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Column: Revisiting Hiroshima (Letters from Japan, Part 4)

This spring Mr. Thompson is a visiting professor at Osaka University of Commerce. This is the fourth of his"Letters from Japan."

I tell people here that all Americans should visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not to feel overwhelming guilt or overwhelming remorse, but simply to kick the jag of "We're number one." And also to get off this "Bosnia Game" of pretending that war can be easy, and that we can have wars without people being hurt…and, that if we ever vote in favor of war--either in elections or in the United States Senate--we should be considered STUPID if we believe the war will not hurt people--good people and bad people alike.

After my first visit to Hiroshima in 1997, I was prompted to read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After immersing myself in "the literature" I did write an HNN essay reflecting my feelings and my insights or "take" on the matter. My conclusion--war is hell, bad things happen in war, it is the nature of the game, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were certainly among the worse things that have ever happened in war, they were terrible things, very, very bad things. They were part and parcel of war. We should feel remorse, some guilt--as Americans, but mostly as human beings. We should be very somber as we contemplate what happened. The guilt for war is a human guilt, maybe it is a part of original sin, maybe not. But specific guilt for specific incidents should not be placed upon children and generations that are yet unborn. But that being said, we as Americans seem not to have taken any sense of responsibility or guilt, as it were, for what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That bothers me, but what I truly regret about our nation's posture OFFICIAL and unofficial is the notion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were events that WE CAN CELEBRATE! That by some perverse way of thinking, we have converted these terrible events into GOOD THINGS. (Ergo the Truman-and Truman hero worshipers'-- Mantra that we "saved a million lives.") THAT bothers me.

So what would I see the second time--my second visit to Hiroshima in 2004, seven years after my first visit. I knew where the monuments were, but I did notice some changes. There was a monument to Korean Victims that was new. I was told that for several years the monument was not allowed in the memorial park--figure that one out! The walk through the museum was pretty much like before. But one thing which I know I saw before really struck me hard this time.

I saw two large wall sized maps--perhaps 8 feet by 6 feet wide. One showed the city before the bombing, the other after the bombing--a day or two later. It appeared that each was taken from the same exact spot in the sky. The maps had incredible detail. Individual houses and other structures were quite distinct and visible (of course, there were more structures in the "before" shot). This time I had a sinking feeling. The Japanese were probably not in the business of photographing all their cities from the air in 1945. They probably did not take the "before shot." But it couldn't have been taken by Americans. Tell me NO I said to myself. NO! But then I read at the bottom--from the archives of the U.S. Department of War. WE HAD TAKEN THE BEFORE PHOTOGRAPH. Did we know, who knew, when did we know, when did HE know? Did our president have this intelligence. The photograph did not speak lies. It was SO GRAPHIC. What conclusion can I make other than the one I make. Our president KNEW the bomb was going to fall on houses of civilians. That is what is in the before photograph-thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of civilian homes. Our intelligence had to know that in those homes were women and children and old men. We knew there were no young men, no samurai, no modern warriors there--they were all off at war. Our intelligence can be faulty, but our intelligence is not totally without brains (though I still wonder about the Chinese Embassy thing). We knew that the victims of the bomb would be women, children, and old men. Oh yes! There were also factories in the picture. So the numbers of victims included factory workers too--thousands of Koreans, and old men, and women, and maybe children, and Chinese prisoners of war, and AMERICAN prisoners of war. War is hell. But WE have found a way to make this thing we did an occasion of celebration.

One other thing was not visible in the photograph. There was no evidence shown that the Japanese possessed any weapons of mass destruction.