Explosion Affected Reflection

Some remarks on the Hiroshima Day of Remembrance

by Tony Palmeri

August 6th, 2003

[note: The following is a revised and expanded version of a talk I delivered on August 6th, 2003 at the first annual Hiroshima Day of Remembrance and Peace Lantern Ceremony sponsored by the Winnebago County Peace and Justice Center.--Tony Palmeri].

We are not here tonight to debate the morality of the bombing of Hiroshima. At the same time, we cannot be intimidated by those seeking to bully or smear as historical "revisionists" those of us who dare to question the morality of the bombing. The use of the term revisionist to describe critics of the bombing is particularly appalling; as noted by media critic Hugh Sansom, "It's a term now widely and vaguely used to condemn through guilt by association with actual revisionists about the Holocaust."

The dropping of the atomic bomb was opposed by General Eisenhower, General MacArthur, and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy. Admiral Leahy, Chief of Staff to both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, said of the atomic bomb that, "in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."

Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Leahy were not revisionists. Rather, they were great patriots exercising their right and responsibility to dissent against policies they saw as immoral or unnecessary.

Today, we are spending one billion dollars per week and losing one soldier per day in Iraq, supposedly to provide the Iraqis with the freedom to question the wisdom and morality of their leaders. Why can't those who want to prevent or discourage us from asking questions about Hiroshima see the irony of treating the democratic value of dissent with intolerance at the same time we say we are trying to promote democratic values in faraway lands?

But again, we are not here to debate. We are here to remember, to celebrate, and to learn. I hope my remarks tonight contribute to a little of each.

Trillions upon trillions of words have been written about Hiroshima in the last 58 years. But for me the only "must" reading on the list is one of the earliest works, John Hersey's 1946 "Hiroshima." Hersey traveled to Japan to interview survivors of the blast. He learned that the Japanese use the term Hibakusha to describe these people. In English, the most accurate translation for Hibakusha is "explosion affected person/s."

Hersey traveled back to Japan 40 years later, finding that the Hibakusha had been subject to terrible discrimination to go along with their physical and psychological scars.

One of the prominent Hibakusha in Hersey's essay, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, gave a speech at a banquet celebrating her 25th anniversary of becoming a nun. She said, " . . . it is as if I had been given a spare life when I survived the A-bomb. But I prefer not to look back. I shall keep moving forward."

Sister Toshiko's courage and dignity in the face of great adversity is something for us to celebrate and learn from. Her story forces us to think of the ways in which, as many speakers on the topic of Hiroshima have suggested, we are all Hibakusha. That is, we are all explosion affected persons.

The explosion affects us all differently. When made aware of it, some try to understand Hiroshima. Others try to prevent any understanding of Hiroshima.

Reverend Bill Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, presents us with a role model of trying to come to terms with Hiroshima. Listen to what he told the Association's general assembly in June:

Yes, it’s been a tough year. As I have traveled it has often felt that I have been on a search for hope. Perhaps some of you have been on the same search.

While I was in Japan, I took a day to visit the Hiroshima Peace Park, the memorial to the 250,000 Japanese who were killed when we dropped a weapon of mass destruction on that city.

And at a wonderful dinner at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine after our ritual Misogi cleansing, I finally found the question I needed to ask our Japanese hosts.

“How could you possibly have forgiven us for our use of the atomic bomb?”

A member of the Grand Shrine Board, a retired nuclear physicist named Mr. Feruda, responded.

“First, thank you for asking the question. No one has ever asked us that before.”

After thinking for a moment, he said: “Despite the horrific death toll and the devastation, we actually have come to see our loss as a blessing.

“You see, if we had not lost that war, the military government would probably still be in power and we would still be out colonizing and appropriating resources to fuel our industrial machine.

“If we had not lost, the attitude of arrogance that was a part of Japanese life during those times would still be with us, the belief that because we had the might, we had the right to do as we willed.

“You see, if we had not lost… we would have become you. We would have become you and it would have crippled the soul of our nation.”

Reverend Sinkford's recounting of Mr. Feruda's remarks got me to thinking about the way the majority of our politicians, pundits, and even preachers discuss the issue of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Have you noticed that in all of the weapons of mass destruction moralizing and fear mongering, our leaders always fail to mention that the United States has over 6,000 nuclear weapons deployed? Or that we refuse to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?

Today in Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba spoke to 40,000 people. He said that, "The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the central international agreement guiding the elimination of nuclear weapons, is on the verge of collapse."

Why is the treaty on the verge of collapse? According to Akiba, "The chief cause is US nuclear policy that, by openly declaring the possibility of a preemptive nuclear first strike and calling for resumed research into mini-nukes and other so-called 'useable nuclear weapons,' appears to worship nuclear weapons as God."

The preemptive nuclear first strike posture mentioned by the Mayor appears in the December of 2002 "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction." That document says in part, "US military forces and appropriate civilian agencies must have the capability to defend against WMD armed adversaries, including in appropriate cases through preemptive measures. This requires capabilities to detect and destroy and adversaries WMD assets before these weapons are used."

Tomorrow, at a meeting to be held at Offut Air Force base in Nebraska, Pentagon officials and nuclear scientists will discuss America's nuclear future, including the possibility of creating so-called bunker-busting "mini-nukes" mentioned by Mayor Akiba.

Note how the use of the term "mini-nuke" makes it sound as if the bomb is less than lethal. This is another Orwellian trick, another attempt to persuade the masses that a "smart" bomb is somehow civilized and humane.

I'd like to close by warning us all to be aware of appeals to support violence based on righting the wrong of September 11. In 1945 many Americans could rationalize the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Japanese receiving just deserts for Pearl Harbor and other atrocities. The bomb became a way to attain justice for our war dead.

Today, many attempt to use the tragedy of September 11 as a justification for retaliatory violence, often invoking the theme of justice for the victims' families as a rationale.

But a number of September 11 victims' families have chosen to dedicate their lives to nonviolence. On Friday, a group of September 11 families will meet at Ground Zero with a delegation of Japanese Hibakusha.

The September 11 families have just released a book called September 11th Families For Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning our Grief into Action for Peace. These courageous people want the United States government and the world at large to know that "our grief is not a cry for war." These families understand more than most what it means to be explosion affected people.

Many thanks to the Winnebago Peace and Justice Center for creating an opportunity for ALL of us to reflect on what it means to be explosion affected.

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