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Remembering: A Meditation
By Rev. James B. Holiman
August 9, 2000
Today, fifty-five years ago, at 11:01 a.m., an atomic bomb exploded over the city of Nagasaki, Japan. In a sudden flash, over 50,000 persons died. Three days earlier, Hiroshima had been the target of the first atom bomb used against humankind, killing over 100,000 people within the firestorm. Untold numbers would die from the radiation poison spreading out over the world.
In August 1945 I was ten years old, living not so innocently in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Hot Springs was the site of the largest US Army-Navy Hospital. During World War II it received and treated many of the most seriously wounded military personnel. Recuperating warriors would sometimes respond to the questions small boys asked about the war, combat and killing. These stories, broken bodies, magazine photographs, and movie newsreels had begun to sour the acquired taste for heroic battle stimulated by government propaganda, military recruiters, and patriotic school activities. The family, like millions of others in that terrible time, knew "up close and personal" the cost of infinite loss. The primal scream of a neighbor who had just read a telegram regretfully informing her of the death of her son, our cousin, at Normandy, France, still rings in my ears: "EURAAAAA!"
And I also knew some things about the Holocaust and what was happening to Jewish families throughout "Christian Europe." A significant portion of Hot Springs' population was Jewish. Some of my schoolmates were children of families within the Jewish community. At one elementary school assembly, a Jewish boy created quite a stir with a prayer uttered at the end of a story about his grandparents' disappearance after the US government refused asylum to Jewish refugees: "Here I am, O Lord God, Creator and Ruler of the Universe! But where are you?"
My two sisters' husbands served in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Midway, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Iwo Jima (especially Iwo Jima) traced trajectories forever through the dark space of unknowing in my soul.
Sometime shortly after 9 August 1945 the American public was informed that all the national radio broadcasting networks would air the tape recording of the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima by the B-29 Superfortress, Enola Gay. So it was that I heard the voices of the Enola Gay flight crew describing the exploding chaotic mass of flame and cloud blossoming into an immense mushroom ascending to 50,000 feet. The voice of Capt. Robert A. Lewis, co-pilot, blasted unforgettable words into my spirit: "My God! What have we done?"
On 2 September 1945, General Douglas MacArthur, standing on the deck of the USS Missouri, tried to answer the question: "A new era is upon us. Even the lesson of victory itself brings with it profound concern, both for our future security, and the survival of civilization. Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war . . . The utter destructiveness of war now blots out this alternative. We have had our last chance. If we do not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. . . ."
Given the loss of innocence, I remember thinking that Some darn fool on the planet is gonna open that 'door'! In that moment Enlightenment Christendom ended for me and the postmodern era was born. I gathered up my camping gear, called my dog Mike, and headed off into the Ouachita Mountain National Forest. In those deep and dark woods, Mike and I began to try to understand what was happening.
But it was a time when humankind tried either to rationalize or to forget "unforgivable atrocities." Some said: "The bomb saved American lives by ending the war before the pending allied invasion of the Japanese mainland;" others argued that "It's just another weapon and should be used to end the war." Early Cold Warriors emphasized "We have to show the Soviet Union what we are capable of doing so that it will submit to the US postwar plan." The racists advocated that "The Japanese deserve to die!" From academia we heard such things as: "This marks the end of history," "the end of ideology," "the end of art," "the end of politics," "the end of God."
Some darn fool is gonna open that door! And we did. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly summed up in his I Go Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us!" The planet will never again be free of the radiation poison leaking from our stored nuclear weapons waste sites.
One of my seminary professors warned, "There are great dangers in psychoanalyzing the clinically depressed." So this meditation isn't about the melancholy into which the "angry young generation" descended during the postwar years. But I would point out that in Joseph Heller's novel on W.W.II, Catch 22, Yossarian suffers from what a medical man calls "a paranoid fear" that someone is trying to kill him; it's important to know that Yossarian is also flying bombing raids over Germany where thousands of German fighter pilots and anti-aircraft CREs are trying to do just that every time he comes over - kill him!
Death is not something postmoderns like to think about, especially our own annihilation. Perhaps that's why it's easy either to "fictionalize" our lives or to repress and divert attention away from our social and historical place with rhetorical and dramatic gestures toward some other world.
The fifty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki confronts us with historic tragedy that reaches far beyond the grasp of any rationalization. The decision to use atomic weapons against Japanese cities reveals much about the moral coarsening that had by the end of the war affected almost everyone in the American chain of command. Little by little, the terrible tactics employed by both sides throughout the war hardened all of us to horrible human costs. And now we all know just what human beings are capable of doing.
It seems to me that Howard Zinn points us toward the challenge of these days "of infamy:" "It is a problem of the corruption of human intelligence, enabling our leaders to create plausible reasons for monstrous acts, and to exhort citizens to accept those reasons, and train soldiers to follow orders. So long as that continues, we will need to refute those reasons, resist those exhortations."
This is not an easy path to walk in the dark wood. To walk it is to learn dependence upon the hospitality of the faithful few who offer sanctuary to disciples of peace with justice. It also is a path on which these same disciples must learn the strategy and tactics of resistance, the art of placing a spoke in the wheels of the engines of death (Mark 6:7-11).
James B. Holiman is ordained clergy of the
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada (ret.).
He is a member of the Urbana-Champaign Chapter of VVAW.