Monday, August 03, 2009

JAMES CARROLL AND THE ATOMIC BOMB

James Carrol muses about the upcoming anniversary of the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War Two.

He notes that the country is still divided in its opinion as to whether that was justified.

Clearly, there was an immediate upside, back there in August of 1945 when Harry Truman decided to use the things: to William Manchester, himself that month a young Marine in the Pacific awaiting orders for the amphibious invasion of the Japanese Home Islands, it meant “We were going to live; we were going to grow to adulthood after all”.

His sentiment was not an exercise in hysterical self-dramatizing and self-pity. US casualties for amphibious assaults on islands defended by Japanese troops were staggering. As it did for the Germans, the prospect of defeat seemed to concentrate the Japanese soldiers’ minds awesomely, and their resistance was lethally competent, and sustained to the death.

And that was against islands that were held by a fixed number of Japanese troops who – given the US command of the air and sea – were cut off from reinforcements and supplies. US commanders shuddered at the military implications of attacking the entire complex of Home Islands, where the Japanese would not have such a supply problem (at least at the outset), where there were a million or two troops still available, where the morale-jazzing awareness of defending one’s own home would stimulate an already-fanatical Japanese dedication to Emperor, honor, and duty.

And – genuinely awful to contemplate – where the entire Japanese civil population, including women and children had been trained to do their best to resist.

This was an era before the American military – and Americans generally – had become so enamored of technical wizardry that they imagined that major sustained combat could be waged without that ‘old’ consequence: ferocious casualty figures. Commanders could imagine up to a million US and Allied casualties. And that did not include the psychological ‘stress’ casualties consequent upon having to kill women and children without hesitation lest you be killed yourself.

Nor – though neither American churchmen and the medical establishment did not make much of it at the time – the profound psychological and moral consequences of having done so. And perhaps of having made it possible for yourself to do so by descending into the mindset and heartset of the ancient ‘berserker’: the warrior more ferocious than his enemy because he had abandoned himself to an unboundaried, unrestrained primal violence and the visceral exhilaration of the kill … a human does not long romp in that vivid swamp of primitiveness before he is too compromised, too deformed, to return.

And field commands in the European Theater had already warned Washington that American troops were finding it difficult, by and large, to kill German “soldiers” once they realized that they were often destroying young teens and even ten-year-old boys. That was inducing a dangerous hesitation and aversion to pulling the trigger, which deeply worried commanders.
Imagine, then, what would happen if troops had to face an entire civil population committed to a to-the-death defense of the Home Islands.

It was becoming clear that very few humans – especially on the front lines – could wage war as Lincoln had personally done: with determination and vigor, but sadly – maturely, one might say. Vast citizen armies deployed to the field could not reliably expect Lincolns in battalion, regiment, and corps-sized numbers.

Even, then, if Truman also had an eye on the Soviet State and its outsized tyrant-leader, Stalin, and thus wanted to drop the bombs as a warning demonstration to a victory-engorged Soviet colossus … even so, the desire to avoid millions of US and Japanese casualties would have been a serious weight in favor of dropping the bombs.

But it seems to me that if the US were then to uncork the atomic genie and let it loose in this already soaked Vale of Tears, then the United States would require an even stronger and more engaged People, that People which must maintain its Constitutional vigor and competence so as to Ground and – yes – judge the actions of its government, now atomically-armed.

But THAT, I think, is the great American failure of the postwar era. The People did not expand its competence and Constitutional vitality. Exhausted by the alarums of Depression and War, the citizenry were happy to experience a certain orderliness in daily life, buttressed by an unheard-of level of material prosperity.

That it was achieved at the cost of a certain conformity to an engorging corporate model of culture, that it was enjoyed at the price of immersing oneself in the mushy fields of consumerism and a self-definition gaudily but dangerously limited to the material things of this-world … well, only a few gave much thought to it.

And anyway, to handle world affairs in the age of the Bomb, where deliberation in matters of waging war had to be made in hours rather than weeks or months, it was clear that ‘experts’ and ‘elites’ were more capable of such direction than were the common citizens.

The drift into corporatism and elitism eroded the vitality and competence of The People.

Nor in the Seventies, in the Age of Advocacy – if I may – did things get any better. Indeed, they became worse. The new ‘elites’ of the Advocacy Age presented themselves (rather inaccurately) as ‘liberals’. They proved as power-hungry and manipulative of the citizenry as the corporatist ‘Establishment’ elites.

And even more dangerous, since their models of vision and implementation borrowed liberally from 19th century and early-20th century ‘revolutionary’ ideology, spackled up by a (disturbingly) hefty dose of Nazi methods of shaping public opinion to the State’s purposes.

Rather than the People grounding and through their representatives guiding the actions of the government, judging those actions as they went along, the citizenry were reduced to a herd – sheep in need of a shepherd.

The Seventies’ ideological braying served to further weaken The People by dissolving (deconstructing) the very ‘reality’ of tradition, ideals, historical reality, and any sort of sense that the this-worldly could be judged by any authority not of this-world. Indeed, existence was squashed into the Flatness of a this-worldly ideological materialism as thorough-going as anything ‘godless Communism’ sought to impose.

To which the Eighties contributed a distracting over-indulgence in sudden (and artificial, ephemeral) massive national wealth, demanding to be consumed by all.

With those tectonic fractures active, the skitterings closer to the surface – a cartoonish and illusory difference between ‘liberals’ (who were not liberal) and ‘conservatives’ (who were not conservative), an equally cartoonish approach to the processing of information, and a ‘de-valorizing of maturity and deliberate reasoning in all of its forms – both distracted and further eroded the vitality and competence, of that People without Which and without Whom the genuine American vision cannot live.

At this point, then, the consequences of those skitterings – a wrecked economy and, far worse, a wrecked economic base; a succession of non-victorious military engagements with the official promise of more to come; a continuing militarization of culture and society that further buttresses the corporatist conformity of fifty years ago – combine to create a demoralized People.

The past decades of ‘valorizing’ youthfulness (without thought to its immaturity) and victim-hood (without thought to its undermining of self-mastered independence) have worked their own corrosions and corruptions.

It should have been clear in that August of 1945 that what the country would now need – absolutely and indispensably – was not less participation by The People, but more. The dropping of the atomic bombs demanded a more robust and competent People than Washington or Lincoln ever would have imagined.

And yet that was precisely what has not happened. Indeed, much the reverse.

That – with all respect to the dead – is the great American tragedy of the dropping of the atomic bombs.

Is there now time and will and skill sufficient to correct 60-plus years of mistaken actions?
To make August 6th your own personal ‘national day of prayer’ might give you the time to consider, and deliberate, alone and with others of that vanishing kind – the Citizen.

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