Fourteen years ago, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell tried to capture some meanings of the nuclear bombings (we also blasted Nagasaki and another 200,000 souls two days later) in Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial. The book doesn't seem to have made much of a splash; you can get a copy today on Amazon for less than a buck. But some of it speaks loudly to the present moment.
Our shiny new President (actually he's getting a little tarnished these days, but he's still newish) says he wants nuclear disarmament. Thank goodness -- only a fool wouldn't. Lifton and Mitchell write thoughtfully about American presidents:
That last point is to some extent the crux of it for people in the United States. We live in enough of a democracy so we have substantial responsibility for our politicians. We can't expect to ensure we always have moral geniuses at the helm of our political system. (We've demonstrated all too recently that we may not be able to assume even a normal level of brains in these guys.)
And so, to the greatest extent possible, it becomes the duty of citizens of a country that possesses the capacity to blow the planet away to encourage policies that value moderation and equanimity. We must strive not to put our leaders in situations that might lead them to commit atrocities.
And from that perspective, Lifton and Mitchell highlight an aspect of what was going on in 1945 that has far too nasty echoes in recent U.S. experience. They make no bones about observing that, in part, U.S. leaders felt justified in frying Japanese cities to get revenge against a racially inferior enemy.
Interestingly, 50 years after the bombing, when the Smithsonian tried to present a retrospective about the bomb, what riled veterans was any mention of "vengeance" as a motive for the decision to go ahead. These U.S. G.I.s had experienced the nuclear blasts as reprieves from further combat, from the awful prospect of invading the Japanese islands. Yet it is hard to dismiss the revenge component. We've all lived bathed in it in recent years. A similar emotion rallied support behind George W. Bush's irresponsible war of choice on Iraq -- and lingers, underlying the unconsidered acquiescence President Obama is still getting for his Afghanistan folly. "They attacked New York and the Pentagon. We'll show 'em."
With the power of nukes, the destructive potential of war making has advanced beyond what the planet can survive. Revenge is no longer an allowable luxury. We have to create the conditions that enable leaders to give it up.