the U.S. skirt the issue like the passage cited above. Similarly, they do not include any photographs of the atrocity that might make real what we did to the people of Japan. If there are any pictures at all, these are of the rubble of buildings or scorched earth. That is more palatable than facing the horror of what we did to the actual people of Hiroshima. We still don’t want to have to look them in the face.
Really, the historiography is offensive. I submit that perhaps our textbooks should — rather than presenting insulting justifications — just contain photo essays of the victims and let our natural guilt do its work. There is no need for words.