I don’t know why really, but I’ve always wanted to go. Certainly not for macabre reasons but I just wanted to see for myself. I’ve read a lot about those years, that eventful day, and the impact to humanity. But reading was not enough, I needed to go… I needed to feel.
Michele and I stepped off the trolley bus last Sunday morning greeted by overcast skies. The calm winds and steady rain added to an odd quietness. Sidewalks were filled with umbrellas and ponchos heading in a common direction so we fell in line with the crowds. Near the Aioi bridge we turned on a path along the Ota River and got our first view of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku) in Hiroshima, Japan.
Once the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, this decimated brick and concrete building is now preserved as a memorial of the bombing and a symbol of peace.
Standing on the sidewalk staring at the crumbled walls I realized the real source of the stillness in the air. No one, not a single person, was saying a word. It reminded me of entering the grand Cathedrals and Basilicas in Europe – there was a universal respect that demanded silence. I looked above the top of the dome and imagined the burst of light and searing heat that in an instant ended 75,000 lives. Fire spread throughout the city destroying many square miles of wooden buildings and homes.
Up to 150,000 people died from the blast itself or from subsequent fires and residual radiation related health issues. Blinking helped clear the tears but could not lift my heavy heart. Even though only one building remains today as a reminder, the human tragedy was easy to imagine.
The purpose of this post is not to reopen the debate on the use of the atomic bomb that ended WWII but we need to try to understand this history so that we can learn from it.
- Was it necessary to drop the bomb in order to save American and Japanese lives that would otherwise been lost in a mainland invasion? Perhaps.
- Was the decision fueled by revenge for the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atrocities of the Japanese armies in WWII? Perhaps.
- Were the post-WWII relations with the Soviet Union a factor in deciding to drop the bomb? Perhaps.
- Was the use of the bomb on a largely civilian target morally defensible? Perhaps.
These and many other historical factors and questions are interesting and I think everyone should invest some time in research trying to understand August 1945. Endless sources are available on the internet (Google: ‘decision to drop the atomic bomb’) if you wish to explore the decision from a historical and even a moral perspective. For now, however, I want to continue to share my personal responses to the visit.
President Obama had visited this site just two days prior and although I’m not a fan of our President’s politics I must credit him with some very insightful comments in the speech he delivered. (You can read the entire transcript by clicking HERE). In any event, Mr. Obama correctly pointed out that the tragedy of war is part of our species. He said:
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…
Speaking of WWII he continued:
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.
Mr. Obama is correct. We are a fallen people with a propensity for and consistent history of violent selfishness. The President got a little off track when he singled out religious faith and prejudices as causes of global conflicts. But then I think the train completely derailed when he suggested that the work of human diplomats could forge a new moral foundation required to prevent future wars.
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.
Read that excerpt again. The President clearly indicated that human technical developments like atomic weapons must be matched with HUMAN MORAL INSTITUTIONS in order to control them.
Mr. President I agree that we need a moral revolution but I don’t think you understand – all morality is sourced in God and not humanity. Without God, morality cannot even be defined or measured and to expect humans to set such moral standards, let alone live by them, is preposterous. As a global society, the farther we drift from God and replace His ideas of right and wrong with our own, the more we (falsely) believe that our own human reason alone can propel us to peace. As that occurs then we are certain to repeat the tragedies of history. And this leads us to the source of real hope.
After the atomic bombing, rumor had it that nothing would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years. Then, just months after the bombing, red canna flowers became the first to bloom in the charred rubble. They were a tremendous source of courage and hope for the Hiroshima residents who had evacuated to the countryside.
The efforts of diplomats and presidents and emperors were powerless to cause these flowers to bloom.
The president concluded with a wonderful comment on the uniqueness of mankind.
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 certainly have the unique free will to make decisions that oppose our natural instincts. Only mankind was created this way. The question is how are we best equipped to recognize and make the correct moral decisions in the future?
Adjacent to the atomic dome is the Hiroshima Peace Park that includes a beautiful commemorative monument to the causalities of August 6th, 1945. The curved monument arch frames in the foreground a flame of peace said to be extinguished only when the earth is free of all nuclear weapons and in the distance the Atomic Dome building. Appropriately, at the front face of the archway stood two banks flowers that seemed like the perfect place to leave my own simple memorial. From our Easter week services in California, I brought a small cross made out of palm fronds and placed it in these flowers.
The President is correct – if we learn the lessons of Hiroshima we can tell our children a different story. But the story of hope is not one of better days when human institutions of peace and cooperation are invented and put in place. The lesson of Hiroshima is not really about atomic bombs, or their use, or even war itself. The lesson of Hiroshima is about realizing and embracing what really brings things back to life after brutal tragedy. The eternal hope for mankind grew out of tragedy on a small hill 2000 years ago and we can never forget it.
I felt the tragedy of Hiroshima – it was real and personal. But I also know there is real hope…and that is the story I will share with my children and grandchildren.