Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A few thoughts about Hiroshima, Nagasaki and what it all means to us

I spent much of the day Sunday watching the various specials about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was going to post something then, but decided to wait a couple of days so that I could post on the day of the Nagasaki bombings, both because the second bombing often seems to get forgotten and because I used to know a boy from Nagasaki back when I lived in London. In a wierd and roundabout way this is for him (hugs, Hiro).
It bothers me that America has never really apologised for the atrocity that bombing these cities unleashed. It bothers me even more that there's almost a kind of celebration of the bombers themselves, a kind of veneration of the actual planes that were used. Most bothersome of all is that fact that, while Americans celebrated the bombings in Japan, no one even seems to have suggested bombing the other front in Germany.
In case anyone is wondering why the US decided to bomb one country and not the other, I think the answer is pretty clear - racism. It continues to amaze me that the idea of the "yellow peril" is still alive and well in America, and until 9/11 was increasingly being applied to China. Part of my anger is of course based on the fact that my husband is Asian and I get to see the racism that he encounters on a regular basis, but really it's more than that. There's a kind of veiled racism that permeates the way Americans talk about Asia, a tendency to subtly denigrate Asian people and use even their achievements against them (think of the stereotype of the scarily talented Asian musical prodigies that crops up every few years and was rampant in the eighties). There is also an increasing resentment of the fact that Asia is no longer a rural backwater which the West can look down on. Of course that has been the case for a long time, but apparently many Westerners are a bit slow on the uptake and it's taken them half a century to notice all those big, sparkly, futuristic cities like Tokyo, Osaka and (increasingly) Shanghai.
I particularly notice this wierd combination of sneering and subtle resentment and intimidation when Westerners talk about Japan. If you read any of the many web pages written by American or British people who have spent a few years living in Japan, often teaching English, this tone comes across loud and clear. On the surface there's a kind of "let's laugh at the foreigners and their quaint ways", but look at the subtext and what you see is the anger, resentment and fear that results when white privilege is threatened. I think that Japan in particular provokes this response because it is so clearly and demonstrably a successful modern culture that wants and needs very little from the outside world other than a few raw materials and consumer goods (imported food items, good French wine). Most of the people writing these pages tend to be young, and most seem to arrive in Japan (usually in Tokyo) expecting the kind of fawning and positive attention that Westerners often get when they visit poor third world countries. The fact that Japan is in no way a poor third world country, regardless of the long recession, seems never to have occured to them.
I think what really annoys many of these people about Japan is that the Japanese quite demonstrably do not aspire to be American. Japanese pop culture takes bits and pieces of American culture, remixes and repackages them and then sells them domestically to be sure, but the sort of aspirational admiration of all things American that many Western tourists have come to expect is notably absent in Japan. People there are polite, certainly, but Americans are unlikely to be fawned over, and many seem deeply offended that most Japanese people they encounter pretty much ignore them. To people who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as the center of the universe, and to assuming that everyone else in the world secretly wants to be American, the self-confidence and vibrant and unique pop culture of modern urban Japan seems to come as a nasty shock. It's funny to watch how tetchy people get once they realise that nobody really thinks that the fact they're American (or indeed British) is that big of a deal.
Bit of a confession - I'm a serious Japanese pop culture junkie, hence my interest in this subject. The one thing that I will actually make the effort to arrange my time so that I can watch on TV is anime, I grew up on Japanese kiddie culture like Hello Kitty and all other things Sanrio (although note that I have long since progressed to the more adult-oriented version of Japanese pop culture and would not be seen dead in sporting the truly embarrasing "middle aged woman with Hello Kitty purse" look). My favourite cartoon as a child was Gotchaman (known in the UK as Battle of the Planets). I adore Japanese horror movies (anyone who liked The Ring really needs to see the original version, by the way, it's much better), which tend to be far darker and more psychologically intense than their American counterparts. Having a partner who works in design I am also both surrounded and astounded by Japanese product design, and will react to finding myself in a Japanese grocery, book or department store with "kid in a candy store" type glee (I restrict myself to infrequent visits out of fear that I would soon run out of places to store all the loot if I didn't).
So, I have a notable obsession for all things Japanese, and am darkly amused by the fact that so many Westerners approach Japan with the condescending and deeply colonialistic attitude that Japanese people must naturally want to be American. Why should they? To be perfectly honest their youth culture is a lot more interesting than ours right now, and has been for years. From a fashion point of view Japan is light years ahead. What does it say about Americans that they tend to throw a hissy fit when confronted with a culture that is quite self-sufficient and has no desire to emulate America? I'll let the collective epidemic of sulking directed at the French over the last few years answer that question for me.
Anyway, I'm babbling. My point was that America as a nation does not really seem to regret dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that this is something we should all be ashamed of. My other point is that racism is not always as obvious as calling someone nasty names, it also manifests as a colonial mentality and a refusal to accept that the rest of the world does not necessarily want or need to be just like us. My final point is, what does it say about how deep racism runs in this country that dropping an atomic bomb on Germany was quite rightly dismissed as unthinkable, but dropping the same bomb on Japan was seen as not only acceptable, but as a wise and justifiable way to end the war? And that we did it not only once, but twice?
For anyone who wants a good view of the Second World War from the Japanese perspective I highly recommend an animated movie called "The Grave of the Fireflies". It's both terribly sad and incredibly beautiful, and is definately worth a look.

Creepy but ultimately encouraging postcript - do you know what they call the survivors of the bomb in Japan? "The living dead". Which gives a pretty good indication of how deep the wound to the national psyche runs. There is hope, however. Almost every single survivor of the bombings has become a fervant pacifist. I saw a 75-year-old man on TV addressing an anti-nuclear rally in New York who survived the bomb in Hiroshima, and despite all that has happened he had nothing bad to say about the US and no recriminations to make. His final words to the crowd? "No more war".


FoolishOwl said...

From what I can make out, the US had been expecting war with Japan for a decade before WWII, and US wartime propaganda focused almost exclusively on Japan, with the war in Europe mentioned as an afterthought, and much of the propaganda about Japan was openly racist.

I'm astounded at how rightwingers will insist that nuclear weapons are no big deal, and I've seen the argument made that the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are inhabited proves that there's nothing special about them.

They either never saw the documentaries I have, or were too racist or lacking in compassion to care.

Cassandra Says said...

I'm voting for "lacking in compassion". I think that they're convinced that Asian people, like women, are not really people.
Also, given the US focus on war with Japan rather than Germany, why exactly do so many Americans sing the "we saved your asses in WW2" song? In reality it was Russia that saved the collective asses of most of Western Europe. the way in which Russia's role in WW2 has been forgotten is another of my pet peeves.

FoolishOwl said...

The usual explanation I've heard on why the bomb was used on Japan, but not on Germany, is that Germany had been actively working on developing the atomic bomb, so they didn't want to risk having the bomb failing to explode, and being recovered by German scientists.

The US was cruel in its treatment of Germany as it was -- there was the firebombing of Dresden for instance. Howard Zinn, the Left historian, talks about how, as a member of a bomber crew at the end of WWII, he was ordered to drop an experimental weapon -- napalm, as he later found out -- on German troops that had already surrendered.

Also, I don't think the US had any idea what the effects of the atomic bomb would be, beyond simply being a really large bomb.

The US certainly harbored a lot of anti-Japanese racism, and I think that's retained in the argument that the Japanese would have fought fanatically against an invasion, so the bomb was neccessary.

FoolishOwl said...

On the "saved your asses" thing, I'm not sure how to explain it, except that growing up, almost every cartoonish depiction of war I encountered, and all the stories that other children and I made up, were either apocalyptic good vs. evil versions of how we understood the Cold War, or else some sort of account of how America, like Cinncinnatus, was called from its native humility and love of peace to save the world with its (inexplicably) gigantic armies.

Those images jarred with the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction, about which I learned when I was six, and which even at that age led me to think that there was something profoundly wrong with people who'd accept such a model.

I didn't sort things out until my late teens.

Cassandra Says said...

My Mom used to claim that I started asking her why all the politicians were so crazy that they wanted us all to die at age 5. Precocious children, eh?

Tuomas said...

I've read that the tonnage of conventional bombs dropped on Japan exceeded the amount of the total bombs dropped on Germany by a multiplier of 2.5, and the reason Tokyo wasn't a target of the A-bomb is pretty much that it was bombed already so badly.

Of course. the US was already at odds with Japan before the actual war and Pearl Harbor (US supported China in it's struggle against Japan for example). This brings in one my peeves: Did the WW2 start at 1939 when Germany invaded Poland? Yes, according to most written histories, but then, what was Japan/China (which continued pretty much throughout the WW2) that started in 1937 all about? Or Manchuria 1932? Don't they count?

Obviously, there was - and there is plenty of racism in how the media/public opinion perceives conflicts: White people dying simple count much more, it seems.

And also the willful ignorance and arrogance of right-wing Americans about WW2, especially the "we were the good guys, and didn't do anything wrong" and the "France sucks" stuff is beyond pale and pathetic. Soviet Union crushed the Nazi Germany, have to give credit where credit is due (even though I have issues with the USSR too).

Cassandra Says said...

I'm willing to bet that the chances of getting Americans to admit the existance and seriousness of a conflict in which they were not directly involved (Japan/China) is in the slim to none range. And the French surrender monkeys meme is a bunch of crap. The French endured far more during the war than the US did. And other than the Jews no-one endured more than the Russians. I believe that the current estimate of Russian war dead sits at about 20 million (many of these were from starvation).
Did you see a film called "Enemy at the Gates"? I went with an American acquaintance and she refused to admit that things in Stalingrad could have been "that bad". I later dragged her to a bookstore to see the real life pictures of starving kids and cannibalism.
It is truly amazing just how many conventional bombs the US dropped on Japan. That's why I love The Grave of the Fireflies, actually - it gets the sense of how bad things were in a very quiet and understated way.It also gets at the widespread starvation caused by the US bombardment, which most Western accounts conveniently neglect to mention.

Cassandra Says said...

For anyone who is interested in the whole subject of atomic/nuclear weapons I also highly recommend the movie When The Wind Blows. This is one of the most emotionally devastating things I've ever seen. I first saw it at about 15, and even now it still makes me cry like a baby. Great soundtrack by Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) and David Bowie too. Links below.

Tuomas said...

Yes, Enemy at the Gates was a very nice film, one of my favorite war films actually. I liked the invidual perspective it offered to perhaps the most decisive battle in the WW2. And the actors were very good for their roles. It didn't drag like some more epic war films tend to do, and it wasn't patriotic bullshit either (and how could it be - and American film about communists fighting nazis).

Tuomas said...

Mind if I advertise a little? Try Sven Lindqvist's "A History of Bombing" if you haven't done so yet. A truly insightful and personal book about racism, war, and fantasies of extermination by a Swedish pacifist.

Anonymous said...

I have previously recommended Beevor's "Stalingrad" and the sequel "Fall of Berlin." They are exceptional in that they give a sense of what the Eastern Front was like both for soldiers and for civilians.

Nobody I take seriously underestimates the role of the USSR in the second world war. Their sacrifice dwarfs all others combined -- and that's a credit to the people themselves, since Stalin only made things worse. I do take issue, however, with the notion that the USSR single-handedly won the war against Germany. Even though the Russians would ultimately, on my account, turned away the Wermacht at Stalingrad no matter what, nothing about the long German retreat was written in stone. The Anglo-American alliance, strategic bombing and African and later Italian campaigns ensured that the Russian advance would not fail. But for that, stalemate in the East was a real possibility. So, recognizing that historical "what if" is only a parlor game, I believe that if the RAF had failed in the Battle of Britain, or if Churchill's personal resolve has flagged (see the series by John Lukacs for this), then ultimately the U.S. would have been denied a European base, and the war would have been lost, and the world plunged into darkness. It sounds very Tolkein, but I think some moments in history really are that stark.

Moving on to Japan, I likewise do not know anyone that I take seriously who fails to recognize the Japanese aggression against China. (Some Americans, in fact, always did. See the AVF, commonly known as the "Flying Tigers.")

I greatly admire the Japanese for some things, especially their rapid rise as a world player. And most Americans recognize that what we did to our own citizens of Japanese ancestry is one of the blackest marks in our history (Michelle Malkin notwithstanding). I think most of us cringe at the racist "yellow peril" propoganda. Many Americans believe the decision to use atomic weapons was at least heavily infused with shoddy motivations and probably was unnecessary -- though there are certainly plenty of folks that react viscerally (and in my view, unjustifiably) against any criticism or even questioning of this decision. As a whole, I think we have a long way to go on the atomic weapons, but we've come a good way farther on our racism as a nation against Asians.

But, much like the U.S., the Japanese national sensibility does not leave room for apologies. Japan must answer for the rape of Nanking, the operations of the research unit 731, the kidnapping and violation of "comfort women," and the torture of U.S. and British prisoners of war. All nations have at some time committed atrocities, even Tibet. We in the U.S. are not especially good at acknowledging when we were wrong. The Germans have in many ways set the standard by completely repudiating the Nazi years and everything they stand for. Cassandra, you're probably closer to it than I am -- do you get any sense that there is an acknowledgement on the Japanese street that these things were wrong? Because from what I've seen, Japan has not done much in the way of coming to terms with its own sins.


Tuomas said...

Thomas: Oy, I suppose my comment didn't come across as was intended... But I have to say the strategic bombing campaigns were mostly based on the idea that you can bomb a country into submission. Didn't work for Göring in the Blitz stage, and didn't work against Germany. Barring A-bombs, strategic bombing is highly cost-ineffective and actually increases the resolve of the people to win a war. (Germany's industrial capacity grew despite the humongous amounts of resources poured on bombing German factories).

You're post is right on about Japanese aggressions, but the Eastern stalemate seems bit unlikely, the Red Army counteroffensive against Germany was beyond anything seen previously in sheer amount of firepower, and this time actually commanded by Genarals with good sense of strategy/tactics like Konev and Zhukov.

Of course, this is not to say that the Western Allies were inconsequential - far from it! In fact, had the US been isolationist and the Brits prone to armistice, the dictator who ruled all Europe could very well have been switched from Hitler and Stalin. So I didn't mean to imply that thank Russia for crushing the nazis, instead give them the main credit for that particular achievement. No major or minor player in the WW2 should be free of criticism, I think we agree on that.

Tuomas said...

"Hitler and Stalin" Hitler to Stalin, I mean.

Tuomas said...

... Of course USSR benefited greatly from arrangements like the US Lend-Lease, and indeed from the fact that quite many German troops were tied elsewhere like Africa or later France. Without these Operation Barbarossa might have succeeded by virtue of speed, and taken Moscow and Stalingrad, and perhaps forced Russians to surrender and plunged the world into darkness, indeed. (Alternative histories rock, even dark ones)

Anonymous said...

Toumas, I guess you're right that one should be cautious about understating the counteroffensive -- and I view Zhukov as a great general (not because of Beevor, either, who isn't a Zhukov worshipper). OTOH, unlike you, I never see Stalingrad going the other way. That seems strange to say, because the Russins were pressed to a tiny strip of the city along the Volga -- but they had support from across the river, an almost unlimited tolerance for casualties, and time was on their side; and because the wrecked mess of urban terrain left by the bombardment was even more conducive to defense than a less-damaged urban environment. I can see Moscow going the other way, though I can't give you a play-by-play of that one, so I could be wrong.

On the subject of strategic bombing, I'm not an Arthur Harris fan. I agree with you that it is cost ineffective and cruel to civilians -- and that most importantly, it proved all the theorists of the 1920s and 1930s wrong -- one cannot break the will of a determined people to fight by bombardment from the air. It failed against Britain, it failed against Germany.

That said, it is somewhat effective in slowing industrial production by disruption. Germany's ability to increase its output despite the bombing, I think, said as much about how far from full mobilization they were in the early years of the war.

Liddell-Hart, IIRC, makes a great point about a better method of strategic bombing. His point is, it can be used to stop movement. L-H thought the whole of the strategic bombing campaign would have been better refocussed on stopping all logistics withing German-occupied territory -- all train, barge and road traffic. Nothing gets assembled and moved to the front without internal movement, and that's a hell of a lot better way to fight a war than carpet-bombing neighborhoods.

We should recall though that part of the reason we bombed civilian centers in Germany like we did was because of the U.S. Army Air Corps' arrogance and overestimation of their own abilities. If you want evidence that we really believed that we could bomb factories without wiping out the neighborhood, look at the bill of goods that the AAC sold re: Operation Overlord. The decision to use bombs instead of naval gunfire to support the landing deprived Allied troops of the fire support that our Marines had enjoyed in places like Tarawa. Lots of men lay beneath the soil of the Cherbourg peninsula as a result of the AAC's unjustified belief that it could accurately bomb the coastal defenses. In summary, the U.S. overestimated the accuracy of air power not only when it was someone else's ass, but also when the lives of U.S. servicepeople were at stake. They just drank the kool-aid, and we're still working towards being able to do from the air what the AAC told people it could do then.

About the French, Cassandra, I think their experience in WWII can only be properly interpreted in light of WWI. When one realizes that the nation was essentially bled white just twenty years before, their willingness to make a separate peace seems, if not acceptable, then more understandable. And of course, inflated claims notwithstanding there was plenty of resistance, and there were the free French under DeGaulle. But don't underestimate the power of "vielle France." Conservative, anti-semetic, Nazi-sympathizing Vichyism was a huge constituency. Oswald Mosely was largely a joke, but there really was a goose-stepping fifth column in France. Let's not forget that Vichy volunteered to round up French Jews.


Tuomas said...

(The pedant in me compels me to point out it is Tuomas, not Toumas, but no offence taken anyway)

I agree - strategic bombing to reduce manouverability of land troops seems a reasonable tactic. Probably there was arrogance about the accurracy of bombing (isn't there even now?), but really, I think part of it was, and still is willful ignorance (if I were a bomber pilot, I probably would like to think that the bombs I'm dropping don't kill civilians and always hit important targets, but the point is moot - I'm a pacifist with unnaturally high interest in war history [well, it is a part of why I am a pacifist,you have to know what you are opposing genertally])

BTW,I wasn't exactly arguing that the spesific battle of Stalingrad could have gone either way (the river supplies is a good point, and if you look at the map, it seems a perfect opportunity to catch the attackers in a pincer movement due to the two rivers, [forgot their names]), my point was rather this: Without the Lend-Lease and the fact that Luftwaffe had spent much without gaining anything in the Battle of Britain (let's imagine the Western Allies were uninvolved at this point) the whole offensive part of Operation Barbarossa would probably have looked different (more air support for Germans etc.), with different decisive battles (perhaps Stalingrad could have been surrounded on all sides including blocking the river etc.), and might have ended in Russian defeat, before they could really get the factories churning out T-34s by tens of thousands (okay, the factories were mostly further in the Urals, but anyway).

Um, I hope Cassandra doesn't have bandwidth issues...

FoolishOwl said...

In most accounts of WWII I read before college -- including the AP history texts and so forth -- the Russians were barely mentioned. It would amount to a sentence or two about how bloody the Eastern Front was. Oh, and Stalin was in the Yalta conference.

My guess is that the importance of the Russian contribution to defeating Germany was deliberately minimized for the purposes of Cold War propaganda.

Anonymous said...

Brian, of course I think you're right about that. The polarization of the cold war has had a tremendous distortive influence on American views of history and foreign policy. I think it even colors the way we view the rise of China (I have my issues with the rise of China, but not those issues).


Cassandra Says said...

Since the subject seems to have come up, here's my opinion. There is no country and/or ethnic/tribal group anywhere in the world that does not have blood on their hands. Especially in Europe, there are no innocent parties. The former Yugoslavia is a perfect illustration of that. There's a Croatian author/journalist called Slavenka Drakulic who has written some particularly interesting work about this. Check out a book of her essays called Cafe Europa if you're interested.
As far as Japan is concerned, there has been a national recognition of the way in which Japan's own imperial aggression contributed to the dropping of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs BUT there has been no public apology of any kind for Nanking or for the comfort women (and the South Korean government has asked many times). I'm not saying that Japan is perfect by any means, but there's no justification for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The gold standard for how to deal with a country's troubled past is indeed Germany. It annoys me how many Americans insist on behaving as if Germany has not changed at all in the last 60 years. I've had to explain to people that the German parliament has more Green Party members than neo-Nazis on multiple occasions. People are dumb.

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Trent1492 said...

Hello Cassandra,

"In case anyone is wondering why the US decided to bomb one country and not the other, I think the answer is pretty clear - racism"

I am afraid you may be mistaken in your conclusions. The outstanding reason why the the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Japan and not Germany is that by July 17, 1945 when the first one was tested Germany had surrendered over two months earlier.

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