Hiroshima and the Safety of Historical Distance

Today is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb as an act of warfare. It wasn’t the first time the United States had leveled entire Japanese cities during the second World War, but on August 6, 1945, the United States took a historic step forward in humanity’s death spiral by proving it could kill hundreds of thousands of human beings with one punch.

So what have we learned in the last 70 years?

Nine countries currently possess over 15,000 nuclear weapons. Our worldwide stalemate of mass destruction does nothing to prevent us from letting loose any number of other horrors aimed at bringing governments, and indeed entire nations to their knees. We engage in interventionist wars in a global game of monopoly, destroying most of what we touch.

And we have never once admitted that we were wrong to snuff out hundreds of thousands of lives in an act that distinctly embodied the shadow side of human potential – a darkness that could put out every light, and extinguish every human hope the world over.

Pandora’s box swung open 70 years ago today, and as a nation, we still largely argue that it was for the best.

This is not shocking, even when we review the horrid realities of our attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a nation, we have consistently demonstrated that we are incapable of admitting fault until the power structure has nothing to lose by doing so. If acknowledgement means no significant loss of resource or historical glory – if it does not undermine the narrative of a declining empire who’s identity is grounded in the myth of its inherent greatness – then the progressives of the ruling class have nothing to lose by uttering apologies. But there is always a waiting period, during which most immediate victims of such harms will have faded into the historical footnotes of a nationalist mythology.

When they do occur, such apologies are proudly showcased, to demonstrate the forward thinking character of the speaker. In fact, a leaked cable, revealed by WikiLeaks in 2011, indicated that in 2009, President Obama explored the possibility of apologizing to the Japanese people for using atomic bombs against the country in 1945. That’s right. In 2009, a US president gave the matter some thought, but begged off when Japan declined the gesture (and thus removed the possibility of a showy, progressive moment for the history books during the president’s Hiroshima visit).

This is how accountability functions in the United States.

From the genocide of my people – the native people of this land – to the horrors of slavery, Japanese internment and non consensual human experiments, admissions are only made when those acknowledging such harms can speak at a safe historical distance, and do so without seriously undermining the great American narrative.

In that narrative, native genocide is reduced to a heartfelt “whoops,” with American history teachers racing through perfunctory, reductivist mentions of the damage done, and nearly always prefacing such conversations with some mention of the pre-existence of native violence or the great “progress” that westward expansion brought about.

On  December 19, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution into law. It included a disclaimer specifying that the apology in no way supported or validated any claims or proceedings against the United States government stemming from the mass murder, displacement and abuse of native people. The apology also underwent a predictable political editing process, in which a litany of specific harms – including the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek Massacre, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the breaking of treaties, and the removal of native children to boarding schools – was cut from the final document.

Slavery, of course, is clearly denounced, but the historical narrative of the Civil War allows the current power structure to denounce those wrongs with an air of self righteousness. After all, the North won the Civil War, and The United States, rather than These United States, claims as a major victory the end of a horrid institution of its own making. And while this historical sleight of hand may seem the equivalent of a sadist kidnapping and torturing a family, and then being hailed as a hero for setting them free after years of abuse, it has nonetheless proven effective.

After all, digging too deeply into US history might undermine the narrative of our country’s inherent greatness, and we can’t have that.

A Google search of a leftist President’s apologies reveals a great deal about this historical tendency.

clinton apologizes for
Of the major apologies that appear in a Google search of “Clinton apologizes for,” the only harm that can be directly linked to Clinton’s own administration is his failure to act on his foreknowledge of the Rwandan genocide. That apology, of course, was delayed until 2013, when his electoral career had long since ended.

The narrative of the Clinton administration, at least in this phase of history, had already been written. And narratives matter.

So on this day when many will acknowledge the unthinkable destruction that the US perpetrated on this day in 1945 – destruction that not only wiped out tens of thousands in the blink of an eye, but also spread devastation that would play out for generations – we will also hear justifications. World War II is held up as an example of American greatness, and it played a key role in our ascension as a leader in world trade (with Europe having given us a significant edge by destroying itself). You will no doubt hear reflections today from pundits, politicians and other media personalities who will showcase our somber awareness of just how much harm was caused, but who will couch such admissions in the great necessity of victory. Some may even utter the equivalent of a heartfelt “whoops.” But the larger narrative of that period, the one that confirms our inherent greatness, will go unquestioned.

We did what we had to do, and the greatest generation built a new world from the rubble of the old.

So, what is a thinking person to do? The answer is the same as it is every day: don’t allow it. Don’t allow the erasure of what the United States unleashed that day. Don’t allow the erasure of those who perished, or those who lingered in the aftermath. Don’t allow the erasure or minimization of what the brutality of a nation confirms about its character and functionality. Don’t allow the practice of distant acknowledgement to dull any awareness of the fact that this country is now what it has always been, and always will be until its racist, genocidal structures are upended, not by the quarreling factions of a power structure, but by those most victimized by it.

Live in opposition to excuses and erasure, and don’t allow those who perpetrate harm the safety of distance. Don’t allow yourself that safety. Be someone who confronts, interrupts and demands a full recognition of where we have been, as individuals, and as a people, so that we might grow and do better.

Demand this country look itself in the mirror, and experience every level of repulsion that it should upon doing so. Because we will never write a new history if we cannot dismantle the mythology of the past.

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