Previously by Bretigne Shaffer: Fighting for Civilization
"People don't want to confront… that their government could have done something like this unless it was absolutely necessary. …it's almost like people find some sort of relief in the idea that sometimes you have to just mass murder tens, hundreds of thousands of innocent people… that it's unrealistic to think the world could work differently."
In the summer of 1963, Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe was asked to go to Hiroshima to write about the Ninth World Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. Oe covered the conference and also met with some of the bomb's surviving victims and the doctors who worked to treat them. The result of this and subsequent trips over the next couple of years, became the essays that make up Hiroshima Notes published in 1965.
It was a pivotal time in Oe's own life: His first son had just been born with a large growth on his head that would have to be removed if he were to survive. The doctors warned that the surgery would most likely leave the boy severely disabled and barely able to function. They encouraged the couple to let the boy die. As he embarked for Hiroshima, Oe and his wife had not yet decided what they would do.
It was eighteen years after the bombs had been dropped, but only twelve since the lifting of an officially enforced silence about their effects. Following the Japanese defeat, the Allied Occupation government had issued a press code that prohibited public discussion or publication of any information related to damages from the A-bomb – including information about medical treatment. This press code remained in place until 1951.
Today, we take for granted knowledge about the deadly effects of nuclear weapons. In fact, this knowledge was hard-won, and not with the aid of government grants and oversight but quite the opposite. Doctors and researchers had to fight the official keepers of public opinion in order to first discover and then reveal the truth about the effects of these weapons.
In the fall of 1945, the U.S. Army Surgeons Investigation Team declared that all people who were expected to die from radiation effects of the bomb had already died and that no new cases would be acknowledged. Hospitals put out optimistic reports, downplaying the concerns of survivors, and telling pregnant women not to worry about any ill effects on their unborn babies. Doctors like Dr. Fumio Shigeto, the director of the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, surrounded by a society that seemed hell-bent on denying the effects of the bombs, worked to document the controversial connection between bomb exposure and leukemia. Even after the ban on discussing such things had been lifted, these doctors came under harsh criticism from the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission for making their concerns public.
The story of those who cared for the bomb's victims is emphatically a story of people, not institutions: "The leading role in A-bomb medical care," writes Oe, "was not taken by the national government; quite the opposite, it was started with virtually no initial resources through the energy and efforts of the unbowing, persevering local people who had to contend with reluctant national authorities every step of the way." The A-Bomb Hospital which Dr. Shigeto also ran, says Oe, ..".was not built by, nor is it maintained by, the national government. It was built with proceeds from the New Year's postal lottery."
Dr. Shigeto – a man with "neither too little nor too much hope" – had arrived in Hiroshima only a week before the bombing. Following the blast, he worked tirelessly to understand its effects on his patients:
"What little time could be snatched from his hospital duties he devoted to investigations, visiting the bombed area by bicycle to collect burnt stones and tiles. …It so happens that Dr. Shigeto had been interested in radiology in his younger years… He discovered, for instance, that hermetically sealed X-ray films stored in the hospital cellar were exposed to the atomic bomb. He was one of the first Japanese to recognize on his own the nature of the atomic bomb on the bombing day."
A good portion of "Hiroshima Notes" is devoted to each year's meeting of the World Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs – meetings that seem despairingly similar each year. And every year, people come from all over the world to walk in the annual Peace March on August 6th. Oe recounts the Peace March in 1963. When the marchers stop in front of the A-Bomb Hospital in Hiroshima's blazing sun, three patients step out to greet them:
."..a small middle-aged man begins to make a speech in a mosquito-like voice, holding his head high and erect like an Awa doll. He ignores the hot pavement and speaks fervently, but is interrupted by a loudspeaker announcing the departure of the marchers. I can barely hear his last words: u2018I believe the Ninth World Conference will be a success.'
"Holding the bouquet of flowers and dropping his shoulders in resignation (the heat, after all, is too much for an A-bomb patient), he withdraws with obvious satisfaction and dignity."
Meanwhile, the Ninth World Conference itself is beset with infighting, deception and ineffectiveness. The words "any country" is the stumbling block this time around, with participants unable to come to agreement on the declaration "We oppose nuclear testing done by any country." "The patients, however," says Oe, "are waving innocently and with great expectations, as though the marchers were their only hope."
It is at times almost painful to read of the efforts of those in the peace movement to influence world leaders; the seemingly impotent World Conference beset with divisiveness; the Peace Marchers marching perhaps for nobody but themselves. To their great credit though, many of these activists insist on holding their own government – in addition to the government of the United States – responsible for the devastation wreaked upon their country, calling for relief to bomb victims in the form of war damages.
"The distinction is crucial," says Oe, "for by pressing their case in such terms, the A-bomb victims raise the question of the responsibility of the United States government for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the Japanese government for starting the Pacific War."
The distinction is crucial for another reason: It points to the real conflict that lies at the heart of all war: Not that between one nation and another, but between nation states themselves and the civilians they are free to murder.
Understanding this means recognizing the common thread that joins Hiroshima and Nagasaki with Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Soviet gulags, the state-induced famines, and the countless millions of civilian victims of war. It means identifying and recognizing the real enemies of humanity: Not nuclear weapons themselves, but the social institutions that allow for governments to use them – and other weapons – without fear of the repercussions ordinary individuals would face for committing such acts.
Oe himself experienced what he calls a kind of "conversion" during his 1963 visit to Hiroshima when he learned about the lives of those who had survived the blast: The "A-bomb maidens" – disfigured women deemed "unmarriable" who spend their days shut away in their homes with little human contact; The "orphaned elderly" who had lost all family members; The young pregnant mothers, fearful of bearing deformed children yet rejecting abortion; and even those who did not care to commemorate the bombing, or to use their misfortune to promote any agenda, but simply wished (as one survivor wrote) ."..to remain silent until they face death. They want to have their own life and death."
"I regain courage," says Oe, "when I encounter the thoroughly and fundamentally human sense of morality in the Hiroshima people u2018who do not kill themselves in spite of their misery'."
And yet of course, some did kill themselves. There is the young woman who, having become engaged to a man knowing that he would die of leukemia, took her own life soon after his death. There is the widow of a well-known Hiroshima poet who killed herself a few weeks after the monument displaying her husband's poem had been desecrated. And the man who had penned nine letters protesting nuclear testing and sent them to the US and Soviet embassies, only to have them ignored. This man attempted to commit ritual suicide in front of the Memorial Cenotaph and failed, living on only to be tormented by his own shame.
When he returned from Hiroshima in 1963, Oe and his wife decided that their son would have the life-saving operation. The operation was successful and, as doctors had predicted, the boy became severely disabled: As an adult, he is mentally handicapped, has limited speech and vision and suffers from seizures. He is also an award-winning composer whose first CD sold over a million copies. He lives at home with his family and has a job at a local welfare workshop.
When Oe again visited Hiroshima, in 1964, he learned that among those who had died since his last visit was Mr. Miyamoto, the frail, dignified man who had stood outside of the A-Bomb Hospital and greeted the Peace Marchers. He passed away, says Oe, ."..cherishing a pathetic wish." In his last written statement before he died, Mr. Miyamoto wrote:
"I appeal from Hiroshima, where mankind experienced the atomic bomb for the first time, for even today many people are suffering from leukemia, anemia, and liver disorders; and they are struggling toward a miserable death… I plead that all of you will cooperate to bring about a bright, warless world."
According to most high-school history texts, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible but necessary tragedies. They "ended the war," and while they resulted in the deaths of as many as 250,000, they saved many thousands more. Of course a close examination of the facts reveals that none of this is true: Even the estimate for a full-scale invasion of Japan put the American death toll at only 46,000 (all combatant deaths, not civilians). Moreover, the Japanese government had been trying to surrender – balking only at the unconditionality the US side demanded, as they did not want to see their emperor dethroned and executed. Following the Japanese surrender however, the US government happily allowed the emperor to continue serving as a figurehead.
Even the United States Strategic Bombing Survey declared that,”… certainly prior to 31 December, 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” Indeed, the devastation the US forces had wreaked upon Japan through conventional warfare (the infamous firebombing campaigns left as many as half a million dead) had already helped seal Japan's defeat. The most generous interpretation possible of the motives for dropping the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that they served as a demonstration to the Soviet Union of US military might. The assertion that the bombs were dropped in order to "save lives" is at the same time one of the most widely accepted and most easily refuted lies used in the defense of mass murder by the state.
If we are to honor the memory of Mr. Miyamoto and those others whose lives were shattered or ended by the bombing, then we should acknowledge this argument for the lie that it is. Likewise, if we are even to imagine .".. a bright, warless world," then it is not enough to build memorials, march for peace or repeat the mantra "never again!" It is not enough to appeal to those who start and live by wars to make them stop. We must identify the real source of all war: Not a particular nation or even a particular kind of weapon, but the institution of the state itself, with no real mechanism to hold it accountable, that enables some people to rain death and unimaginable misery upon others with impunity.