Friday, May 27, 2016
From Hiroshima, America built a self-serving myth
Peter Van Buren, who worked for the US state department in Iraq, says America’s justification for destructive attacks abroad literally began with its dropping of the first atomic bomb
TODAY Barack Obama becomes the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing. Though highly photogenic, the visit will otherwise be one that avoids acknowledging the true historical meaning of the place.
Like his official predecessors (secretary of state John Kerry visited the Peace Memorial in early April, as did two American ambassadors before him), Obama will not address the key issues surrounding the attack.
“He [Obama] will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, stated well ahead of time.
With rare exception, the question of whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end the Second World War is debated only deep within the safety of American academic circles:
- Could a land invasion have been otherwise avoided?
- Would more diplomacy have achieved the same ends without the destruction of two cities?
- Could an atomic test on a deserted island have convinced the Japanese?
- Was the surrender instead driven primarily by the entry of the Soviets into the Pacific War, which, by historical accident, took place two days after Hiroshima — and the day before Nagasaki was immolated?
But it is not only the history of the decision itself that is sidestepped. Beyond the acts of destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen.
The short version of the atomic myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were not dropped out of revenge or malice, but of grudging military necessity. As a result, the attacks have not generated deep introspection and national reflection over their morality.
The use of the term “myth” is appropriate. Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new, extraordinary power the United States alone possessed. The military necessity argument was largely created later, in a 1947 article defending the use of the atomic bomb, written by former secretary of war Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Conan described the article’s purpose at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”
The Stimson article was a response to journalist John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in The New Yorker and later as a book. Due to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required that formal White House response. Americans’ general sense of themselves as a decent people needed to be reconciled with what was done in their name. The Stimson article was the moment the Hiroshima myth was created.
The national belief that no moral wrong was committed with the atomic bombs, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection (the blithe way Nagasaki is treated as a historical afterthought — “and Nagasaki, too” –— only drives home the point), echoes forward through today. It was 9/11, the new Pearl Harbor, that started a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition, and indefinite detention are seen by most as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization [in America] that if we do it, it is right.
And with that, the steps away from the violence of Hiroshima and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are merely a matter of degree. The myth allows the world’s most powerful nation to go to war as a victim after the tragic beheadings of even a small number of civilians. Meanwhile, the drone deaths of children at a wedding party are seen as unfortunate but only collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism itself. It is a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified, simply based on who held the knife.
We Americans may, in fact, think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands to otherwise end the war. There is little debate in the “war on terror” because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says an illusion of expediency wipes away any concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to strike next.
Japan, too, is guilty of failing to look deep into itself over its own wartime acts. Yet compared to the stunning array of atrocities during and since the Second World War, the world’s only use of nuclear weapons still holds a significant place in infamy. To try and force the Japanese government to surrender (and nobody in 1945 knew if the plan would even work) by making it watch mass casualties of innocents, and then to hold the nation hostage to future serial attacks on defenseless cities with the promise of more bombs to come, speaks to a cruelty previously unseen.
For President Obama to visit Hiroshima without reflecting on the why of that unfortunate loss of lives, as if they occurred via some natural disaster, is tragically consistent with the fact that for 71 years no American president felt it particularly important to visit the victimised city. America’s lack of introspection over one of the 20th century’s most significant events continues, with 21st-century consequences.
Peter Van Buren, who served in the US state department for 24 years, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
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Thursday, May 26, 2016
Fallujah has been in trouble since the US invaded in 2003. In the late Baath period under Saddam Hussein, in the 1990s and early zeros, Fallujah was a center both of Baathism (secular Arab nationalism and socialism) and of a growing Salafi fundamentalism, inspired in part by the brutality of the Israeli regime toward Gaza and in part by Jordanian truckers and smugglers who had come under Saudi, Wahhabi influence.
Iraq’s Fallujah: Grand Ayatollah Sistani Calls on Shiite Forces to protect Civilians
By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistine on Wednesday called on both regular Iraqi army forces and the popular mobilization units (Shiite militias) to avoid killing innocent noncombatants as they close in on Fallujah.
An hour west of Baghdad and largely peopled by the Sunni Arab Dulaym tribe, Fallujah has been in trouble since the US invaded in 2003. In the late Baath period under Saddam Hussein, in the 1990s and early zeros, Fallujah was a center both of Baathism (secular Arab nationalism and socialism) and of a growing Salafi fundamentalism, inspired in part by the brutality of the Israeli regime toward Gaza and in part by Jordanian truckers and smugglers who had come under Saudi, Wahhabi influence.
The George W. Bush administration overthrew the Baath and put a condominium of religious Shiite parties and Kurdistan nationalist parties in power in Iraq, demoting the previously dominant Sunni Arabs to second class citizens. Some in Fallujah took up arms against the US and the new, Shiite-dominated government. Others accepted the new reality and joined the local police. One of the groups that became ensconced in the city was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Tawhid (Unity), which morphed into al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and ultimately into Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). Bush destroyed Fallujah in November of 2004, allegedly in an attempt to wipe out terrorism there. It turns out destroying a city just doesn’t make for social peace. If anything, al-Qaeda and then Daash were strengthened by the government’s hard line against them.
Fallujah fell to Daesh in January of 2014, which turned out to be a harbinger for the entire Sunni Arab region of the country. By mid-June, the major city of Mosul had fallen.
The Iraqi government feels that it has to retake Fallujah before launching an assault on the metropolis of Mosul in the north.
But as Sistani’s statement suggests, there are many who fear that the popular mobilization units are just Shiite vigilantes and may be looking for reprisals against Sunnis.
Sistani’s spokesman in Karbala, And al-Mahdi al-Karbala’i, underscored that it is necessary to abide by the laws of jihad, which forbid killing innocent non-combatants, even when non-Muslims are being fought.
On the other hand, some of the shine on this campaign may have come off a little when al-Karbala’i described it as a jihad.
The Iraqi military and the Shiite militias have closed in on Fallujah since Saturday, liberating a dozen or so villages.