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Once Upon a Time in Hiroshima

If we keep casting ourselves as the heroes of history, it’ll come back to haunt us

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
Aug 5, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

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Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a great nation — a protector of peace and a leader of the free world. This country was in a race against time — against evil, feverish enemies who hoped to enslave the world — and it won. It spent two billion dollars on the greatest achievement of organized science in history, on a marvelous weapon that would save 250,000, maybe even a million American lives.

The weapon was developed safely, dropped on a military base to avoid killing civilians, and was only used at all because the enemy had refused to surrender. It ushered in a new era of understanding nature; it was the foundation to a future source of mankind’s daily energy; it was also, in the words of the president, a “powerful and forceful influence towards the maintenance of world peace.”

Or maybe the story goes another way.

Once upon a time, a single plane appeared in a blue morning sky and vaporized more than 80,000 people. Almost entirely women, young children, and the elderly. Their country was at war, yes, but by then almost nothing was left of their Navy or Air Force. They had run out of oil, and factory workers were falling asleep on their feet at assembly lines where there were no materials for bullets. These soon-to-be-dead people were eating grass and grasshoppers because there was no food. The country was on the verge of collapse, and had tried repeatedly for seven months to surrender. The leader of the great nation from where the plane had flown freely admitted that he hated the “Japs,” and didn’t see them as human, stating, “When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.” Plus, he had two new weapons he wanted to test out. He gave the order, and three days later, with the country still reeling and in shock from the first attack, he dropped a second bomb.

The first story is taken directly from President Truman’s own statements about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima 73 years ago, and it sounds a whole lot better. But just like so many of the excuses and rewrites that we are confronting in our culture today, it carries within it a poison that is killing us. As horrible as the second story is, the first is the one we should fear.

Don’t believe me? Let me start again, then.

Let me start, this time, with a story about myself.

When I was growing up, I knew very little about Hiroshima, and what I did know was typical of what many Americans knew: that the bomb was a marvelous weapon that saved lives and ended the war. When I was about 30, however, I interviewed my great aunt who had been in Hiroshima with the American Occupation and had seen the destruction first hand. She told me about her experiences as a translator for American doctors who were trying to convince grieving mothers to give up the bodies of their stillborn babies for scientific study. She told me about the disfigured Hiroshima Maidens whose injuries took over 30 surgeries to fix. She told me about the massive American cover-up. She was so angry. I confess, it was too much for me. I couldn’t hear what she was saying then. It was years before I could finally get my head around it enough to see if it was true.

It was true. And what’s more, it was pretty well documented. General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific, said his staff was “unanimous in believing that Japan was on the point of collapse and surrender.” McGeorge Bundy, the ghost-writer who invented the oft-repeated justification that the bomb averted “over a million” American casualties, admitted that he pulled the figure out of thin air. It’s a fact that the New York Times reporter who had exclusive access to the bomb sites was on salary with the U.S. War Department, and was paid to write that the surface radiation in Hiroshima had dwindled to almost nothing after two months, even as he was told to wear heavy shoes to protect himself from the radiation.

It’s also a fact that films and images of the damage were censored, and that the U.S. survey team’s own footage was labeled top secret and hidden for thirty years because, in the words of Lt. Col. Daniel A. McGovern, “the Pentagon…didn’t want those [film] images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child….They didn’t want the general public to know what their weapons had done — at a time they were planning on more bomb tests.”

Auntie Mary had not made it up.

Now I was the one who was shocked and angry. I had been lied to throughout my youth, and I wanted to shout about it from the rooftops. I went to Hiroshima to interview the survivors and was surprised to find a third story there.

In this once upon a time, some 200,000 people had died in the bomb and the subsequent radiation poisoning. The details of the day were so hard to bear that almost everyone I interviewed had different specifics to share: “It was hot,” one person told me. “It was beautiful.” “There were so many people.” “It was so quiet. I don’t remember a single sound.” In the memories they recounted, the rivers were so clogged with dead bodies that you could walk over them. Babies covered in burns were trying to nurse at their dead mothers’ breasts as the city went up in flames.

What I learned in Japan was that we tell our stories to survive.

What I learned in Japan was that we tell our stories to survive. We make them up to make sense of ourselves and what has happened to us (or what we’ve done). Whether government- or self-constructed, the mind rejects what is too terrible to live with.

We choose.

Who wouldn’t want that choice? To be the hero? Or the savior? Far better to make our story up than to see ourselves as a racist and terrorist nation, or to accept the possibility that our loved ones died a meaningless death.

But when we choose erasure, we also choose the fallout. In America, we trusted our government, the one that censored the films because the images were too horrible. Since then, more than 2,000 nuclear test bombs have been exploded, and more than 14,000 nuclear weapons have been created. And that new era of power Truman mentioned? More than three-quarters of America’s nuclear power plants are leaking. And then there are the accidents, like the one in 2011 in Fukushima, where the government is still dumping tons of radioactive water into the ocean, and is still seeking a viable way to address its nearly 2,000 tons of spent fuel.

These are some of the results of the “marvelous weapon” narrative. We know of them, but we don’t seem to care. The question is, why? Why are these dangers as invisible to us as, say, radiation? There a very good reason.

We can’t learn from our mistakes if we were never told we made any.

But we can make very deadly mistakes based on our refusal to face the truth.

One of the greatest dangers of Truman’s Hiroshima story is our belief in our own “super power.” After 9/11, Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and well-known expert on Hiroshima, warned Bill Moyers that,

“We connect ourselves with the idea of being more than ordinarily powerful, super power, it’s more than natural, and it has to do with a sense of omnipotence in the world….We’ve gotten into a cycle of violence so that we’ve responded very violently to the terrorism first by the war in Afghanistan and now the threatened war on Iraq. The plan to invade Iraq has to do with an American intolerance of any vulnerability and a sense to annihilate whatever is perceived as threatening us.”

In 2018, our “sense to annihilate” has become dangerously clear. Donald Trump’s recent threats to other countries echo President Truman’s promise of a “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Here is Trump to North Korea: “best not make any more threats to the U.S. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And his all-cap tweeting at Iran: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

It is evident that certain phrases have sunk into our national psyche, but there is no evidence at all that our current leader is aware of the true effects and consequences of nuclear weapons, nor that he has a healthy respect for their dangers. And there is no counterbalance in the leaders who stand silently beside him. Quite the opposite.

The choice is ours: to face our actions, or to believe in our marvelous might.

The best way to tell a story is to tell it from the body. Of all the interviews I did in Japan, the most heartbreaking, for me, was with a couple who had been the parents of two young boys. Their father told me:

“My two sons, they were five and seven, were walking together to their grandmother’s house when the bomb dropped and they got trapped under the wreckage of the falling buildings. Toshi threw himself over his little brother to protect him, but still, Ken died first. And after that, Toshi stopped speaking. He survived for a few more days, but I believe he really had nothing to say.

I carried Ken’s body to the cremation site in a bureau drawer. There were so many mounds of bodies, some more than three meters high. I didn’t want to put him in one of those piles. I begged for wood, asking the officer in charge to please understand a parent’s feelings. I put the drawer on an iron plate, and faced him with his head toward Danbara, where we lived, so that I would recognize his bones. But when Toshi died, the Lieutenant in charge was very stubborn and he made me leave the body next to the mound of bodies in front of the station. When I got there the next morning to pick up the ashes, Toshi’s body was only half burnt. I didn’t tell my wife for years.

It just wasn’t something she could bear.”

I was a mother of two boys not much younger than his sons had been, trying to conduct this interview in the months after 9/11. And in his story, at that moment, his sons were as alive, and as vulnerable, as my own. Time fell away, and so did nationality, and there was no difference between us.

Their despair was my own.

The truth is, we are ordinary. Not super-powered. We are human, and fragile. We make mistakes and we break. Our government may indeed have the ability to bring about unprecedented suffering, but the suffering will fall on humans just like these little boys. Just like my own. Because the one super power we don’t have is the invulnerability to keep the fallout from coming back to strike us.

The choice is ours: to face our actions, or to believe in our marvelous might. And with the rhetoric of Hiroshima being so freely tweeting, we may once again be in a race against time. The version of the story we decide to believe in might literally be a matter of our own life or death. And it could be over in an instant.

Which story will you choose?

Written by

American Book Award-winning & NBCC-shortlisted author of Shadow Child, Hiroshima in the Morning, & Why She Left Us.

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