Atomic anniversary

Posted on August 6, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

War has never been more hellish than it was on this date in 1945, when 140,000 souls were vanquished beneath the atomic inferno unleashed on Hiroshima, Japan.

Three days later, on Aug. 9, another 80,000 Japanese citizens perished beneath the nuclear fireball over Nagasaki.

The dual detonations were punctuation points to six months of fire falling from the skies over Japanese cities. The Allies had adopted a strategic firebombing strategy targeting 67 cities in Japan in February 1945. The incendiary bombs were both destructive and deadly, and by July had destroyed more than 50 percent of the surface area of 32 of those cities and killed more than a half-million Japanese.

Every passing year puts more distance between us and our immutable past. As the veils of censorship, myth and propaganda fall away with time, even the firestorm over the morality (or immorality) of President Harry Truman’s decision pales against the sheer incomprehensible nature of atomic warfare.

Little more than a week ago, 11 new photos of Nagasaki taken one week after the blast were discovered. Like other pictorial records of the devastation, this new batch defies description. The silhouettes of vaporized humans left on walls and pavements. The skin hanging from seared bodies, dead and alive. The melted concrete, the twisted metal, the rubble stretching to the horizon.

Aerial before-and-after photos of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem quaintly unreal in our Photoshop world. Those taken prior to the first week of August display in minute detail houses and buildings and roads and cars and trees and roadways and bridges and even walkways-a ghostly black-and-white rendition of a Google Maps satellite image.

The photos taken after the bombings depict a landscape wiped clean, as if the original pictures had been carefully drawn on a huge Etch A Sketch that was then shaken, leaving only the largest landmarks like rivers or cathedrals recognizable.

So horrific were the visions captured immediately after the atomic attacks that the U.S. government clamped down on them with the utmost censorship. Despite a demeanor of victorious justification in the public eye, even Truman reportedly shuddered in his private moments at what he saw.

The War Department had portrayed Hiroshima as a target of “military importance.” Truman himself repeated the claim immediately after the bombing. In truth, 65 percent of the instantly killed or fatally injured victims were age 9 or younger.

Even two years after the war ended, U.S. officials were careful not to let truth interfere with public perception about the use, and the results, of atomic weapons. Authors Greg Mitchell and Robert Jay Lifton noted in The Nation that the 1947 film “The Beginning or the End?” was replete with White House-dictated revisions.

For example, in its earliest scripts, the movie raised questions about the use of atomic energy as a weapon and set out to show shocking images of the burned-up cities and casualties, including a baby with a scorched face. But by the time it hit theaters, it only reinforced the answers skeptics had already been given-and took a few more liberties with the truth for good measure.

Gone were any images of victims, as if an attack with no warning over a bustling city could be a victimless event. No detail was left unmanaged for effect. The name of the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, “Bockscar,” was changed to “Necessary Evil”; the city of Nagasaki was edited out altogether. The B-29 aircraft over Hiroshima, which in reality was ignored as it approached its target, is shown in the movie being pelted with heavy flak.

In perhaps the most egregious of factual misrepresentations, the movie propagated the myth that leaflets were dropped over Hiroshima warning of the attack. Leaflets had been dropped in advance over many of the firebombing targets, as well as many that weren’t targeted, for psychological impact, but Hiroshima’s residents received no warning at all.

In fact, the primary atomic targets, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kokura, were all intentionally left unbombed to effectively gauge the destruction of the nuclear explosions.

Perhaps the war-weary public in the late 1940s wasn’t capable of handling the truth, but too many decades have passed now to allow the charade to continue. It’s not a sign of weakness or meanness to admit that war often brings out the worst in mankind and eliminates any real notion of moral superiority in battlefield strategy.

For the first time in the ensuing 65 years since the bombings, an official delegation from the United States government is set to attend the memorial service marking the Hiroshima anniversary. Nobody expects any sort of apology about the atomic bombing, and certainly the Japanese have plenty of atrocities for which their own apologies are long overdue. At least and at long last, if nothing else, maybe both countries can look upon that symbolic city and feel nothing but sadness.

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