President Barack Obama has made the first official visit by a US President to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, to lay a wreath at a memorial to those killed in the US nuclear attack of August 6, 1945, and to call for a world free of nuclear weapons.
It is the old liberal dream — that diplomacy and negotiation should replace war forever.
We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.
Perhaps diplomats can gather around a great big table somewhere and outlaw war itself. Perhaps that will make this kind of change possible, allow for the realization of dreams so long dreamt.
Oh, wait, it was tried once. How’d that go again?
Lots of passive voice in Obama’s speech, as if some unnamed generic group of human beings, with no real purpose in mind, concocted the atomic bomb, and then it just happened to fall from the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in early August 1945. He wasn’t going to apologize — the belief that somehow Obama has been wandering the world apologizing for the United States has always been pure crap — but he wasn’t going to take any direct credit for the attacks either.
“The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations,” unnamed of course until the war is rhetorically over in Obama’s speech, until the United States and Japan are allies, united in purpose and outlook.
It’s an anodyne way of talking about war, careful and, I suppose, thoughtful. Except that it isn’t.
Because it’s hard to talk about war. Hard, in a society like ours where we are constantly morally judging and justifying, reviewing and condemning, acts of the past, to say much sensible about something as horrific as the American decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki with these newly made instruments of terror and death.
But I’m going to try.
One of the terrible truths of war is that when you begin, when you unleash it, you take a terrible risk, make a terrible gamble — that you will unleash events over which you will no longer have any meaningful control.
And that you could lose. And lose very badly.
The Japanese took that risk as they attacked the United States in Hawaii and the Philippines, took that risk when it set war with the United States into motion. Americans committed to war with Japan, and waged that war methodically, systematically, and very, very brutally. No one envisioned a working atomic bomb on December 7, 1941, but the governments of every major belligerent in the Second World War had some idea of what split atoms could do, and were working to one extent or another on a just such a bomb.
Someone would have built it. And someone would have used it.
True enough, Japan was incapable of laying waste to American cities — something the United States was proving exceptionally skilled at by mid–1944. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese died in those air raids, and many more from starvation because of the slow collapse of the country’s infrastructure in the last year of the war.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not irrelevant. These were new kinds of weapons that inflicted a never-before-seen kind of suffering and death. They may or may not have been needed to end the war, depending upon who you believe about the state of mind of Japan’s rulers (or the need to impress Stalin, or simply the desire to see how they worked) in early August, 1945. But they are a piece with the whole war.
Japan dropped the first bomb in anger against the United States. Hoping to win, of course, and defeat the United States. But when the Japanese dropped that first bomb, Japan took the risk that from that point, nothing would go as planned.
I’m not saying Japan deserved to be attacked with atomic bombs. Only that, once the shooting started, each side was going to whatever it took to defeat the other. The first side with these new and terrifying weapons was going to use them. Because they were built to be used. To destroy the enemy, to end resistance, and to secure victory.
I think about the terrible episode of Judges 19–21, Israel’s brutal and most pointless war against Benjamin. I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere, so I won’t even rehash it here.
What has always struck me is how this war — and all war, really — is simply reported in scripture. It is not condemned, and not even really praised either. This terrible war against Benjamin is a war instigated to achieve both vengeance and justice (for they are the same thing), but it spirals wildly out of control into genocide and regret and more mass murder, kidnapping, and rape in an attempt to fix the original genocide. It is us at our human worst — lying, self-righteous, violent, faithless, sentimental, regretful, convinced of our own wisdom and our own abilities.
In scripture, war appears to exist simply as an inescapable part of the human condition. What matters is not are we right or are we wrong, are we justified or condemned for waging war — but where is God, and is this war a judgment upon us as the people of God? Because the categories we contrive to morally justify ourselves and our violence — primarily defense, especially of those who cannot defend themselves — don’t fly in scripture. The conquest of Canaan is as aggressive and brutal a war as we can envision (“…[A]nd when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Deuteronomy 7:2) and it is perfectly moral, set into motion by God. (Israel is also incapable of waging that war for any sustained period of time.) And during the most defensive and morally justifiable of wars, the siege of Jerusalem, the Prophet Jeremiah encourages the people of Judah to surrender, to defect, to flee to the enemy, because the war is lost.
4 Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls. And I will bring them together into the midst of this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and in fury and in great wrath. 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. (Jeremiah 21:4–6 ESV)
God, “incarnate” in the army of Babylon, at war with Israel.
I’m not saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were God’s judgement upon Japan, anymore than the attacks of September 11, 2001, were God’s judgement upon the United States of America. I do not believe, on this side of the Cross, that a meaningful or purposeful presence of God is to be found in the violence we inflict upon each other. God is no longer present in the enemy army, or marching with ours. God no longer judges his people, or the nations, this way.
Violent judgement came to end on the Cross, when we judged and tortured and then murdered our God. When God surrendered to us.
At the Cross, our violence ceases to have meaning. It ceases to judge. We still do it, but now … it really, truly means nothing.
Oh, God is present in war. But as those who suffer. As those who cower in terror, run for cover. As those who perish. As those who struggle to make sense of the horror they find themselves dealing with, living in, surviving, and inflicting. Obama, in his own way, understood this in his speech:
We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.
We can apologize, or not, for an act that possesses its own horrific logic. The 20th century was a horrible century, in which we fed ourselves fed into Moloch’s fiery hot furnace, shoveled ourselves like so much human coal — and not just in the trenches of France, or the death camps of Poland, or the grassy steppes of Western Russia, or an ancient port city in Japan, or the muddily fields and dusty cities of China, but all across Asia and Africa and Latin America, wherever the Gatling gun and finance capital (or national pride, or revolutionary ideology) imposed an order that saw people as things to be consumed, as mere resources to be dominated and exploited. I’m not even sure we are capable of apologizing for what we’ve done, or how we’d even start.
I do know this — there will be more violence, more horrors, more death, and more destruction. I hope not on the scale and magnitude of the Second World War, but we’ve shown just what kind of devastation we are capable of inflicting when we really set our minds to it, so that is always a possibility. Bombs far worse than those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki sit, silently waiting, built to be used.
There will be more violence and more war because we are still human. Because we still want justice. Because we still want vengeance. Because we still believe in the work of our own minds and our own hands to make the world right. Because we are frightened it will never be right.
Because we still believe we can silence death … with death.