14 September 2011

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver : Nagasaki and Responding to Calamity

Shinto Shrine in Atomic Ruins, Nagasaki, Japan 1945. Public domain / National Archives / Flickr.

Responding to calamity and
what it says about our character
The people of Nagasaki dedicated their city to promoting international peace and brotherhood.
By Thomas McKelvey Cleaver / The Rag Blog / September 14, 2011

Watching the Tenth Anniversary celebration of national victimhood over the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I had some mixed thoughts. I thought using all this to celebrate and build support for the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney cabal (i.e., our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) in the aftermath of those attacks was an insult to the dead.

I thought about how societies remember calamities. It's said that how one deals with disaster is a better indicator of character than any other event. If that is true, then Americans beating their breasts about how singularly awful 9/11 was, how singularly different and vastly more important our victimhood is to any other anywhere else ever, clearly demonstrates the shallowness of character much of the rest of the world generally ascribes to us as a people.

I thought of another city that experienced a calamity so great it could only be termed a catastrophe, and what their response was to that event, and what it said about their character.

Sixty-six years ago last month, on August 9, 1945, the city of Nagasaki was hit by the last atomic bomb ever dropped in anger. 96,000 people died in the immediate aftermath, with thousands of others dying over the years that followed. It would be difficult to imagine a worse catastrophe that could happen to a city.

But wait, it gets worse.

The bomb was dropped in desperation by a crew that didn't want to return to base with "unexpended ordnance" aboard, who were desperately afraid that if they didn't drop the thing, they wouldn't be able to get back home. They'd tried bombing two other possible targets, but couldn't comply with the "visual drop only" orders they were operating under.

As it was, they had to make three passes over the city, with the bombardier finally telling the pilot he had "visual contact" at the last moment, which was later exposed as a lie; the bomb was dropped blind by radar fix, a violation of all the rules. "Bock's Car" had to divert from returning to Tinian and land at Okinawa, where the airplane had to be towed off the runway after running out of gas within moments of touchdown.

They really did have to get rid of the extra weight, and there was certainly no way this particular bomb would be abandoned over the open sea.

But wait, it gets worse.

Of all the cities in Japan to bomb, Nagasaki was the last place to consider. For over 300 years, since the first European explorers finally reached Japan, it had been Japan's door to the West, and the most traditionally pro-Western city in the country. It was the city that most opposed the military coup d'etat that took over the Japanese government in the late 1920s, and the city most opposed to the Pacific War.

As a result of the European influence beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, Nagasaki was overwhelmingly Christian. When the Shogunate was imposed in the seventeenth century, Nagasaki and the surrounding communities on Kyushu rebelled. Over 200,000 people where killed in the ensuing civil war, and Christianity was outlawed, with the death penalty for its practice. For the next 200 years, until Japan was forcibly opened to the West in 1854 by Commodore Perry's "black ships," the Christians of Nagasaki and Kyushu practiced an underground religion.

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1880, the official persecution of Christians was ended. Over the next 30 years, the Christians of Nagasaki built the Urakami Catholic Church, which was the largest Christian church in Asia, built entirely by the donations of the parishioners.

"Ground Zero" for the bomb was the bell tower of that church. The tower was the only structure remaining upright afterwards, and is today the site of the Museum of the Atomic Disaster.

How does all that strike you for terrible irony? Is that worse enough?

You'd pretty much figure the citizens of Nagasaki would never forget that one, wouldn't you? They'd probably hate the people responsible, too, right?


Unlike Hiroshima, where an American can still be made to feel guilty by the attitude of the citizens today, Nagasaki made a different choice.

The people of Nagasaki looked at what had happened, and concluded (as Americans did after 9/11): "Never again!" But they made a far different choice in how to achieve that. For the people of Nagasaki, the way to be sure such a terrible event never happened again was to work to promote international peace and brotherhood, and they dedicated their city to that principle.

All kinds of cities have all kinds of dedicated mottos, and most of their citizens never know what they are, or if they do, what they mean. That is certainly true here in America.

In Nagasaki, they know. They practice it every day. In 1964, less than 20 years after the event, wearing the uniform of the armed forces of the country that had committed that act, I was in Nagasaki, along with the rest of the ship's company of the old USS Rustbucket.

The young people of the city came down to the pier where we were docked and waited to meet us as we left the ship, and invited us to allow them to guide us through their city, to go to dinner with them, to even visit their homes (that is an amazing act, that gaijin would be brought into a Japanese home -- they're the most private people on the planet). And they told us why they were doing it.

I don't think I have ever experienced such a truly Christian act in my life

[Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is an accidental native Texan, a journalist, and a produced screenwriter. He has written successful horror movies and articles about Second World War aviation, was a major fundraiser for Obama in 2008, and has been an activist on anti-war, political reform, and environmental issues for almost 50 years. Read more articles by Thomas Cleaver on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

Only a few posts now show on a page, due to Blogger pagination changes beyond our control.

Please click on 'Older Posts' to continue reading The Rag Blog.