Friday, August 13, 2010

Victories, Pyrrhic or Not

I'm living in Rhode Island right now and Monday, August 9th was a state holiday.

If you're thinking, "Wait... there's Memorial Day, then Independence Day, then Labor Day, and that's always it for the summer..." then you're forgetting what used to be called "VJ Day" or, as it was eventually renamed (in a somewhat bizarre attempt to be more politically correct, I suppose), "Victory Day.

Victory Day marks the anniversary of the surrender of Japan after the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and August 9th, respectively; in Rhode Island, it is commemorated on the second Monday in August.  Rhode Island is the only state that continues to observe this day as such.

Not surprisingly, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding Rhode Island's decision to continue to mark the day. 

I believe the two sides of the issue can be most compellingly summarized by two photos taken by the same photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt.  The first is quite famous and probably instantly recognizable to most Americans:


Taken in New York City's Times Square in August 1945, Eisenstaedt's image captures the spirit of those who would like to continue to see Victory Day celebrated. 

They believe that it is a day designed to mark the joy and relief that accompanied the surrender of Japan and the end of a long, costly war waged in the Pacific.

It is a day set aside to remember the many American soldiers, sailors, pilots, doctors, nurses, WACS and WAVES who gave their lives for their country.  In essence, supporters argue, it is no different from Memorial Day, Veterans Day, D-Day, or even Independence Day, days of observance that memorialize the military events and services that shape any nation's history.

The second photo, also taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, is somewhat less omnipresent in American cultural iconography.  It summarizes the other side of the Victory Day debate:

Taken in 1946, it is a photo of a Japanese mother and child set against the recently bombed landscape of Hiroshima.  The image offers a compelling counterpoint to Eisenstaedt's famous Times Square photograph: it emphasizes the consequences of war on a civilian population and a defeated nation's landscape.

Although I will openly admit that I would like to see "Victory Day" in Rhode Island either removed from the state's calendar or renamed and completely re-conceptualized to emphasize the ideas of memory, service and sacrifice that are foregrounded in the observance of Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I am particularly interested in the oscillating dynamics of objectivity and emotion that shape our cultural imagining of this cataclysmic event in American and world history.

Eisenstaedt also photographed a very different, but similarly relevant scene in 1947:

In this image, Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer are comparing notes.  Although it is possible that the one is simply giving the other directions to a really good barber shop on Nassau Street, the implication of the image is that what we are witnessing here is the science of the atomic age in its very genesis.

These are great minds at work, changing the very structure and fabric of our world and its future.

First published on August 31, 1946 in The New Yorker, John Hersey's Hiroshima opens with the very precise identification of a seemingly much more mundane moment in time: "Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department at the East Asia Tin Works" has "just sat down at her place in the plant office" and is "turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk."

It is a gesture any one of us might make and have no doubt made, thoughtlessly, a thousand times a day, on any day of the week, any week of the year. 

In this case, however, the turn of the young woman's head occurs "[a]t exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6th, 1945, Japanese time"--that is, "at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima."

In case we fail to connect with the image of Toshiko Sasaki turning her head to talk to her neighbor at the next desk, Hersey's first paragraph offers us a series of similarly everyday gestures and moments: "Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read," "Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura... stood by the window of her kitchen watching a neighbour tearing down his house," "Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge ... reclined in his underwear on a cot," "Dr. Terufumi Sasaki ... walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen," and "the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tammoto ... paused at the door of a rich man's house in Koi."

Sitting down to read the morning paper, standing at the window, reclining in one's underwear, walking down a hallway at work, stopping in a doorway: these are the moments into which the brain-child of Oppenheimer, Einstein and the various members of the Manhattan project is about to explode.

I juxtapose the image of Oppenheimer and Einstein's easy-going collaboration with the descriptions contained in Hersey's first paragraph because the one is quite obviously the ultimate outcome of the other, although we do not usually set them in sequence.

In fact, it is because we do not view them sequentially that we end with the kind of polarization that marks the observation of Victory Day in Rhode Island. We see the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in terms of the "side" that we choose without recognizing the fact that, in such moments, human history is a continuum, not a divide.

As each of Hersey's protagonists move through the day of August 6, 1945, they are presented with a scene never before witnessed in the history of human military action.; As Mr. Tanimoto attempts to load survivors into a boat, he
realised that they were too weak to lift them- selves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. ...Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly. ... On the other side, at a higher spit, he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, 'These are human beings.'"
In all of Eisenstaedt's photos, no matter which side of the Victory Day debate they may envision, humans are still recognizable as such.

But if we fail to perceive that when a nuclear weapon is used against an opponent, there is only ever the possibility of an ultimately Pyrrhic victory, we will ultimately be faced with a humanity that has rendered itself horrifically unrecognizable.

Perhaps Mr. Tanimoto offers the simplest formula for escaping such an apocalyptic future.  Instead of insisting on taking sides and celebrating victories, we must consciously keep reminding ourselves, "These are human beings."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."