Sunday, August 07, 2005

Tabor and Hiroshima

On August 6, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Transfiguration, when Jesus ascended Mount Tabor, and his disciples saw his true glory: "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as the light." The Church Fathers say that this was a vision of the uncreated light, a light that transforms Jesus' human body without altering or destroying it, like the burning bush that Moses saw.

But on August 6, we also remember another kind of light, a light that shone over Hiroshima in 1945 with the brightness of a thousand suns. 75,000 people saw this light for the briefest instant before the blast of heat that followed incinerated their bodies, leaving their shadows etched into the walls as the only record they ever existed. Tens of thousands of others were burned by this scorching light, poisoned by radiation, or buried under falling rubble. Nearly all of those killed that day were noncombatants--women, children, and the elderly. Hiroshima was a civilian target, not a military one, chosen for its high concentration of people so as to maximize the effectiveness of the bomb.

It was the greatest single atrocity ever committed in wartime.

We now know that, contrary the way they have been portrayed, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wholly unnecessary from a military perspective. Japan had been offering through Russia to surrender to the US, with the only condition being that they be permitted to keep their emperor. America refused, demanding "unconditional surrender," but also eager to try out its new "doomsday weapon" that would make America the world's first superpower. After dropping the two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when Japan still refused to budge, America accepted a surrender on September 2, 1945, under terms that allowed Japan to keep its emperor, a surrender that could have been negotiated under essentially identical terms on August 5.

A light that transfigures, a light that consumes: rarely has the choice been put in as stark of terms as it is on August 6. "Behold, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live" (Deut 30:19).

In my meditation this morning, I was reflecting on the subject of blessings and curses. Psalm 129 repeats the refrain "Often have they assailed me since my youth." a memory of past injuries that has become a defining storyline, an identifying narrative. The question is, when we have been assailed, attacked and wounded, what does it do to us? How does it change us, harden us? What do we wish for our assailants?

The psalmist's answer is that they should become like wheat-grass that grows on the rooftop, withering, producing no harvest, nothing for the reaper or the binder of sheaves; that their lives should prove fruitless, of no benefit to anyone, that the Lord's blessing should be withheld from them. I think of all those who bullied me when I was a child, who teased or physically assaulted me, as well as those who have attacked me in adulthood: when their faces swim up out of memory, my most consistent response is the secret hope that they have failed in life, that one day I will meet them again and be vindicated, proven superior. And I wonder, is this really our best hope, that the lives of those who injure us should come to nothing?

This curse, this withheld blessing, is my personal Hiroshima.

It occurs to me that in the history of the nation Israel, Israel's primary enemies, the Ishmaelites and the Edomites, are the legacy of two withheld blessings: Abraham's preference of Isaac and his refusal to acknowledge Ishmael, and Isaac's blessing given to Jacob and not to Esau. These two withheld blessings created generations of enmity, warfare, and death.

What kind of world are our withheld blessings creating?

Often have they assailed me since my youth,
This is my refrain,
Often have they assailed me since my youth,
But they have not made me like themselves.
The plowmen plowed my back
They made their furrows long:
Let a harvest of peace spring forth.

As for my assailants, let them flourish like a well-watered field
So that the reaper rejoices
And the arms of the binder of sheaves overflow.
Let them produce something of value,
Something of enduring benefit to the world,
For if they do not, it is to everyone's loss, including my own.

Let the blessing of the Lord be on them and us,
That they and we may flourish together
And that the power of the curse may be broken.


Unknown said...

Sampson, loved your connection of the light of the Transfiguration with the light of the atomic bomb. I am not so experienced a blogger as you are but in my blog I have a couple of things to say about the Transfiguration at my site, The Eagle's Nest, at
We in the Western tradition are not paying sufficient attention to this great feast.

PM Summer said...

Far too little is said about August 6th being the day that Hiroshima was incinerated by light, about Hiroshima being the center of Christianity in Japan, and about that date being the Feast of the Transfiguration.

I do not believe in coincidence, but in Divine providence. There is something here for us to see, something both deep and, at the same time, on the surface. In this unspeakable horror, there is God's hand.

My task remains, as always, to surrender to the rule of his hand.

Thanks you, brother, for your meditation.

Anonymous said...

Sampson, thanks for a very thoughtful reflection on the irony of these two events. (And thanks for visiting my humble blog.) Praise God that the Holy Light of Christ does and will overcome the dark light that is our human capacity to hurt, maim and destroy.

I'm making your blog a regular stop in my browsing.

Mimi said...

I've been thinking about this all weekend, but you said it much better than I would have ever dreamed of!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Go learn something before you post this twaddle. Start with

Downfall : The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire by Richard Frank

While the Japanese were hoping that Stalin would pull their bacon out of the fire and get the US to end the war on favorable terms to them, they were planning all-out resistance to invasion. The claim that the only request was to retain the emperor is completely unsubstantiated. Their atrocities against civilians in the non-Japanese territory they controlled continued unabated or even worsened. In China alone, tens of thousands were dying every week because of the Japanese occupation.

Anonymous said...

So, are we going to be supposedly tit-for-tat and kill totally unrelated civilians for atrocities committed by the military? You pagan!

Paul4peace said...

Thanks, everybody, for your comments. Eagle's Child, I loved your ideas about Transfiguration as the Southern Hemisphere Easter. And Summer, I'm still mulling the "something to see." Rockin Rev, I'll be swinging by your site as well from time to time, and thanks, Mimi, for the encouragement.

Now, we have comments by the dueling Anonymous's. Anonymous #1 suggests I should do some more reading before I post. So I did. In fact, I read the report of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, set up by the War Department to study the results of aerial attacks during WWII. This is their report, after exhaustive interviews with Japanese civilians and military leaders:

"Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to December 31, 1945, and in all probability prior to November 1, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

Let me also add that I have posted in the past on the atrocities committed by the Japanese against Chinese civilians, when I was reading Iris Chang's Rape of Nanking. You can find that post here:

With full awareness of the terrible acts that were committed by the Japanese, however, I still agree with Anonymous #2 that the senseless killing of hudreds of thousands of innocent civilians by the Japanese does not justify the senseless killing of hudreds of thousands of innocent civilians by the Americans.

But thanks for the invitation to do further reading.


Anonymous said...

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey to which you refer was published in mid-1946, nearly a year after the war ended. The "testimony of surviving leaders" was of course, not available to President Truman in July of 1945. One might add that, what other "testimony" would be expected a year after the surrender?--moreover, if you are familiar with the literature, you know perfectly well that for every "high official" who thought that surrender would come soon, there was another who expected a fight to the death on the home islands. Was it really unreasonable after Iwo, Okinawa, and thousands of kamikaze attackes for the US military IN 1945 to suppose that much worse awaited them?

Let's do a little thought experiment, Guerilla--and let's leave out any US casualties. Let's assume that the Japanese would have surrendered by Nov. 1, 1945. The USSBS does not state the surrender would have happened without continued bombing. During the nearly 3 months of additional bombing, hundreds of thousands of Japanese would have died of bombing or starvation in the home islands. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers stranded without supplies on dry island-hopped Pacific isles would have died of dehydration or starvation. At the rate it was going, the Japanese army would have slaughtered at least another 300,000 civilians in China and other occupied countries. Was it a bad situation to have to choose between killing 150,000 or having 1,000,000+ die from bombing, starvation, or the continued atrocities of the Japanese military? You bet. The Japanese needed to think about that possible consequence in Dec., 1941.

Paul4peace said...

Dear Anonymous,

Based upon my reading, it is my conclusion that America had many motivations to use the atomic bomb, only one of which was the question of the terms of the Japanese surrender. America had invested millions of dollars and countless man-hours into the Manhattan project. Following the surrender of Germany, a struggle for power in Europe and the Middle East was shaping up. America had a tremendous incentive to use the bomb, thereby demonstrating its new power and asserting its dominance in the global arena.

By August 1945, America had deciphered the Japanese encryption, and was regularly intercepting messages indicating that Japan would likely surrender given the right terms, primarily that the emperor, who is not only a civil and military leader, but also a sacred figure in Shinto, would remain in place.

By the beginning of August, 1945, America was at a crossroads. Should it use the bomb, and so demonstrate to the world that it had a power no other nation possessed, a fact that would give it incredible power in the post-war context? Or should it forego years of work, millions of dollars invested, and lose the possibility of consolidating its new supremacy, choosing instead to pursue treaty negotiations backed up by the threat of invasion?

I don't even think it's really correct to say that at the beginning of August, 1945, a decision was made whether or not to use the bomb. The "decision" was actually more like a a chain of dominoes that had been set in motion long before, a series of prior decisions that would lead to an inevitable conclusion unless someone actively intervened to stop it.

Your figures assume a worst-case scenario which I feel no compulsion to accept or work within as a parameter. But more than that: the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki launched the nuclear arms race and the cold war. One can draw a direct line from Hiroshima to Korea, the Laos incident, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the training of the Taliban, and thus to 9/11 and the Iraq war.

The world might be a very difference place today if we had chosen the path of negotiation.


Anonymous said...

"Your figures assume a worst-case scenario which I feel no compulsion to accept or work within as a parameter. But more than that: the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki launched the nuclear arms race and the cold war."

No, my figures represent a realistic, if not best-case scenario, one amply supported by real statistics concerning food availability in the mainland, the interdiction of supplies to Japanese military units, and the documented rate of atrocities committed against civilian populations by the Japanese military. You do not want follow the logical conclusion of your position: that it was better for a another 500,000-1,000,000 people (most of them civilians)to die than to end the war quickly.

"One can draw a direct line from Hiroshima to Korea, the Laos incident, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the training of the Taliban, and thus to 9/11 and the Iraq war."

Perhaps in your febrile imagination. You mean that had the war gone on a few months longer, Josef Stalin would have been able to bring the benefits of the gulag to all of Korea, instead of only the northern part of it? The last time I looked in the history books, the US did not drop an atomic bomb on Korea, nor did it invade the sad prison camp that those wonderfully humane communists had turned the northern part of the country into. No matter what Howard Zinn has to say, it was North Korea that staged completely unprovoked attacks on the South, culminating in their invasion of it.

One CAN draw a direct line from Hiroshima to 9/11. I can also draw a direct line on the globe between the North Pole and the South Pole, and say that there is an interstate highway between them, but that doesn't make it so.

Paul4peace said...

So this is what we have come to: a world in which the use of the atomic bomb is based upon "realistic scenarios," while the suggestion that it should never have been used can only be the raving of a "febrile imagination."

There will come a time when people will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack that person, saying, "You are mad, you are not like us." (St. Anthony of the Desert)

And that, as Forrest Gump put it so eloquently, is all I have to say about that.