More on the anniversary week of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

There have been many religious voices over the years who have looked back at the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and called for us to reexamine our relationship with those events specifically, as well as WMDs, even war in general. This week is a good time to recall those voices.

in a 1987 memorial for the bombings, Ginny Earnest gave a powerful speech imploring us to stop abstracting the events, but to rather understand their impact in human terms.

But we know that what happened on this day, 41 years ago, was so much more than an abstract symbol of a strategic choice. We must attempt to understand the meaning of the events of those days from a different vantage point—up close and through the eyes of compassion, where it will affect us…

…As John Hershey first wrote in 1946, the use of the atomic bomb was first of all an intimate, personal, and highly individual experience. It is from this perspective, this vantage point—the suffering of real people—that it is the most difficult. It is also the only way to compassion and real understanding. It is perhaps the only way to honestly remember.

For each person, the bomb fell at a particular moment in their personal history. It was this intimate reality much more than an event in the history of the struggle between nations. We have heard the account of the survivors—the testimony of the witnesses—and are led to see what it must have been like. We have a picture of life the moment before the flash.

There is a man riding a streetcar on his way to work. He has said good-bye to his wife and children for another day.

There is a woman walking up the street on her way to the market.

There is a school-aged child—among the thousands of school children—talking with a friend, working at a desk, playing in the school yard.

There is a clerk in a department store.

There is a doctor making rounds in a hospital.

There is an old man sitting on a front porch.

Each survivor remembers exactly what they were doing at the moment of the flash. I would imagine that many people thought immediately of a person they loved and wondered where they were and if they were safe…

…The people who died there were not all good people. Neither were they the heartless enemies of all war-time propaganda.

They were simply—and very much to the point—just like us.

Those who died immediately—some 190,000—died person by person, one by one. Each story constitutes an individual tragedy. The chronicles of those who lived for a time and then died are difficult to listen to. We cannot look at the films and photographs for very long. For those who survived and carry the memory with them, nothing has been the same since then. All of life changed in an instant…

…We must remember and witness, my friends, because the unthinkable has happened, and since that time, our government has based our national security on the assurance that we are prepared to do it again (“There Will be a Man in a Streetcar”).

George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Army air force, served as priest and pastor for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over the years, he came to understand the horror of those strikes, and was personally convicted regarding his complicity, ignorant though it was. He became a passionate advocate of nonviolence. In 1980 he conducted an interview with Charles McCarthy, founder of the Center for the Study of Nonviolence at the University of Notre Dame.

As a chaplain I often had to enter the world of the boys who were losing their minds because of something they did in war. I remember one young man who was engaged in the bombings of the cities of Japan. He was in the hospital on Tinian Island on the verge of a complete mental collapse.

He told me that he had been on a low-level bombing mission, flying right down one of the main streets of the city, when straight ahead of him appeared a little boy, in the middle of the street, looking up at the plane in childlike wonder. The man knew that in a few seconds this child would be burned to death by napalm which had already been released.…

…The whole structure of the secular, religious, and military society told me clearly that it was all right to “let the Japs have it.” God was on the side of my country. The Japanese were the enemy, and I was absolutely certain of my country’s and Church’s teaching about enemies; no erudite theological text was necessary to tell me. The day-in-day-out operation of the state and the Church between 1940 and 1945 spoke more clearly about Christian attitudes toward enemies and war than St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas ever could.

I was certain that this mass destruction was right, certain to the point that the question of its morality never seriously entered my mind. I was “brainwashed” not by force or torture but by my Church’s silence and whole-hearted cooperation in thousands of little ways with the country’s war machinehellip;

…To fail to speak to the utter moral corruption of the mass destruction of civilians was to fail as a Christian and a priest as I see it. Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in and to a world and a Christian church that had asked for it—that had prepared the moral consciousness of humanity to do and to justify the unthinkable…

…Christians the world over should be taught that Christ’s teaching to love their enemies is not optional. I’ve been in many parishes in my life, and I have found none where the congregation explicitly is called upon regularly to pray for its enemies. I think this is essential.

Powerful perspectives worth considering.

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8 Responses to “More on the anniversary week of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”

  1. WP Says:

    I have personally visited Hiroshima. It is a very troubling and mournful place but also one of some spiritual promise as these weapons might never be used again. From the Japanese point of view I found the explantion for their use entirely different than those espoused by our government over the years. It is to the victor that the writing of subjective and slanted history is awarded.

    As President Kimball observed on the anniversary of the Bicentennial of this country, ‘We are a very war like people.’

  2. Derek Staffanson Says:

    I’ll bet it was a fascinating visit. I would be curious to know what they see as the purpose for the bombing—and even the cause of the Pacific war in WWII. I’ll bet both are quite different than the standard U.S. line. But as you say, the victors get to write the history books. It just amazes me how willing we are to uncritically buy the official dogma.

    Lets hope we make good on the promise that the weapons never be used again—and further that we find ways to avoid all the catastrophes of war in the future.

  3. Aaron Orgill Says:

    If you want a fascinating movie based on the Japanese viewpoint, I highly recommend Letters From Iwo Jima. Flags of Our Fathers tells the same story from the American viewpoint. Both are great films, neither demonizing the other side, and probably more like the real story of any war: a great waste of life, with both sides having their heroes and villains.

  4. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Here’s a pretty good test for you: are you praying for President Bush? And all the mainstream, LDS Republicans you consider to be so far from the true gospel? I don’t know what churches this man went to, but I disagree that you never hear the congregation called upon to pray for its enemies. Whether they actually do it or not is another story, because people are imperfect.

  5. jared Says:

    with war to have a side prevail you have to bring the other side to its knees. this was what Pres. Truman chose to do and it was a choice that had to be made and it was an agonozing on too. Sure we could’ve used conventional bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima but that wouldn’t have done anything except prolong things. Japan would’ve kept fighting until their last man,woman,or child standing that could fight.

    unfortunately we learn that every battle will have it’s collateral damage.
    it happened in Boston, it happened in Atlanta, it happened in Warsaw, it happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,it happened in Saigon, it happened in New York, and now it’s happening in Kabul and Baghdad. It is unavoidable.

  6. Derek Staffanson Says:

    You can believe the conventional rationalization about the bombs if you’d like, Jared. And you’re right, war is hell. Things happen including the deaths of innocents (which is perhaps why President Kimball warned us to avoid war and stop being such a warlike people. Too bad we’re ignoring his counsel).

    But you are gravely mistaken if you consider the bombing of Japanese civilians—whether by atom bombs or napalm— “collateral damage.” Collateral damage is the incidental and unintentional damage of non-military targets (ie, the unintentional murder of civilians and destruction of their property) while attempting to defeat their military. Those bombs were deliberately dropped on civilian targets. That was not collateral damage, but terrorism, pure and simple.

  7. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Very true, it was terrorism. But he is right that war doesn’t usually end until one side is completely devastated, especially a nation where “face” is considered of the utmost importance, ahead of life itself. And if you look at it from a theological sense, since WWII was not started by the U.S., and we in fact went out of our way to stay out of it, I tend to believe that we were blessed in our endeavors. And we used terrorism to end the war. I still believe that the single most shameful thing we did in WWII was to incarcerate our own citizens of Japanese descent. And I don’t think there’s a close second.

  8. Derek Staffanson Says:

    You’re right. Because the natural man and pride often reign supreme in war, they are typically fought until the one side is devastated, and each side does indeed make astonishing claims to demonize the enemy and rationalize their violence.

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