We call the folks in World War II the “Greatest Generation,” two simple words that summon a thousand mental images. These are the people who fought the good fight, who led heroic charges and met noble ends, who sacrificed themselves for democracy. These are people who just knew what had to be done, in a less complex time before globalization stole dad’s job, before the country was torn between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. These are the people who came home, put down their guns and boots, and invented highways and milkshakes instead of doing meth. These are the people who were too pure to conceive of neo-Nazis or school shootings, and secretly we’re happy that most died before they could find out. Thus an entire nation of hard-working, God-fearing freedom fighters who drove back the stupid nastiness of fascism is presented through the rosiest of lenses.
But when viewed more carefully, the tint darkens, and the moral parallels between World War II and Vietnam, or Iraq, or any reviled modern conflict coalesce like the sweat on an apologist’s brow. Because in this war as in all others, the U.S. bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians across the world, failed to punish acts of rape by its personnel, and allowed generals to throw soldiers into useless death-traps.
Events like these lift the veil from our eyes, if we allow it. Despite America’s love for the war of its Greatest Generation, a few items still stick out of our perfect mental image like toe-piercing shrapnel left on the white sand of your favorite Normandy beach. There’s Dresden, turned into one big flame, and the fire-bombing of Japan (shown here as the percentage per city of homes and people reduced to clouds of ash), both terrible acts which have a place in history and, thankfully, in common memory. But most ominously, most damningly, there is the shadow of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dwarfing all other crimes. And why shouldn’t it dwarf them? The use of nuclear weapons on a largely civilian population is a pretty tall order – between both bombings, around 200,000 or more people killed in a few seconds, and more subject to the unquantifiable effects of radiation. People around the world believe that this is the crowning example of America gone wrong, of our country submersed in its own bloodlust and worship of pure power, no matter the war it happened in.
The revulsion is universal. In Japan, there’s a huge memorial that’s visited by around a million people a year. In France, the artist Jean Lurçat has woven a tapestry of the event as a reinterpretation of an older, medieval tapestry depicting the apocalypse. Eisenhower – an American general! – said of Hiroshima that we never should have “hit them with that awful thing,” and a good many Americans agree with him.
This slaughter repulses me as it does everybody else. I hate the thought of bombs from my country carving keloids into people’s backs, carbonizing lunch boxes full of rice, and burning toddlers off their tricycles. I hate that 12-year-old Sadako Sasaki got leukemia and tried to fold a thousand paper cranes in an adorable, doomed effort at survival. I hate that this brutal triumph of force stems in part from the virulent racism of the war, from the propaganda depicting Japanese as yellow monkeys that was pouring out of American magazines and newspapers like pus from a syphilitic sore, from soldiers being told to “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs.”
Yet I am also disappointed that we are adamantly unwilling to entertain the possibility that nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been the right thing to do. Extinguishing 200,000 lives ended a conflict that had extinguished tens of millions (and counting), yet we act as if murdering hundreds of thousands and achieving a war-time goal that saves many more are somehow mutually exclusive. They aren’t.
And here’s why.→