Thursday, July 19, 2012

Black, White and Shades of Grey: A Very Personal Essay On The Bombing of Hiroshima And Nagasaki

I'd like to share a story with you all today. This is a very sensitive subject and a very personal one for me. My intent isn't to change anyone's opinion on the atomic bombings of World War II, I just want people to think more deeply and respectfully about the accompanying matters of life and death. And I may say things in this post that you might disagree with. The only thing I ask is that you be respectful in your comments since I am opening up and being very vulnerable here.

My last semester at BYU in 2006 I took a small capstone humanities course. One gray fall morning the professor and the other students arrived and we were all feeling a little loopy. The professor didn't end up lecturing, everyone started talking about a bunch of randomness. I don't remember how the subject of the bombings of Japan came up, but they did. The professor (who in spite of this incident actually remains one of my favorites because of the many things I learned from him) and students pounced on the subject with almost an irate glee, condemning Truman and the military leaders of the time, dismissing the claims of "a million American lives" as pure fiction and the bombing as an act of racist imperialism. I sat silent. What could I say to people who were in such an emotional frenzy? To them it was all very black and white and simple: Japanese civilians should live, a few Americans should die. The type of thing you can wrap up in an hour long broadcast of the nightly news. I felt I couldn't even begin to articulate my thoughts verbally. I guess this is my response six years later.

I have a dirty little politically incorrect secret: I might not be here today if it weren't for the atomic bomb. In 1945 my maternal grandfather was married with two children, one a toddler about the age of Duckling and one a little older who had been institutionalized because he was brain damaged from a birth injury. My grandfather had managed to wait out the war thus far doing stints ranching and copper mining and a number of other odd jobs. But like the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, there came a time when "his number was up". He was drafted just a few months before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He probably went into basic training expecting to be among the first wave troops sent in for a long, bloody land invasion of Japan. After the bombings and subsequent surrender of Japan, he became part of the first troops sent in during the American occupation of Japan. He returned home a couple of years later to a son who didn't remember him. My Uncle Bruce recalls that a nice man showed up on the door step, gave him a piece of gum and asked him to go get his mother. My mother was the sixth of seven children born to grandparents.

The number of American soldiers who were expected to die in a land invasion of Japan has come under much criticism in the last 30 or so years. Most Americans believe that the "million" number is a complete fabrication thrown around by Truman to justify his "cowboy" diplomacy. (But before we condemn Truman as an out and out racist, I think it only fair to bring up that he was the president that mandated the racial integration of the armed forces- shade of grey.) The estimates for American casualties of Operation Downfall were, in fact, based on actual numbers of casualties incurred in the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific. Other factors were included in the calculations such as troop strength, firepower, terrain, strength of Japanese intelligence, terrain and operational plans. (If you want a detailed explanation, D.M. Giangreco wrote an excellent paper for the Journal of Military History which you can find here.) A million was a fairly reasonable estimate all things considered, possibly a bit on the high end, but when you're planning a full scale invasion, you don't base your plans on, "Gee, if we're lucky, only 100,000 soldiers will die!" You plan for the worst.

And Operation Downfall was shaping up to be a massive undertaking. It would actually have required two separate invasion forces, one coming down from the northern part of Japan, headed towards Tokyo (Operation Coronet) and one coming in from the south aimed at taking the southern port of Kyushu as a base (Operation Olympic) to further aid Operation Coronet. A few historians have argued that Japan was ready to surrender before any of this would happen, but there is a large body of evidence (including accounts from Japanese civilians who were being mobilized to fight) that this was not the case. If you want to get an idea of how big Operation Downfall was going to be, think about this: the combined Allied force that would have been assembled for Operation Olympic on November 1, 1945 would have been the largest ever assembled with 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, and 400 destroyers, plus destroyer escorts. Operation Coronet, set for March of 1946 would have been smaller, but still twice the size of the invasion force for the Battle of Normandy. And yet, the people in my capstone course were glibly talking about a land invasion of Japan as if it would have been some sort of walk in the park. The casualties would have been enormous. And there is a very good possibility that my grandfather would have been one of them.

The other thing that most Americans fail to take into account when thinking about a land invasion is the massive death toll for Japan. Japanese casualties always outnumbered American casualties. In the Battle of Luzon Japanese casualties outnumbered American at a sky high 5:1. Even on a "good day" at Iwo Jima, the Japanese still lost 1.25 men for every American soldier. If a land invasion would have cost a million American lives, it could easily have cost two million Japanese- and that's not accounting for civilian casualties. Nor does it take into account the number of other people who would have suffered during a prolonged war, like the people living in Japanese occupied China and Korea, Allied POW's, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and a few European women who were kept as comfort women, and British nationals living in Asia who were kept in internment camps. (If you've ever seen the movie Chariots of Fire, the Christian missionary runner who refused to compete on Sunday actually died in one of these camps. He sent his family back to Britain, but stayed himself to teach in the internment camps. Fascinating story.) Another thing little thought about is that there wre a number of Korean conscript laborers who died in the bombings. If asked how they felt about dying to end the war, their answer may have been very different than that of a Japanese citizen.When you start adding up the numbers, I think the amount of suffering that a prolonged war would have involved is something that people should take into consideration. The economic devastation to Japan would have been massive. More shades of grey.

And I could have respected if my classmates and professor had taken those things into account. But instead they were flippantly dismissing the suffering and deaths of millions of people saying that that kind of thing never would have happened. That was the only argument I heard from anyone is that that type of thing never would have happened. It was very disturbing to me that these people could sit in cushioned chairs in a classroom 61 years after the end of the war and smugly pass judgement on who should live and die as if they were taking the world's easiest multiple choice test and a scantron would instantly spit it back out with "100%" printed in neat little letters. And I am left with the eerie sense that somewhere some very angry people who haven't met me may have already decided that because my being here may have cost the lives of Sadako Sasaki and people like her, that I don't have any business being here. And the idea that these people may have died so that I can be here is something very sobering to me. If my life cost that much, I think I should really do something great with it. It's the only memorial I really have to give. I can't say my life is better than any of the people who perished (and I'm pretty sure Sadako would have lived a better life than my grandfather), but the idea that we think we can pass judgement so easily on matters of life and death bothers me more than anything. To me, this is an issue of greys, not a black and white test paper.

If you want read some books/ watch some movies about the last days of World War II, I highly recommend the following: (Warning: these are all tearjerkers. Keep your tissues handy)

Year of the Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi- About a Korean girl growing up during the last days of Japanese occupation of Korea and the start of the communist takeover of North Korea.

Sayonara- A movie about two American GI's and the daughter of a diplomat in Japan for the American occupation and the relationships they develop with Japanese friends/ lovers/ wives.

Empire of the Sun- This is hands down one of my favorite movies of all time. One of Steven Spielberg's best. It's a coming of age story about the son of a British diplomat living in China when the Japanese takeover. He's separated from him his parents and ends up in a Japanese internment camp. This was actually Christian Bale's debut performance as a kid and his performance was so amazing a special award was created for him for this movie. If you watch closely, you'll see Ben Stiller in a bit part in the internment camp.

A Bridge to the Sun- Unfortunately, this beautiful love story is very difficult to come by nowadays. I saw it on AMC at my Grandma's house when I was in high school and I think it's still on there once in a blue moon. I am happy to report that it is now on DVD and you can buy it on Amazon! The book is also on Amazon. This movie is based on the memoirs of Gwen Terasaki, an American woman who married a Japanese diplomat living in America before the outbreak of WWII. After Pearl Harbor, her husband is sent back to Japan and she and their daughter go with him. Mr. Terasaki later became the liaison between the Japanese Emperor and General McArthur.

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