How convenient, this forgetting — this respected ignorance — that the only nation to have ever used the deadliest of all weapons of mass destruction, the only nation to have terrorized a country by means of those weapons, the only nation to have nuked civilians, twice, with questionable necessity, obliterating 340,000 lives (by the time all the deaths related to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were tallied five years out), is us, the United States.
How convenient that it has taken 71 years, a lifetime of lifetimes not lived, for a sitting American president finally to make the pilgrimage to Hiroshima, as President Obama did Friday, depositing a wreath at the peace memorial before alluding in words to death that fell from the sky that day. Moving words. Stunted, too. There was no apology. Of course not. We’re America. We don’t apologize. Not for atrocities. Not for mass murder. Not for the most spectacular of war crimes, the quickest, most efficient extermination of civilians in history by the most peace-loving nation in history.
How convenient the distance — geographic, historical, but mostly willed — from the horror those bombings inflicted, the “pity and terror,” as Richard Rhodes described it in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” the men of the Manhattan Project could foresee even as they built the bomb and saw its first test in the New Mexico desert that July dawn in 1945. “Now we are all sons of bitches,” Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test, told Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project director, within moments of the blast. “We waited until the blast had passed,” Oppenheimer would later recall, “walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried.” And Oppenheimer remembered a line from Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
No amount of metaphysical anguish or contrition could approximate the suffering the bomb would unleash 21 days later, not on desert sands but on Hiroshima’s human beings, where the world ended 43 seconds after the Enola Gay, the B-29 carrying the four-ton “Little Boy,” dropped it over the courtyard of Shima Hospital. “It was all impersonal,” is how Enola Gay Commander Paul Tibbets described it.
To him, maybe. Not to those below, where birds ignited in midair and human beings left their silhouetted outlines on the side of buildings. In the words of a fifth-grade boy who survived: “I had the feeling that all the human beings on the face of the earth had been killed off.” A husband helping his wife: “While taking my severely-wounded wife out to the riverbank by the side of the hill of Nakahiro-machi, I was horrified, indeed, at the sight of a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeballs in his palm. He looked to be in great pain but there was nothing I could do for him.” A first-grade girl: “We were still in the river by evening and it got cold. No matter where you looked there was nothing but burned people all around.”
So tell me, now. How could a web site for so many years sell a “Little Boy Bomb Replica signed by Pilot and Navigator of the Enola Gay,” for $350 plus $15 for shipping and handling? There was a picture of the blue bomb, “hand crafted solid mahogany replica,” 1/12 scale, “approx. 10 inches long.” Why was the website hawking print after print of the Enola Gay and Tibbets, of a “combo special” (autographed Tibbets book and print, “$95 + FREE SHIPPING!”)?
Because that’s what Tibbets did in his old age and until he died in 2007. He peddled WMD memorabilia, as repugnant a trade as the kind that specializes in the trinkets of Nazism or the gold teeth of Pol-Pot’s harvests. People bought in. That’s what happens when atrocity is not only overlooked but transformed into something essential and heroic. Harry Truman did it politically when he declared the dropping of the bomb “the greatest thing in history.” Tibbets did it folklorically. And a war crime became a whoop. The website disappeared sometime after his death in 2007, but only to be replaced by still-current websites hawking similar, if a little less lurid, memorabilia.
There’s no begrudging Tibbets for fulfilling his mission on Aug. 6, 1945. No one had the right to demand of him that he represent some kind of national atonement. But there’s a difference between a soldier honoring his service and a war lover celebrating it. Tibbets didn’t just defend his role in the bombing. He reveled in it, toured on it, profited from it, reenacted it. He used his stature to slur history and the memory of the Hiroshima victims when he joined forces with veterans groups opposing a Smithsonian exhibit featuring the Enola Gay and the victims of the bombing. The exhibit went on, the historical context and Japanese perspective summarily censored.
It may be crude to speak ill of the dead. But it was a Paul Tibbets specialty. He told Studs Terkel in a 2002 interview, just months after the 9/11 attacks, that nuking Arab and Islamic capitals was the best response. “If,” he said, “the newspapers would just cut out the shit: ‘You’ve killed so many civilians!’ That’s their tough luck for being there.” What a hero.
Obama had the grace not to mention Tibbets or the Enola Gay Friday in Hiroshima. But what he also left unsaid, the apology unspoken, was not so honorable. That silence had nothing less of a complicit stench with the “silence in the grove by the river” that John Hersey described in “Hiroshima,” where “hundreds of gruesomely wounded suffered together,” as Father Kleinsorge, a survivor, described it to Hersey. “The hurt ones were quiet; no one wept, much less screamed in pain; no one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily; not even the children cried; very few people even spoke. And when Father Kleinsorge gave water to some whose faces had been almost blotted out by flash burns, they took their share and then raised themselves a little and bowed to him, in thanks.”
That silence has not been atoned for.