Has Hiroshima become too "normal"?

Scrutinizing culture.
March 25 2008 1:46 PM

Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima

Has the ground zero of the nuclear age become too "normal"?

(Continued from Page 2)

Of course, this doesn't include the 60 or so other monuments whose purpose is peace without using the word peace, such as the Monument of the Hiroshima Gas Company.

Needless to say, every monument or pond or flame or stone is an admirably earnest and understandable response to a horrible tragedy of war—and a strain of responsibility to the dead, that their death be a sacrifice, or sacralized. In one of the two peace museums (I forget which), you see them characterized as "the sacred dead." They died so we could see the result of our sins, our Faustian bargain with the unstable interior of the atom—an analog, perhaps, of the unstable interior of the human soul.

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No one monument can say that, but yet one has to admire the civic culture of Japan for managing to get permits for so many memorials. Still, at some point a critical mass (not the best phrase) of peace tchotchkes turns Peace Park into a kind of frenzied Peace Clutter, complete with a souvenir stand selling T-shirts and those sticky-sweet Japanese snacks in their radiation-hued pastel packages.

The Peace Clutter also speaks to a recognition the 9/11 planners can't seem to get through their head: There's no single design, no matter how famous the architect, that's going to do justice to the sorrow it commemorates. What it says to the 9/11 clutter of memorial groups is: Be more like Hiroshima, get something up there, give everyone a shot at it, get 74 smaller things built rather than waiting for the perfect world-peace-ensuring design to show up to make One Big Statement About It All.

But the complexities, the politics of memorializing, pale beside the passion over the precise history—actually, the precise historical context of the bombing. Hiroshima is not just a city but a "site of contestation," as they say. And when one enters the Peace Museum and reads the words on the wall and in the guide, troubling questions of that nature arise. While the museum tries to avoid any overt politicizing, there are moments of understatement—or rather un-statement—that nag at you.

In discussing the run-up to the world war, for instance, one wall text merely states, "Japan took the path of war." Somber and sad, dignified, not exculpatory in an obvious way. But the spiritualized tone of the word path elides the fact that Japan didn't make a dignified choice: In the '30s, Japan made war, used chemical and biological weapons against armies in China, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians on the way to starting the Pacific War that ended with Hiroshima.

As Herbert P. Bix, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, described the role of the deified Japanese emperor throughout this period: "Hirohito's actions [in the '30s] fit a pattern of exterminating people while enveloping oneself in moral humanitarian rhetoric that was just as much Western as Japanese." "Exterminating" is strong language, and I don't think Bix means it in the Hitlerian sense of exterminating an entire people. But it makes you wonder, where is the "Peace Park" commemorating these deaths?

What makes one death worthy of Peace Park star treatment while so many others languish in obscurity? Radiation alone? No, I think I know why. It has something to do with the potential extinction of the human species.

And before the visitor knows it, the museum throws him into a different controversy. Was it necessary to drop the bomb at all? This is a perennial argument that was reignited in 1995 with the publication of Gar Alperovitz's book The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb. It created a controversy by arguing that Japan was trying to surrender in the days before the bomb was dropped, and the bomb was dropped despite the surrender talks in order for the United States to demonstrate military superiority, terrifying nuclear supremacy, in the embryonic Cold War rivalry with the USSR.

The Peace Memorial version gives two reasons (and only two) why the bomb was dropped when Japan was effectively defeated and on the brink of surrendering—though how close to the brink is at the heart of the debate. One reason is economic. The museum poster says that the United States spent more than $2 billion "in gold" to manufacture the bomb, so there was great pressure to use it to get our money's worth. (In other words, the Soulless Mercenary Rationale.)

And secondly—and here's where the memorial echoes Alperovitz's work—the United States knew that the Japanese were secretly discussing peace terms with the Soviets, because the United States had broken the Japanese "Purple" code. Thus, the United States raced to use the bomb before the Japanese could surrender, with the goal of intimidating the Soviets. (The anti-Communist-crusade rationale.)

No mention is made that there were those who sincerely believed that using the bomb would save more lives than it took by obviating the need for a U.S. invasion of the Japanese home islands and the horrible cost in lives that would result—on the order of Hiroshima's hundreds of thousands or several times more. Some attribute this as a sincere motive of Harry Truman, whose ultimate decision it was. Others argue a more Machiavellian power-politics agenda behind Truman's public rationale.

Here, Hirohito biographer Bix disagrees with Alperovitz on how to interpret the Japanese secret contacts with the Soviets, and he almost seems to reply directly to the Alperovitz-inspired language on the Peace Memorial Museum wall. He writes that "neither the emperor nor the Suzuki government ever devised a concrete plan on the basis of which the Soviets could mediate an end to the hostilities, assuming the Soviets were ever interested in doing so, which they were not. ... [N]egotiations with the Soviets to guarantee the emperor's political position and the future of the monarchy was always accorded more importance than the search for peace to end the killing and suffering."

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