Tourists of Empire

Afghanistan war cartoon By William Astore, retired Air Force Lieutenant, who discusses America’s peculiar brand of global imperialism. He mentions in Afghanistan and elsewhere the U.S. is suffering from Imperial Tourism Syndrome. Published: October 28, 2015 | Authors: William Astore | TomDispatch | Op-Ed

(Photos and cartoons have been inserted from media)

The United States is a peculiar sort of empire.  As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before.  Empire — us?  We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago.  Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology.  In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers.  There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.

Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted.  As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists.  Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long.  Think of them as the twenty-first-century version of the ugly American of Vietnam-era fame.

Cartoon Afghansistan

The ugliest of Americans these days may no longer be the meddling CIA operative of yesteryear; “he” may not even be human but a “made in America” drone. Think of such drones as especially unwelcome American tourists, cruising the exotic and picturesque backlands of the planet loaded with cameras and weaponry, ready to intervene in deadly ways in matters its operators, possibly thousands of miles away, don’t fully understand.  Like normal flesh-and-blood tourists, the drone “sees” the local terrain, “senses” local activity, “detects” patterns among the inhabitants that appear threatening, and then blasts away.  The drone and its operators, of course, don’t live in the land or grasp the nuances of local life, just as real tourists don’t.  They are literally above it all, detached from it all, and even as they kill, often wrongfully, they’re winging their way back home to safety.

Imperial Tourism Syndrome

Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic.  To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while).  If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).

Drone death protest

And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end.  In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.

The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won.  Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.  They miss the point.  Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary.  If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq.

Drone deaths

In this way, America’s combat tourists keep cycling in and out of foreign hotspots, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones.  They are well-armed, as you’d expect in active war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan.  Like regular tourists, however, they carry cameras as well as other sensors and remain alert for exotic photo-shoots to share with their friends or the folks back home.  (Look here, a naked human pyramid in Abu Ghraib Prison!)

As tourists, they’re also alert to the possibility that on this particular imperial safari some exotic people may need shooting.  There’s a quip that’s guaranteed to win knowing chuckles within military circles: “Join the Army, travel to exotic lands, meet interesting people — and kill them.”  Originally an anti-war slogan from the Vietnam era, it’s become somewhat of a joke in a post-9/11 militarized America, one that quickly pales when you consider the magnitude of foreign body counts in these years, made more real (for us, at least) when accompanied by discomforting trophy photos of U.S. troops urinating on enemy corpses or posing with enemy body parts.

Here’s the bedrock reality of Washington’s twenty-first-century conflicts, though: no matter what “strategy” is concocted to fight them, we’ll always remain short-time tourists in long-term wars.

Imperial Tourism: A Surefire Recipe for Defeat Drone shooting missile

It’s all so tragically predictable.  When it’s imperial tourists against foreign “terrorists,” guess who wins?  No knock on American troops.  They have no shortage of can-do spirit.  They fight to win.  But when their imperial vacations (military interventions/invasions) morph into neocolonial staycations (endless exercises in nation-building, troop training, security assistance, and the like), they have already lost, no matter how many “having a great time” letters — or rather glowing progress reports to Congress — are sent to the folks back home.

By definition, tourists, imperial or otherwise, always want to go home in the end.  The enemy, from the beginning, is generally already home.  And no clever tactics, no COIN (or counterinsurgency) handbook, no fancy, high-tech weapons or robotic man-hunters are ever going to change that fundamental reality.

It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught.  Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay.  The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.”  For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down.  It was home.  They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.

Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat.  And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands.  Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones.  There’s often a new one every year.  (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area.  Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat.

There’s a scene at the beginning of season four of “Homeland” in which ex-CIA chief Saul Berenson is talking with some four-star generals.  He says: “If we’d known in 2001 we were staying in Afghanistan this long, we’d have made some very different choices.  Right?  Instead, our planning cycles rarely looked more than 12 months ahead.  So it hasn’t been a 14-year war we’ve been waging, but a one-year war waged 14 times.”

True enough.  In Afghanistan and Iraq as well, the U.S. has fought sequentially rather than cumulatively.  Not surprisingly, such sequential efforts, no matter how massive and costly, simply haven’t added up.  It’s just one damn tour after another.

But the fictional Saul’s tagline on Afghanistan is more suspect: “I think we’re walking away with the job half done.” For him, as well as for the Washington establishment of this moment, the U.S. needs to stay the course (at least until 2017, according to President Obama’s recent announcement), during which time assumedly we’ll at long last stumble upon the El-Dorado-like long-term strategy in which America actually prevails.

Of course, the option that’s never on Washington’s table is the obvious and logical one: simply to end imperial tourism.  With apologies to Elton John, “sorry” is only the second hardest word for U.S. officials.  The first is “farewell.” 

Bumper Sticker VVAW

A big defeat (Vietnam, 1975) might keep imperial tourism fever in check for a while.  But give us a decade or three and Americans are back at it, humping foreign hills again, hoping against hope that this year’s trip will be better than the previous year’s disaster.

In other words, a sustainable long-term strategy for Afghanistan is precisely what the U.S. government has failed to produce for 14 years!  Why should 2015 or 2017 or 2024 be any different than 2002 or 2009 or indeed any other year of American involvement?

Unarmed Vietnamese Hide from US My Lai Assault

Unarmed Vietnamese Hide from US My Lai Assault

At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed.  That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics.  It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us).  Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.

But foreign lands and peoples?  We can’t control them.  We don’t understand them.  We can’t count on them.  They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy.  What they aren’t is truly real.  They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.

And that is precisely why we fail.

Vets against Afghan and Iraq wars

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Whose history are we really talking about?

Hands on earth colorful peace avatarWhose history are we really talking about is a great question to focus on as it raises where we came from, our history, and everyone else's. We have learned from different teachers. The history many of us grew up with involved powerful kings, queens, wars, governments, and the development of parliamentary democracy with some historical and romantic novels. But for the British when England leaves the Catholic Church in 1534 major changes occurred after Henry the VIII that changed how we approach the subject.

Bumper Sticker VVAW

By the time we hit university things were already changing. Marxism had arrived bringing a heightened attention to the arc of class and economics. Many works like them have helped to revolutionize our view of the past, but surely began filling up with depth from new historical knowledge.

Buddha in Kamakura Avatar

Another force connected with women involved half the population followed by equally powerful questions about race and racism. The idea of history as a procession of dead white males written by live ones may sound ridiculous now, but the war to open up a wider perspective was a real one. So writers of history began demonstrating different point of emphasis and views. Soon the teaching of science and engineering became increasingly important.

Einstein world peace avatar

All exposes the current assault on the humanities within higher education as even more uncultured. The thinking goes like this: the study of history, English, philosophy or art doesn't help anyone get a job and does not contribute to the economy to the same degree that science or engineering or business studies do. I believe most of us say balderdash.

Vietnam Women and children huddled by tree at My Lai

The humanities, including history, teach people how to think analytically while at the same time appreciating innovation and creativity. Isn't that a good set of skills for most jobs?

police misconduct we can't Breathe poster 121014

One could wish that the historians were all more accurate. Who would dare mess with science in the way some fool with history.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

Toni Morrison brought to life the inner life of slavery, and pushed the modern reader to confront this reality. Another confronted the same difficult history from a white woman's perspective. One memoir produces anti-war feelings from gross misuse of power. Another accuses those who cringe at the horrors of Hiroshima as "hand wringers". Any society that doesn't pay proper attention to whose history we are exploring, and from what perspective, maybe starving his/her own imagination and missing an opportunity to participate spreading useful historical knowledge so mistakes of the past may be understood and avoided in the future.

sunrise over Fuji with Torii

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The Golden Rule and supporters present at the Onion Social Justice meeting

Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society Onion

The "Onion" where S.U.U.S. holds services, events, music, and presentations:

August 19, 2015 Helen Jacard spoke to the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society about the Golden Rule, a 30-foot ketch and its crew, Capt. Albert Bigelow, William Huntington, George Willoughby, and Orion Sherwood, which was stopped by the Coast Guard from interfering with nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in 1958. They were part of an international movement to stop the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. They were arrested at Honolulu, Hawaii.

Another peace keeping yacht, The Phoenix, led by Earl Reynolds, Skipper, Barbara (wife), Ted (son), Jessica (daughter), and Nick Nakami, crew member, sailed The Phoenix, into the nuclear test zone to protest nuclear testing in 1958 and were arrested. Earl was a physical anthropologist whom the Atomic Energy Commission sent to Hiroshima to research the effects of radiation on children. In 1961 they sailed to Vladivostok, Russia, with Thomas C, Yoneda replacing Nick as a crew member to share their message to the Soviet Union. For extraordinary civil disobedience, they were branded as traitors in the U. S., while Japan held them up as national heroes.

The Golden Rule was resurrected, repaired, with the help of Garberville Chapter of Veterans For Peace and other West Coast Chapters formed a movement to bring her back to sail again on June 20th 2015 carrying their peace and anti-nuclear weapon message for the next two months in California (set forth below). They plan to undertake a ten-year peacemaking voyage around North America challenging military solutions to the world problems. Helen is a part of the crew and member of Women International League For Peace and Freedom.

Albert Bigelow, is author of the book, Voyage of the Golden Rule, and a former naval officer in WWII who resigned his commission a month before he was eligible for a pension. “To Russia with Love,” An American Family Challenges Nuclear Testing, by Jessica Reynolds Renshaw, follows the Phoenix on its mission to spread the truth about radiation from nuclear testing and finding peaceful solutions rather than military ones.

Golden Rule Schedule:

8/ 27-29 in Long Beach

8/30 Arlington Memorial

8/31-9/ 1 Marina Del Rey

9/3-9/19 Seal Beach, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Monterey, Santa Cruz

9/21-10/10 San Francisco Bay

10/12 Morro Bay/ Ft. Bragg

  Bomber Hiroshima Hiroshima Mushroom

(Never, ever, again!)

VVAW member Daniel C. Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship, turned peace activist and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his experiences.  www.danielclavery.com. He regularly attends the Onion presentations since 1980

 

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The 70th Anniversary of the Nuclear Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Still Haunts Me

Hiroshima explosion

I am an active member of Vietnam Vets Against War, Annapolis grad, retired civil rights attorney, and author of an inspirational memoir, who changed my path as soon as I could once I realized how immoral and obnoxious the Vietnam War had become. As a navigator of a US warship, the USS Oak Hill (LSD-7), I navigated 300 marines to Vietnam where our ship stayed on station for six months supporting the war effort. Immediately after the Vietnam period I navigated our ship to Hong Kong and then Japan where I had spent two years attending an American high school in Yokohama when my father, a WWII hero, was a Commander in the Navy assigned to the Yokosuka Naval base. After visiting the city where I lived, Kamakura, I decided to take a train to Hiroshima where I felt my anti-war sentiments would find a place to ponder what my future might be once my commitment was over in about a year.  That impetus I recorded in a memoir I wrote called All the Difference, that showed how I changed from a pawn in the military to a crusader for justice as a civil rights lawyer for the poor and powerless.Here is an excerpt of that experience that I want to share for the 70 th anniversary of the horrendous bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

WWII Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima August 6, 1945

I navigated the Oakhill to Hong Kong, where I wandered the streets for a day, amazed at the bustling beauty of an island with skyscrapers piercing the sky and shopping centers with tailors fitting customers with silk and other fine materials. I followed some officers from our ship to a team of tailors who fitted me with the best fabrics for suits, sport coats, ties, and dress shirts. Rugged mountains covered the background populated by millions of Chinese in a diverse British city. I had never seen so many sampans and makeshift vessels tied together along wharfs shaping a village of thousands of poor boat people.

Hiroshima yes, yes,

A ferry boat took me past these water-bound wharf villages to Macau, then under communist rule. A taxi driver motored me to a Mao Tse Tung school. High school students shouted slogans, marched, and waved red flags. He told me if we drove near them they would kill me if they knew an American naval officer rode in his vehicle. Gambling casinos decked out with roulette wheels, card sharks, bartenders, dancing girls, lavish carpets and accommodations overwhelmed with a gambling crowd of rich professionals and tourists. Since time was short, I jumped on the ferry to Hong Kong to my hotel. The next day my clothes were ready to pick up and bring back to the ship.

Hiroshima Torii burning

Our next port, Yokosuka, Japan, was where I had lived as a teenager. The base PX provided me an opportunity to buy gifts for my friend Yoshio Suzuki’s family in Kamakura. His boy enjoyed the baseball glove and girl a doll I had purchased on the base along with a fifth of Jack Daniels for his Dad who still ran a milk factory there. While there, I visited Enoshima and was shocked by its change. Waves still crashed on the rocks and the sound of the surf mingled with the shore, but there were no crabs or fish in the tide pools. They were inundated with dirt from the excavation that created the bridges, roadway, and souvenir shops that dotted the way. Escalators snaked to a slick modern observation tower while shrill pop music wafted across the island from the multitude of restaurants and shops constructed in the recent past. Horn honking replaced the natural sounds that had refreshed me on my first visit. Exhaust fumes choked me when in the past only ocean spray and sunlight danced on the rocks and natural pathways of the revered island. Neither the magnificent hawks nor Mount Fuji were visible through the smog. A two lane road lead to an escalator that reached a modern observation room after we passed tourist shops and restaurants that blared music and commercials where once stood a sacred island sanctuary. Crowds shoved and filled the pathways. How dismal progress made this once peaceful ancient shrine.

Hiroshima Einstein

A train swept me off to Hiroshima where I saw a film of the devastation caused by the first atomic bomb ever dropped on human beings at the shrine to the dead. Seeing the effects of that enormous blast on human beings haunted me. The photographs of the victims etched the atrocity against humanity graphically in my brain no matter what the justification. The statistics baffled my mind. By the end of the war, atomic bombs killed about 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki. Most of the casualties were civilians. Many died slowly from radiation sickness so these statistics understate the deaths. At the museum was a reference from an eye witness:

“Towards evening, a light, southerly wind blowing across the city

wafted to us an odor suggestive of burning sardines. I wondered

what could cause such a smell until somebody, noticing it too,

informed me that sanitation teams were cremating the remains of

people who had been killed. Looking out, I could discern numerous

fires scattered about the city. Previously I had assumed the fires

were caused by burning rubble. Towards Nigitsu was an especially

large fire where the dead were being burned by hundreds. Suddenly

to realize that these fires were funeral pyres made me shudder, and

I became a little nauseated. 8 Aug 1945 by Michihiko Hachiya.”

Dalai Lama Peace message avatar

A memorial book at the shrine to the dead contains my statement that as a patriotic American who had grown to love the Japanese people, to see what horror we caused them with the dropping of atomic bombs made a lasting impression of extreme sorrow. I hoped no country would ever use atomic or nuclear weapons in the future. I walked to a carved stone in Hiroshima Peace Park called the Memorial Cenotaph and read the words: “Let all souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.”

 

Hiroshima 60th annivesary never again

Daniel C.Lavery

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Our “Merciful” Ending to the “Good War” Or How Patriotism Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry By Christian Appy

Hiroshima explosion Bomber Hiroshima    Hiroshima Torii burning Hiroshima yes, yes,

Hiroshima Einstein

WWII Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima August 6, 1945

“Never, never waste a minute on regret. It's a waste of time.”

-- President Harry Truman

Here we are, 70 years after the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I'm wondering if we've come even one step closer to a moral reckoning with our status as the world's only country to use atomic weapons to slaughter human beings. Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero?  Will it finally come to grips with the “black rain” that spread radiation and killed even more people -- slowly and painfully -- leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?

Given the last seven decades of perpetual militarization and nuclear “modernization” in this country, the answer may seem like an obvious no. Still, as a historian, I've been trying to dig a little deeper into our lack of national contrition. As I have, an odd fragment of Americana kept coming to mind, a line from the popular 1970 tearjerker Love Story:“Love,” says the female lead when her boyfriend begins to apologize, “means never having to say you're sorry.” It has to be one of the dumbest definitions ever to lodge in American memory, since real love often requires the strength to apologize and make amends.

It does, however, apply remarkably well to the way many Americans think about that broader form of love we call patriotism. With rare exceptions, like the 1988 congressional act that apologized to and compensated the Japanese-American victims of World War II internment, when it comes to the brute exercise of power, true patriotism has above all meant never having to say you're sorry. The very politicians who criticize other countries for not owning up to their wrong-doing regularly insist that we should never apologize for anything. In 1988, for example, after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers (including 66 children), Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president, proclaimed, “I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don't care what the facts are.”

It turns out, however, that Bush's version of American remorselessness isn’t quite enough. After all, Americans prefer to view their country as peace-loving, despite having been at war constantly since 1941. This means they need more than denials and non-apologies. They need persuasive stories and explanations (however full of distortions and omissions). The tale developed to justify the bombings that led to a world in which the threat of human extinction has been a daily reality may be the most successful legitimizing narrative in our history. Seventy years later, it’s still deeply embedded in public memory and school textbooks, despite an ever-growing pile of evidence that contradicts it. Perhaps it’s time, so many decades into the age of apocalyptic peril, to review the American apologia for nuclear weapons -- the argument in their defense -- that ensured we would never have to say we're sorry.

The Hiroshima Apologia

On August 9, 1945, President Harry Truman delivered a radio address from the White House. “The world will note,” he said, “that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” He did not mention that a second atomic bomb had already been dropped on Nagasaki.

Truman understood, of course, that if Hiroshima was a “military base,” then so was Seattle; that the vast majority of its residents were civilians; and that perhaps 100,000 of them had already been killed. Indeed, he knew that Hiroshima was chosen not for its military significance but because it was one of only a handful of Japanese cities that had not already been firebombed and largely obliterated by American air power. U.S. officials, in fact, were intent on using the first atomic bombs to create maximum terror and destruction. They also wanted to measure their new weapon’s power and so selected the “virgin targets” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson  informed Truman of his fear that, given all the firebombing of Japanese cities, there might not be a target left on which the atomic bomb could “show its strength” to the fullest. According to Stimson's diary, Truman “laughed and said he understood.”

The president soon dropped the “military base” justification. After all, despite Washington's effort to censor the most graphic images of atomic annihilation coming out of Hiroshima, the world quickly grasped that the U.S. had destroyed an entire city in a single blow with massive loss of life. So the president focused instead on an apologia that would work for at least the next seven decades. Its core arguments appeared in that same August 9th speech. “We have used [the atomic bomb] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor,” he said, “against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”

By 1945, most Americans didn't care that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not committed Japan's war crimes. American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of “yellow peril” racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of “savages” -- “ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true “civilians” and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America's willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, “The only good Jap is a Jap who's been dead six months.”

In the years after World War II, the most virulent expressions of race hatred diminished, but not the widespread idea that the atomic bombs had been required to end the war, eliminating the need to invade the Japanese home islands where, it was confidently claimed, tooth-and-nail combat would cause enormous losses on both sides. The deadliest weapon in history, the one that opened the path to future Armageddon, had therefore saved lives. That was the stripped down mantra that provided the broadest and most enduring support for the introduction of nuclear warfare. By the time Truman, in retirement, published his memoir in 1955, he was ready to claim with some specificity that an invasion of Japan would have killed half-a-million Americans and at least as many Japanese.

Over the years, the ever-increasing number of lives those two A-bombs “saved” became a kind of sacred numerology. By 1991, for instance, President George H.W. Bush, praising Truman for his “tough, calculating decision,” claimed that those bombs had “spared millions of American lives.” By then, an atomic massacre had long been transformed into a mercy killing that prevented far greater suffering and slaughter.

Truman went to his grave insisting that he never had a single regret or a moment's doubt about his decision. Certainly, in the key weeks leading up to August 6, 1945, the record offers no evidence that he gave serious consideration to any alternative.

“Revisionists” Were Present at the Creation

Twenty years ago, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum planned an ambitious exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. At its center was to be an extraordinary artifact -- the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But the curators and historical consultants wanted something more than yet another triumphal celebration of American military science and technology. Instead, they sought to assemble a thought-provoking portrayal of the bomb's development, the debates about its use, and its long-term consequences. The museum sought to include some evidence challenging the persistent claim that it was dropped simply to end the war and “save lives.”

For starters, visitors would have learned that some of America's best-known World War II military commanders opposed using atomic weaponry. In fact, six of the seven five-star generals and admirals of that time believed that there was no reason to use them, that the Japanese were already defeated, knew it, and were likely to surrender before any American invasion could be launched. Several, like Admiral William Leahy and General Dwight Eisenhower, also had moral objections to the weapon. Leahy considered the atomic bombing of Japan “barbarous” and a violation of “every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all of the known laws of war.”

Truman did not seriously consult with military commanders who had objections to using the bomb.  He did, however, ask a panel of military experts to offer an estimate of how many Americans might be killed if the United States launched the two major invasions of the Japanese home islands scheduled for November 1, 1945 and March 1, 1946. Their figure: 40,000 -- far below the half-million he would cite after the war. Even this estimate was based on the dubious assumption that Japan could continue to feed, fuel, and arm its troops with the U.S. in almost complete control of the seas and skies.

The Smithsonian also planned to inform its visitors that some key presidential advisers had urged Truman to drop his demand for “unconditional surrender” and allow Japan to keep the emperor on his throne, an alteration in peace terms that might have led to an almost immediate surrender. Truman rejected that advice, only to grant the same concession after the nuclear attacks.

Keep in mind, however, that part of Truman's motivation for dropping those bombs involved not the defeated Japanese, but the ascending Soviet Union. With the U.S.S.R. pledged to enter the war against Japan on August 8, 1945 (which it did), Truman worried that even briefly prolonging hostilities might allow the Soviets to claim a greater stake in East Asia. He and Secretary of State James Byrnes believed that a graphic demonstration of the power of the new bomb, then only in the possession of the United States, might also make that Communist power more “manageable” in Europe. The Smithsonian exhibit would have suggested that Cold War planning and posturing began in the concluding moments of World War II and that one legacy of Hiroshima would be the massive nuclear arms race of the decades to come.

In addition to displaying American artifacts like the Enola Gay, Smithsonian curators wanted to show some heartrending objects from the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, including a schoolgirl's burnt lunchbox, a watch dial frozen at the instant of the bomb's explosion, a fused rosary, and photographs of the dead and dying. It would have been hard to look at these items beside that plane’s giant fuselage without feeling some sympathy for the victims of the blast.

None of this happened. The exhibit was canceled after a storm of protest. When the Air Force Association leaked a copy of the initial script to the media, critics denounced the Smithsonian for its “politically correct” and “anti-American” “revision” of history. The exhibit, they claimed, would be an insult to American veterans and fundamentally unpatriotic. Though conservatives led the charge, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Smithsonian for being “revisionist and offensive” that included a tidy rehearsal of the official apologia: “The role of the Enola Gay... was momentous in helping to bring World War II to a merciful end, which resulted in saving the lives of Americans and Japanese.”

Merciful? Consider just this: the number of civilians killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone was more than twice the number of American troops killed during the entire Pacific war.

In the end, the Smithsonian displayed little but the Enola Gay itself, a gleaming relic of American victory in the “Good War.”

Our Unbroken Faith in the Greatest Generation  

In the two decades since, we haven't come closer to a genuine public examination of history's only nuclear attack or to finding any major fault with how we waged what Studs Terkel famously dubbed “the Good War.” He used that term as the title for his classic 1984 oral history of World War II and included those quotation marks quite purposely to highlight the irony of such thinking about a war in which an estimated 60 million people died. In the years since, the term has become an American cliché, but the quotation marks have disappeared along with any hint of skepticism about our motives and conduct in those years.

Admittedly, when it comes to the launching of nuclear war (if not the firebombings that destroyed 67 Japanese cities and continued for five days after “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki), there is some evidence of a more critical cast of mind in this country. Recent polls, for instance, show that “only” 56% of Americans now think we were right to use nuclear weapons against Japan, down a few points since the 1990s, while support among Americans under the age of 30 has finally fallen below 50%. You might also note that just after World War II, 85% of Americans supported the bombings.

Of course, such pro-bomb attitudes were hardly surprising in 1945, especially given the relief and joy at the war's victorious ending and the anti-Japanese sentiment of that moment. Far more surprising: by 1946, millions of Americans were immersed in John Hersey's best-selling book Hiroshima, a moving report from ground zero that explored the atomic bomb's impact through the experiences of six Japanese survivors. It began with these gripping lines:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

Hiroshima remains a remarkable document for its unflinching depictions of the bomb's destructiveness and for treating America's former enemy with such dignity and humanity. “The crux of the matter,” Hersey concluded, “is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result?”

The ABC Radio Network thought Hersey's book so important that it hired four actors to read it in full on the air, reaching an even wider audience. Can you imagine a large American media company today devoting any significant air time to a work that engendered empathy for the victims of our twenty-first century wars? Or can you think of a recent popular book that prods us to consider the “material and spiritual evil” that came from our own participation in World War II? I can't.

In fact, in the first years after that war, as Paul Boyer showed in his superb book By the Bomb’s Early Light, some of America's triumphalism faded as fears grew that the very existence of nuclear weapons might leave the country newly vulnerable. After all, someday another power, possibly the Soviet Union, might use the new form of warfare against its creators, producing an American apocalypse that could never be seen as redemptive or merciful.

In the post-Cold War decades, however, those fears have again faded (unreasonably so since even a South Asian nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India could throw the whole planet into a version of nuclear winter).  Instead, the “Good War” has once again been embraced as unambiguously righteous. Consider, for example, the most recent book about World War II to hit it big, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Published in 2010, it remained on the New York Times best-seller list in hardcover for almost four years and has sold millions of copies. In its reach, it may even surpass Tom Brokaw's 1998 book, The Greatest Generation. A Hollywood adaptation of Unbroken appeared last Christmas.

Hillenbrand’s book does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of World War II or even of the war in the Pacific. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a child delinquent turned Olympic runner turned B-24 bombardier. In 1943, his plane was shot down in the Pacific. He and the pilot survived 47 days in a life raft despite near starvation, shark attacks, and strafing by Japanese planes. Finally captured by the Japanese, he endured a series of brutal POW camps where he was the victim of relentless sadistic beatings.

The book is decidedly a page-turner, but its focus on a single American's punishing ordeal and amazing recovery inhibits almost any impulse to move beyond the platitudes of nationalistic triumphalism and self-absorption or consider (among other things) the racism that so dramatically shaped American combat in the Pacific. That, at least, is the impression you get combing through some of the astonishing 25,000 customer reviews Unbroken has received on Amazon. “My respect for WWII veterans has soared,” a typical reviewer writes. “Thank you Laura Hillenbrand for loving our men at war,” writes another. It is “difficult to read of the inhumanity of the treatment of the courageous men serving our country.” And so on.

Unbroken devotes a page and a half to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, all of it from the vantage point of the American crew of the Enola Gay. Hillenbrand raises concerns about the crew's safety: “No one knew for sure if... the bomber could get far enough away to survive what was coming.” She describes the impact of the shockwaves, not on the ground, but at 30,000 feet when they slammed into the Enola Gay, “pitching the men into the air.”

The film version of Unbroken evokes even less empathy for the Japanese experience of nuclear war, which brings to mind something a student told my graduate seminar last spring. He teaches high school social studies and when he talked with colleagues about the readings we were doing on Hiroshima, three of them responded with some version of the following: “You know, I used to think we were wrong to use nukes on Japan, but since I saw Unbroken I've started to think it was necessary.” We are, that is, still in the territory first plowed by Truman in that speech seven decades ago.

At the end of the film, this note appears on the screen: “Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness. He returned to Japan, where he found and made peace with his former captors.”

That is indeed moving. Many of the prison camp guards apologized, as well they should have, and -- perhaps more surprisingly -- Zamperini forgave them. There is, however, no hint that there might be a need for apologies on the American side, too; no suggestion that our indiscriminate destruction of Japan, capped off by the atomic obliteration of two cities, might be, as Admiral Leahy put it, a violation of “all of the known laws of war.”

So here we are, 70 years later, and we seem, if anything, farther than ever from a rejection of the idea that launching atomic warfare on Japanese civilian populations was an act of mercy. Perhaps some future American president will finally apologize for our nuclear attacks, but one thing seems certain: no Japanese survivor of the bombs will be alive to hear it.

 

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