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Apologising to Japan: a proto-dysatisfunctional retrospective

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‘Whether I like it or not, I am part of the rationale against you, that led to the US atomic bombings’

While new posts will now be every hump day fortnight, this is my proto-dysatisfunctional attempt to repair my relationship with Australian history and with erstwhile enemy of the state Japan. This endeavor was posted on The Drum Online last August.

My letter was met with 113 comments in 5 hours. Of that, 85% was nationalist trolling. About 10% of that trolling honestly attempted to raise legitimate objections to my material, but couldn’t help spinning off-topic into invective about dying Aussies, which was nothing to do with the US decision to drop two nuclear bombs. The remaining 15% expressed relief that the dominant historical narrative was being questioned, and at least one of these was a WWII vet. Meanwhile, 0% of the criticisms refuted a single point made with any evidence or informed anlaysis, which is not surprising since most of my research was sourced from US historical and governmental institutions. Some tried deriding my inner-urban latté elite pretensions, perhaps unaware that I readily self-identify:

dysatisfunctional latte elites

After 5 heady hours, comments were closed by the editor, and the reply I submitted twice was ignored. Why did apologising for needless atomic experiments on a population somehow mean I was against Australia defending itself from the Japanese military threat? I wondered. I had some great email exchanges with folks who tracked me down through my university, who started off angry and went off feeling heard, and perhaps realising the topic was less mutually exclusive than they initially assumed. If there is one reason above all others why this online reconciliatory exercise from August last year fits with the aims here at Dysatisfunctional.com, it’s the attempt to acknowledge and navigate life’s inherent contradictions and absurdities.

You can see from this dysatisfunctional commemoration, back through last week’s dysatisfunctional babies, the week before’s dysatisfunctional activism, and the week before that’s dysatisfunctional starting over, that we each have many and diverse relational elements to our worlds. They all need sustenance. They all need to be shared and honoured. I hope you are doing that where it needs doing this week.

L.

Originally posted at The Drum Online

Dear Japan,

Today marks 66 years since your city, Hiroshima, faced the world’s first ever nuclear attack, and I thought I would write to apologise.

Public commemorations take place every year in Australia’s major cities, in parks and outside major churches. They are organised by a cavalcade of anti-nuclear, peace movement, human rights, socialist and environmental conservation groups, with speakers from major and minor political parties. But these efforts aren’t apologies as such, and with all due respect to committed organisers, they’re nothing personal. Not from me.

So first and foremost, Japan, no apology is worth the screen it is written on unless you can be sure I understand what I am apologising for. As you know, at approximately 8.15am on 6 August, 1945, the United States dropped a gun-type atomic bomb called Little Boy on Hiroshima. Between 70,000-80,000 people, or approximately 30 per cent of Hiroshima’s population, were killed instantly by what the subsequent US Bombing Survey termed “inefficient” nuclear fission, which nevertheless cleared 12 square kilometers of the city and 69 per cent of its buildings.[1] I am sorry that Little Boy was not even less efficient; in fact I wish it had failed altogether. Another 70,000 of your people were injured, with 90 per cent of doctors and 93 per cent of nurses among the casualties, significantly disabling treatment for the injured and substantially raising the final death toll.[2]

Three days later, at 11:01am on August 9, while your government officials were still scrambling to ascertain the extent of damage done and the nature of this new threat, the US dropped a second, implosion-type atomic bomb called Fat Man on the city of Nagasaki. An estimated 40,000 people died in the initial blast, with 60,000 more injured.[3] By January 1946, approximate acute deaths range from 90,000 to 166,000 for Hiroshima, and from 60,000 to 80,000 for Nagasaki, whose inhabitants were somewhat protected from the blast by an undulating geography.[4] I’m sorry we don’t spend enough time here in Australia on such details, even on our anniversary together. Like the official photos of the blasts from afar, and the banning of any photo-documentation at ground zero, let alone of victims – even after so long – you can understand most of us just don’t want to get too close to the event. It makes us terribly uncomfortable.

I’m sorry that while both cities were undeniably military targets, they were also major civilian centres. Had I been alive at the time, no doubt my personality, politics and skill-set would have all conspired to ensure I had nothing to do with the design, development, and attack strategy. Nevertheless, the atomic bombings were done for me, for my alleged freedom, so I apologise sincerely for constituting part of the rationale against you. While I had nothing to do with US president Truman’s initial public statements about seeking to avoid civilian casualties, I do apologise for my country’s lack of widespread outrage when so many scientific and political leaders’ statements were revealed to be untrue over the ensuing decades.

Truman’s statements are particularly galling, mind you, given that all potential targets were selected for their strategic significance and urban civilian density, as well as to maximise blast potential and incendiary damage. By ruling out the other 66 cities that had already been significantly firebombed, by considering the surrounding geography – particularly of mountains to focus the blast – and by having both bombs explode in mid-air, the Targeting Committee could achieve what they called “the greatest psychological effect against Japan”, and generate an event “sufficiently spectacular” for the global community.[5]

I am sorry that despite much conjecture over the years, international courts of justice will never convene to prove either the strategic necessity or cruel opportunism of either bombing. That’s just not fair, to be denied closure either way, especially when your own leaders were tried and either imprisoned or executed for their part in hostilities. No wonder your people remain in a thoroughly ambivalent state regarding wartime accountability for atrocities in the Asian war theatres, including an unresolved and vexing sense of victimisation at the hands of Western powers, that goes back to being shot at by Commodore Perry’s cannons in 1853.

While the jury is undeniably out, I’m sorry that two days before Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, Truman learned that the Twentieth Air Force had mined all your major harbours, thus finalising a comprehensive blockade that would literally as well as figuratively starve you, with or without a mainland offensive.[6] Truman himself advised one of his senators two days before Nagasaki’s bombing, that the Japanese would “very shortly fold up” with the Russians entering the war.[7] It is apparent from Allied leadership correspondence that your defeat had been a question of details for most of 1945, and there is a good case to be made for the late Soviet entry into the war as the decisive factor in you accepting unconditional surrender at last.[8] So I guess I’m sorry that most Australians believe that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki succeeded in ending the war and forestalling a grueling home invasion of your lands, when the case against this rationale is so easily available from decades of declassified US state sources.

I’m really sorry that your government had only just dispatched a delegation to Hiroshima to investigate the extent of its destruction when Nagasaki was bombed. By not waiting for the coercive military and political effects of Hiroshima’s devastation to ripen, the US decision to test its more advanced, implosion-type atomic device seems far in excess of meeting short to medium term strategic objectives toward ending the Japanese conflict, and more relevant to meeting America’s longer term strategic global objectives. On the 60th Hiroshima bombing anniversary in 2005, I read in the West Australian broadsheet about Truman’s ‘courageous’ and ‘morally-astute’ qualities, and this was echoed throughout the country’s media. I wondered at the time why his moral fibre needed to be pronounced so overtly. This body of easily available documented historical evidence demeans the entire human race at your people’s expense, and I apologise.

To be fair, civilian area bombing was one of the great tragedies of both European and Asian war theatres, developing in an ad hoc way as both sides sought to cripple the enemy’s morale and domestic ‘total war’ machine. The Allies bombed Dresden and Hamburg. Germany bombed Rotterdam, ‘blitzed’ London and other British towns. Japan bombed Shanghai, Nanjing, Hankou and Chungking among others. The USA bombed 66 Japanese cities in total, but arguably did more damage to Tokyo in six hours in March 1945 than either atomic attack, with a moderate consensus around 100,000 killed. Little Boy and Fat Man didn’t drop into a vacuum; America just did it better than anyone else. Everyone ignored, in the end, the outlawing of such actions in the Hague convention of 1923, and no country was in a moral position to point the finger too hard.

And it’s equally important to point out that no-one understood you, and no-one knew where you would stop your colonial adventure, which unfortunately took place about a generation too late. Especially here in Australia, reports of your submarines in Sydney Harbour were apparently terrifying. I am sorry that while parts of our community here in Australia commemorate the Japanese dead on August 6 every year, most of the country does not, and that we commemorate our own war dead even more. I’m sorry that when we spare a thought for those at Nanjing, Pearl Harbour, Darwin or throughout Asia during the war, many of us won’t admit to thinking you deserved the bomb just a little bit, even as we affirm how much we detest it and regret the whole sorry mess. I’m sorry that by the time we’ve considered all the war dead, the way we want to live today and rather ephemeral ideas about what our nation stands for, our commemoration for your dead ends up being more of a celebration on this side of the Pacific Ocean, that we lived and that we beat you. And of course, that we weren’t the ones atomic bombed. I sincerely apologise for anyone who tries to justify bombing you on ethical grounds. While such betrayals of the mind are understandable, they are not justified. Perceived safety is surely not an ethical matter.

Finally, perhaps you wonder why I am apologising. After all, I didn’t have anything to do with the design of the bomb, or with the decision or strategy to attack you with it. I didn’t vote for Truman, Churchill, or even Chifley. And anyway, you did keep my grandfather imprisoned at various POW camps, including the infamous Changi Prison in Singapore. If you didn’t ruin his life exactly, you certainly transformed it. Who knows if that’s why he drank so much, and who knows how that affected my mum and how she raised me. On my own drunken walk home through the streets of Tokyo’s western suburbs, my friend Mitsu and I realised both our grandfathers fought each other; not directly (my grandfather was a medic, for starters) but against each other nonetheless. And they were, in a very real way, fighting for Mitsu and I, who would not be born for decades. We inherit from the past our own conditions of living. We inherit the burdens, responsibilities and sacrifices, as well as the opportunities. Whether I like it or not, I am part of the rationale against you, that led to the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All this I owe to you, Japan, when I apologise. It seems like most people are content to regard history as a series of brutalities that allowed us to learn and know better in the future, and here we are, supposedly enlightened. Attacking you with atomic bombs, even if it was to protect our way of life, wasn’t a distant historic brutality at the time it happened. The past is not safely removed, and we in the present are not safe from the leaders we don’t want, or the interests we forget we hold. When it comes to perceived safety, I’m really sorry but it’s nothing personal.

Sincerely,

Luke Stickels

Luke Stickels is a writer and doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne, studying Japanese history and political theory.

  1. Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, “U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey”, 19/6/1946, http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/index.php retrieved 15/12/9.
  2. ibid.
  3. US Department of Energy, “Nuclear Age Timeline”, http://www.em.doe.gov/Publications/timeline_aug1945.aspx retrieved 4/8/11.
  4. Rezelman, David, Gosling, F. G., Fehner, Terrence R., “The Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki”, The Manhattan Project: An Interactive Historyhttp://www.rerf.or.jp/general/qa_e/qa1.html retrieved 16/12/9.
  5. “Minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee, Los Alamos, May 10-11, 1945″, http://www.dannen.com/decision/targets.html retrieved 15/12/9.
  6. Nishi, Toshio, Unconditional Democracy: Education and Politics in Occupied Japan, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1982, p.30-1.
  7. quoted in ibid, p.31.
  8. ibid, pp.23-32.

Originally posted at The Drum Online

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