Sunday, August 07, 2005

War and Renewal

It is important to be reminded once in a while that time moves on; that in the great scheme of things, things work out for good and ill. People die; children are born and the horrors of the past can be transformed into something new and maybe positive.

I felt all these things when I read this amazing piece about Hiroshima by Joichi Ito today.

I remember only two stories about the war from my family. My grandmother often spoke about the defeated voice of the emperor over the radio and how this shook the foundations of their beliefs, but signaled the end of a traumatic era. With the fall of the emperor, the Shinto religion also collapsed, since it had been co-opted from the decentralized animism of its roots into a state-sponsored war religion.

My mother used to talk about the American occupation of our hometown in northern Japan when she was a child. Our house, the largest in the area, was designated to be the Americans' local headquarters. When the soldiers arrived, my great-grandmother, nearly blind at the time, was head of the household, my grandfather having died during the war.

My great-grandmother and my grandmother faced the occupiers alone, having ordered the children to hide. The Japanese had been warned that the invading barbarians would rape and pillage. My great-grandmother, a battle-scarred early feminist, hissed, "Get your filthy barbarian shoes off of my floor!" The interpreter refused to interpret. The officer in command insisted. Upon hearing the translation from the red-faced interpreter, the officer sat on the floor and removed his boots, instructing his men to do the same. He apologized to my great-grandmother and grandmother.

It was a startling tipping-point experience for them, as the last bit of brainwashing that began with "we won't lose the war" and ended with "the barbarians will rape and kill you" collapsed.

Just one year later my uncle sailed to the United States to live in a Japanese ghetto in Chicago and work in a Y.M.C.A. Eventually his strivings led him to become the dean of the University of Detroit Business School. My mother followed my uncle, making the United States her base.

Postwar Japan followed a similar trajectory of renewal. The economy experienced an explosion of growth from the rubble of flattened cities, led by motivated entrepreneurs and a government focused on rebuilding Japan.

The 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima is a sober reminder to us today of the awful decisions that sometime have to be made in war. Many people argue from the perfect clarity of hindsight how things could have been done differently...better...less painfully. Perhaps they are correct, perhaps not. There is no way of knowing how things would have worked out if done differently (Neo-neocon discusses some of this in her post today).

However, we do know the outcome both short-term and long-term (up to 60 years anyway) of the decision to use the bomb in Japan. In the short-term there was great destruction, misery and death in Japan. But, the bombing had the effect of making Japan surrender thus ending a protracted war and prevented even more destruction, misery and death. In the long-term, the Japanese have recovered, moved on to better lives, and are no longer under the thrall of a "state-spnsored war religion."

It is truly sad that sometimes it takes such horrible events and so many deaths for peace to be realized. All the scenarios developed in hindsight are divorced from the reality that American leaders at the time had to deal with; and as the source quoted by neo-neocon notes:

First, all of these scenarios imply that the Americans were dealing with a sane Japanese leadership. That was not the case.

Both the horrible and the good consequences of dropping that bomb 60 years ago are still with us today. But there is every reason to believe that the consequences of not dropping it might have been far worse.

When I read articles like Ito's, I am convinced our leaders did what they had to do at the time, as difficult and anguishing as it must have been.

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