Headlines from the Future: Message from Hiroshima

A recent discovery is shedding light on the century of relative peace that prevailed after the first atomic weapon was used. The document that was recently found on a small memory drive buried in layers of rubble may tell us something about the intellectual climate that prevailed in the years leading up to the great cataclysm. The document is concerned with the atomic attack on Hiroshima and the subsequent hopes to live in a world without nuclear weapons. It seems to have been delivered in Hiroshima as a speech at some time after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in 1945. However, according to archaeologists who are analyzing the text, there is a frustrating lack of clues as to who wrote these words, and there is a conspicuous, seemingly deliberate avoidance of reference to specific historical figures, events, nations and contentious ideas about how realize the goal of a nuclear-free world. One historian noted:

Aspirational essays and speeches like this began to appear within months of the bombing in August 1945, so it could have been any time over the next century. These documents were remarkable for the degree to which eloquence was combined with boilerplate, vapid, aspirational drivel that managed to refer to no actual events or serious approaches for resolving the problem under discussion. As far as this new discovery is concerned, we would love to know who spoke these words and when. For now, it at least seems to shed light on the declining culture that led to the global upheaval. Several theories are bouncing around. References in the text tell us the speaker was American, and the mention of the “genetic code” suggest it dates to the 1950s when DNA was first understood. Some believe it was authored by a beauty pageant contestant, or a high school student in a speech competition. It may have been such a person, someone who would have had little knowledge about current events, only a vague knowledge of the outline of world history, and definitely not any critical awareness of it. Another less likely theory is that it was delivered by a highly placed political figure who was painfully constrained by several factors such as public opinion, power projected through dominant bureaucracies and financial interests, as well as his or her own cognitive dissonance—the gap between long-ago stated goals and the actual record of achievement.   

The newly discovered text follows:
… years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.
Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.
Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.
It is not the fact of war that sets Hiroshima apart. Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man. Our early ancestors having learned to make blades from flint and spears from wood used these tools not just for hunting but against their own kind. On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold, compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal. Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.
The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.
In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death. There are many sites around the world that chronicle this war, memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism, graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity.
Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.
How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.
Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill.
Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.
Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.
The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.
That is why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.
Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.
Someday, the voices of the hibakusha will no longer be with us to bear witness. But the memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.
And since that fateful day, we have made choices that give us hope. The United States and Japan have forged not only an alliance but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war. The nations of Europe built a union that replaced battlefields with bonds of commerce and democracy. Oppressed people and nations won liberation. An international community established institutions and treaties that work to avoid war and aspire to restrict and roll back and ultimately eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons.
Still, every act of aggression between nations, every act of terror and corruption and cruelty and oppression that we see around the world shows our work is never done. We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.
We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics.
And yet that is not enough. For we see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale. We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.
For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.
We see these stories in the hibakusha. The woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself. The man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own.
My own nation’s story began with simple words: All men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Realizing that ideal has never been easy, even within our own borders, even among our own citizens. But staying true to that story is worth the effort. It is an ideal to be strived for, an ideal that extends across continents and across oceans. The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family — that is the story that we all must tell.
That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love. The first smile from our children in the morning. The gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table. The comforting embrace of a parent. We can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here… years ago.
Those who died, they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.
The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening. 

If you’ve read this far, the jig is up. You know this is the Hiroshima Statement read by US President Barack Obama on May 27, 2016. For the sake of setting up the satire, I deleted the two references to “seventy-one years ago.” Other than these two indications in the original, the point made here remains. This long statement is stripped of context and importance. It says nothing of substance about nuclear disarmament. The best thing to come out of the president’s visit is the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki received so much attention from the world media and the visit provoked many writers to make excellent analyses that were infinitely better than the statement delivered in Hiroshima Peace Park:

Adam Taylor, “It’s not just Hiroshima: The many other things America hasn’t apologized for,” Washington Post, May 26, 2016.

Eric Draitser, “Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy,” Stop Imperialism, May 20, 2016.

Gar Alperovitz, “We didn’t need to drop the bomb — and even our WW II military icons knew it,” Salon, May 12, 2016.

Jack Mirkinson, “America’s enduring Hiroshima shame: Why Barack Obama should apologize for the atomic bomb — but won’t,” Salon, May 12, 2016.

Miki Toda and Mari Yamaguchi, “Japanese Don’t Expect Apology from Obama During Visit to Hiroshima,” Global News, May 11, 2016.

Simon Wood, “Obama Does Hiroshima,” Dianuke.org, May 28, 2016.



Hiroshima and Nagasaki: You can't apologize for some things

-Remember who you're talking to. Master of the S.S. Samaritan... whose handsthese very hands—flung seven German officers into her fiery furnace.
-You did not.
-One after the other, kicking and squealing.
-The tale gets taller each time he tells it. Geoffrey, you know very well you didn't. The British Navy doesn't give medals to murderers.
-Well, I might have done it. I was the commanding officer responsible. You can't apologize for some things. The past fills up quicker than we know.
Under the Volcano (film dialogue)
by Malcolm Lowry

The news has just come over that for the first time a sitting president of the United States will visit Hiroshima. This has provoked the question (and the fear of many Americans) of whether Barack Obama will apologize for the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A poll showed that the majority of Americans see no need for Obama to apologize, but it is impossible to know what this means. Many of the people who feel this way obviously hold onto the belief that the bombs shortened the war or saved lives, or other such myths, while others might also believe that the attacks were a crime against humanity, but they just don’t see how an apology would serve any useful purpose.
In Malcom Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, the protagonist Geoffrey Firmin declares emphatically, “You can't apologize for some things. The past fills up quicker than we know.” This is what he says about his guilt for having been commanding officer of a British ship on which seven German prisoners were flung into the ship’s furnace. Although his conscience was haunted and it fueled his fatal alcoholism, he could find no way to apologize. Any apology would sound hollow or incomplete, and its sincerity would always be suspect. Perhaps this is why some Americans feel no apology should be made. You can apologize when you bump into a stranger, but for Hiroshima? Where would one begin, and when would one finish?
The best we can hope for at this stage is that we finally learn how to have an honest conversation about what the historical record has made clear. The need for post-hoc rationalizations will hopefully recede into the past. Below is a list of some of points that President Obama could acknowledge in Hiroshima, if he wants to make progress in his quest for a world free of nuclear weapons.

1.        The project to build the bombs was itself a recklessness endangerment of the people who made the bomb, as well as the land, flora, and fauna of America, and later the world.
2.        The bomb was recklessly developed before anyone fully understood DNA and the biological mechanisms that are harmed by radiation, before anyone understood how the nuclear age would impact all life henceforth.
3.        One of the purposes in dropping the bombs was to achieve a dominant position in the world order that would come after WWII.
4.        Peaceful alternatives were not pursued. A negotiated surrender was possible. President Truman used the bomb too hastily after it had been tested.
5.        The entry of the Soviet Union into the war was a major consideration leading to Japan’s decision to surrender.
6.        President Truman and his advisors did not listen to scientists and high ranking military commanders who advised against using the bomb on both moral and practical grounds.
7.        The atomic bombings were clearly war crimes under the laws of the day.
8.        The bombs were used partly because the Manhattan Project had too much bureaucratic inertia. No one had a plan for how atom bombs should or should not be used. Leslie Groves, the military leader in charge of the Manhattan Project pressured his scientists to finish the bomb out of a fear that the war would end before it was ready or the Soviets would "get in on the kill." He and others in the government feared the political fallout of not using the products of such a costly military program.
9.        The American public and intellectual class went to great lengths to lie about and rationalize the decision to use the atomic bombs.
10.     After the bombs were created, insufficient effort was made to avoid an arms race before it escalated out of control.

Admitting all of this would be better than any official apology that would only invite a counter-productive, heated reaction from American nationalists. But the main reason is you just can't apologize for some things, and this doesn’t mean the perpetrator is unaware of or unburdened by what he has done. It’s a mistake to expect an apology for such a colossal act of murder. There is a reason such things are called unspeakable acts, and I suspect the Japanese know this. They have decided that there is a distant goal more worthy than the selfish satisfaction of hearing an apology. If president Obama prefers, he could refer to the historical record as “mistakes” or “tragic alternatives not taken,” or whatever he wants to call them. He could even use that word that Japanese officials love to use whenever sorry seems to be the hardest word in a conversation about the Japanese Empire. It’s all just so damn regrettable (ikan'na遺憾な), isn’t it? Let’s just leave it at that. President Obama would do the world a service if he would just set the record straight once and for all, and maybe show some appreciation for the historians who have examined the fake controversy and rationalizations for the last seventy years and found evidence for alternative explanations.
     But who am I kidding with this contorted proposal for getting around the need to say that emotionally loaded word "sorry"? By definition, a good apology consists of an admission of misdeeds and the suffering they caused, as well as a promise by the apologizer that the misdeeds will not be repeated. This promise is logically implicit in the admission, so the proposal outlined above would actually be a de facto apology that only lacks mention of the words "sorry" and "apology." In fact, this de facto apology would be better than just a vague apology that refers to nothing specifically. Unfortunately, the ten-point list above includes many elements of contemporary defense doctrine that America and other great powers adhere to (such as refusing to negotiate toward a peaceful settlement, disobeying international law) to advance their strategic interests in the world, so President Obama will avoid making any admission of past mistakes because he does not want to imply that America has given up these old habits. He will come to Peace Park in Hiroshima, bow his head at the appropriate times, and say a few platitudes about working toward a world without nuclear weapons, but the implicit message in everything said and unsaid will amount to "Sorry, not sorry."  

Other views:

Adam Taylor, "It’s not just Hiroshima: The many other things America hasn’t apologized for," Washington Post, May 26, 2016.

Eric Draitser, "Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy," Stop Imperialism, May 20, 2016.

Gar Alperovitz, “We didn’t need to drop the bomb — and even our WW II military icons knew it,” Salon, May 12, 2016.
President Obama will finally visit Hiroshima. Moral leadership suggests both sides apologize for unspeakable acts.

Obama will become the first sitting president to ever visit the site of one of America's greatest crimes. 

Miki Toda and Mari Yamaguchi, "Japanese Don't Expect Apology from Obama During Visit to Hiroshima," Global News, May 11, 2016.