President Barack Obama of the United States has visited Hiroshima, the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to the site of America's atomic attack on the city on Aug. 6, 1945. When visitors come to Japan, I stress the importance of their going to either Hiroshima or Nagasaki or both in order to understand more clearly the world in which we live. Though nuclear weapons have so far only been used in those places 71 years ago, the ongoing presence of such weapons and the efforts by more and more countries and even non-state entities to acquire them make it essential that we all understand that "atomic weapon"
is more than just words. And more than just one more type of weapon. Since my first visit to Hiroshima, the museum there has been totally redone to take into account what a Hiroshima diocesan priest, himself a bombing victim, once said to me. "We must not forget that Hiroshima was a real military target." Hiroshima was a military headquarters and supply port for Japanese aggression in China. Surveys by Japanese media before the American president's visit showed that while some people wanted him to apologize for the use of the weapons, most, including most survivors of the bombings, neither expected nor wanted such an apology. Most Japanese, of course, were born after World War II
, so the bombings are history to them, not an experience of their own. And, as a friend once observed, "If we had had the bomb, we'd have used it."
In fact, the Japanese were working toward the development of an atomic bomb, but uranium for the project that was being shipped by submarine from German-occupied Europe disappeared en route, presumably sunk. Later, the research facility, which like most Japanese military facilities was in a populated area, was destroyed in a bombing raid upon Tokyo. And, yes, if the Japanese military had developed an atomic weapon there is no reason to think that it would not have been used. Arguments for or against the use of those weapons seven decades ago will continue for seven and more decades into the future without any clear-cut answers because there are no clear-cut answers. Unless the bombings are seen in the full context of war, it can never be much more than a finger-pointing exercise in which each side blames the other for the horror of the attacks. It is time to move beyond the blame syndrome and into the larger issue of human violence. What happened at Hiroshima was not, in one sense, new. It was simply the application of a new technology to our primal penchant for destroying one another. In a real sense, it was not Japanese who started the war, it was not Americans who dropped the bomb, it was not Germans who gassed Jews and others — it was humans. Until we come to grips with that, we won't get far in preventing worse in the future. In his comments at the Hiroshima memorial, Obama
has done something greater than offer apologies or blame. He has called us all to conversion. "It is not the fact of war that sets Hiroshima apart. Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man. Our early ancestors having learned to make blades from flint and spears from wood used these tools not just for hunting but against their own kind. On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold, compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal. Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time." Ours is a vicious species. In fact, the reason we are the only surviving human species is probably that we killed off all the others with whom we once shared the planet. Hiroshima reminds us that now we are capable of killing off ourselves. Are we fated to destroy ourselves now that we are able to do so? We must not say that is impossible, for to say so is to rule out any possibility of honestly facing ourselves, the prerequisite for conversion. It is conversion to which Obama calls us. It is conversion to which Hiroshima calls us. It is conversion to which all-too-uncommon common sense calls us. After reading Obama's speech, I reread Walter Miller's novel A Canticle for Leibowitz
that I first read as a high school student. The book looks at a post-nuclear war world and ultimately restates in more explicitly religious terms what Obama said: The only bulwark against our self-destructiveness is conversion, a willingness to let God direct our lives. Can we do that? We must. Or, at least, we must try. That is the message of Hiroshima. It is a message that all of us need. And so, I will continue to insist that having seen the temples, bullet trains and Mount Fuji, my visitors must go to Hiroshima. Father William Grimm, M.M., is publisher of ucanews.com and based in Tokyo.
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