We Are Hiroshima?

by zunguzungu

When I wrote this post, I was thinking about this discussion at EotW over the question of whether dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima could be justified. As Jonathan Dresner noted over at Frog in a Well, it’s not a particularly productive debate, and for what seems to me to be a familiar reason: the question of whether the bomb can be justified almost inevitably turns into an ethical dilemma hinging on a spurious fungibility of suffering. And while the question of whether more lives were saved by using the bomb than by not might try to rely on that crude equivalence between numbers of dead (1,000,000 dead is not as bad as 1,000,001), this is in practice adjudicated by comparing unverifiable projections of how many people would have died in an invasion of Japan to the unanswerable question of what Truman knew or thought about how many would die. Did he know that an atomic bomb would cause destruction in the manner that it did? Or is it only we of the “Post-Hiroshima” world who can have such knowledge?

And so, just like that, we are back to a question of motivations: if Truman didn’t know what dropping the bomb would have done, he is somehow less culpable, and the deed somehow less heinous. If you wanted to continue along this line of reasoning, you could observe, then, that the real question is not what Truman knew about the bomb before Hiroshima, but of what he knew about its effects before Nagasaki. And by such reasoning, Eric Rauchway’s focus on the “one bomb” line seems exactly right; the language used by Truman in that situation is interestingly strange, shaped by the necessity to deny what has been learned: that if only one bomb has been used, “collateral damage” cannot be described as unintended. Atomic bombs don’t differentiate, such that one cannot (as one can with cruise missles) blame accident for the facts of civilian deaths.

I find Dresner’s disinclination to continue down that line of reasoning quite powerful, though. As he notes, Japanese historians have reached a certain consensus that “the combined shock of the atomic bombs and Soviet entry pushed the Japanese cabinet to the point where they could accept the unconditional end of the war, but things happened so fast that there’s really no way to tell whether one or the other would have been sufficient in isolation, nor can we know for sure whether a conditional surrender could have been reached earlier because nobody tried very hard.” I find it quite suggestive if the historical debate there–in the place where the bomb was actually dropped, and where the survivors still live–has come to rest on a note of uncertainty, because it makes the arguments over causation and justification over here seem all the more US-centric. The way talking about “Vietnam” in American political discourse really means “the experience of the Vietnam war in the United States,” seems an appropriate analogy: when we talk about justification, the argument is about Truman and American empire and the cold war, and because of that, how much can it really be about the Japanese civilians who were killed? I’m not sure. It was what it was, and it is what it is, and the names you call it don’t change any of that. And when you argue about whether Truman’s act was justified, it’s hard not to presume, at some level, that violence can be justified, that there might be circumstances when dropping the bomb would be a good thing. It makes me very uncomfortable to go down that road, wilting flower that I am.

Anyway, today is the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, as it happens. It’s so very strange to have an anniversary of a thing like that, so very odd to remember the obscenity of that thing by a date. But even more strange is having a t-shirt from the peace museum in Nagasaki. What on earth was I thinking when I bought that? Partly, it had to do with my feeling that the Nagasaki peace museum had a subtly different ethos than the one in Hiroshima; not only did the one in Hiroshima, as I tried to use baseball to talk about here, seem quite oriented on the Japanese-ness of the bombing, taking individual suffering and nationalizing it, but there seems in a general sense to be something vaguely disrespectful about putting the actual physical remains on display, of making actual wax models of burnt children writhing in agony. The Nagasaki museum had that sort of thing too, to a lesser extent, but it was much more focused on the peace movement as a whole, on the ways that an international coalition of activists made nuclear disarmament a live issue. I don’t know; it was a very subective experience, and I feel strange every time I wear that t-shirt, but I would never have bought one from the Hiroshima peace museum.

I don’t, however, feel strange when I wear this shirt, a lovely Hiroshima Carp baseball tee, with someone named Maeda on the back. To quote myself:

Five years after that half-bombed out city was turned into the absence of a city, the government decided to start a baseball team in Hiroshima to help rebuild public spirit, and they named it the Hiroshima Carp. For years, Your Hiroshima Carp really, really sucked, so much so that the central league passed a rule that any team who finished under .300 would be disbanded and merged with another, the Taiyo Whales. The rule was transparently aimed at eliminating the bottom-feeding Carp, but fate intervened: they managed to squeak by and finish at .316, and instead it was the hapless Shochiko Robins who were gutted and sold for parts. Eventually, the Carp managed to get a corporate sponsor (becoming the Hiroshima Toyo Carp) and with the help of the Japanese Cal Ripken, somehow managed to be good for a while, around the years I was born, even winning some championships.

We saw a game while I was there, and it was a strange experience for me to see that word transformed into a sports team; Hiroshima, like Vietnam, had come into my mind as signifier not of a city or a military base, but as an American way of experiencing the world: “Post-Hiroshima,” after all, means “after the realization that the United States killed an obscene number of human beings with one bomb.” But seeing the Hiroshima Carp play baseball, and wearing their t-shirt, reminds me of some of the most moving lines in the movie We Are Marshall, if you can pardon the digression.

That movie means a lot to me, and I don’t exactly understand why: I grew up in the shadow of the university, and I know people who were there, who saw that team play, but the plane crash happened long before I was born and it wasn’t until the movie came out that I ever really thought about it. In brief, it’s a movie about putting together a small college football program back together after almost all of the players and coaches are killed in a plane crash. Again, I was surprised by how moving I found this to be; when I go home, I fly into the airport at which they died and since they actually filmed on location in Huntington, something about the nostalgic note they struck harmonized with my own nostalgia for my childhood. But there’s one scene which, for me, not only saves the movie but says something almost profound.

Matthew McConaughey plays the coach hired to rebuild the program, and he plays him, I think, marvellously. He’s sort of a manic character, jaunty and ostentatious, and many reviewers complained that he talked out of one side of his mouth “like a stroke victim” (thereby showing their ignorance of what people talk like with a “dip” in their mouth). They felt he made a mockery of what should have been solemn, that his character was too cartoonish to be believed. That, however, was precisely the point: Jack Lengyl was hired to rebuild a football program, but unlike everyone else in the town, he was not himself scarred by what happened. He was just there to do a job, as he puts it, just there to win, and in sports, that’s all that matters. “Until,” he says “I came here.” In Huntington, you see, the football team couldn’t just be about sports, couldn’t just be about winning. In a way, perhaps, it never was: football in a dying industrial town like Huntington is already always an engagement with grief, pretty much the only reminder of place that isn’t drenched in loss. But after the crash, not only was every snap a reminder of the loss the town had suffered-the plane, after all, was also filled with the team’s boosters, some of the most prominent members of the community-but part of the grieving process is denial, the refusal to admit that it has happened. And the film’s dramatic conflict centers around this problem: while Matthew McConaughey tries to build a football team out of spit and polish, the town clenches in grief against him. They, like the reviewers, resent him for his failure to be traumatized, for the grief he hasn’t felt. How dare he come to this town and how dare he play football here, in the very uniforms of the dead? And how dare he wear those ridiculous pants as he does it?

Eventually McConaughey’s character comes to understand this. All his career, he says, football has been about winning, and nothing else matters. “I’ve said those words a thousand times, just like any coach worth his salt knows that winning is the only thing that matters.” But here, it’s not about winning at all, he says, and it won’t be for a long time. For years, perhaps in living memory, that football team is going to be the focus of an indescribable and unmeasurable amount of pain, and that’s not something that anyone can escape, nor should they try. But, he says: “One day, not today, not tomorrow, not this season, probably not next season either but one day, you and I are gonna wake up and suddenly we’re gonna be like every other team in every other sport where winning is everything and nothing else matters. And when that day comes, well thats, thats when we’ll honor them.”

So, to make a long story short, that’s why I like wearing my Hiroshima Carp t-shirt. Because on that t-shirt, the word doesn’t signify the horror of the bomb, the guilt of those who dropped it, or the political meaning that its remembrance has taken on. It’s about a sports team, just that, and in sports, winning is the only thing that matters. That does, I think, seem like the appropriate way to let the dead rest in peace.