The Peace Park Story

Today I’m going to write about something a bit serious and somber.

Thanks to having parents who fully supported my desire to become fluent in Japanese, I had the good fortune of going abroad to Japan for two summers in high school (and then for my entire junior year of college–see more stories about that here.) I spent both of those summers going to high school in Hiroshima.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I was so eager to spent my summer break in classes that I barely understood. But I was.

There is a place in Hiroshima called the Peace Park. It’s at the epicenter of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and it remains as a memorial to those who were killed that day. It’s a beautiful, sprawling park with an amazing museum, tons of paper cranes (which people make to honor the dead), and the Gembaku Dome, one of the few buildings that survived the blast.

The first time I went to the park, I was moved beyond words. It’s hard to comprehend the feeling of standing on the hollowed ground where so many thousands of people shared the same moment of death. A death at the hands of America, my home country. I wept the first time I walked through the museum, a place where you can not only see the shadows of people who were instantly killed by the blast forever burnt into stone steps, but also where you can read statements from Japanese leaders about how they hold no hard feelings against America. How they simply want peace.

I passed the park–specifically, the Gembaku Dome–almost every day that I spent in Hiroshima. I passed it to go to school. I passed it to go to the mall. I passed it to meet friends.

The park became part of my daily routine. And so every day I thought less and less about what it meant, about what had transpired there. I didn’t want that to happen, but it did.

I try not to be political on this blog. I stay away from saying anything controversial because I truly don’t want to incite hatred or offend anyone. But I want to say this, just once:

I think that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was a terrible, terrible thing to do.

In Hiroshima, 66,000 citizens–not military–were instantly killed. Three days later in Nagasaki, 39,000 people died on impact. Hundreds of thousands of people died soon afterwards in both cities, both from the radiation and from dehydration.

I’ve heard the arguments that are pro-bomb, I really have. The war undoubtedly would have continued for a while had the bombs not been dropped. There may have been long-term implications involving other growing powers in Asia. The world would most certainly be a different place.

But I really just have a hard time reconciling the idea that instantly killing 105,000 civilians–or any type of human being–is the right choice. I can’t even wrap my mind around it.

Why does this matter today? Well, I’m thinking about it because we just passed the anniversary of those bombs. But I think it truly matters because I would love to be an American in a country where my fellow citizens acknowledge that we did something wrong 65 years ago. I’d love to be an American in a country where we had the balls to apologize for our forefathers’ mistake just as we’ve reconciled for other monumental mistakes (see: slavery). Maybe that’s just me.

Where do you stand?


12 Responses to “The Peace Park Story”

  1. T-Mac says:

    Personally, I respect the sacrifice that those who join militaries sometimes make in choosing to protect their home countries (I say sometimes because I don’t think that’s always what’s going through their minds), but I think our mistake across the board is that the world fundamentally has chosen that peace is kept with weapons and violence. I acknowledge that occasionally people who are wired for evil will arise, but our system of country vs. country allows for this and nullifies any true chance of forming a global community. We, as a planet, could be so much more, but we’ve been going down this path for centuries. I could go on about this in much greater depth, but I know this isn’t exactly Jamey’s topic.

    The USA has certainly made a number of mistakes over the years that are truly atrocious. At the same time, I tend to believe that for most of our history, the US has had the greater good in mind and attempted to make decisions based on the greater good. Those decisions may not always be the right ones (and in saying this I’m not necessarily speaking about present day), but I’ll certainly never say that, historically speaking, the USA sat idly by and watched while the world crumbled.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree that in general, the US has the greater good in mind. But I think we’re far from infallible, and we’re prone to the fallacy of perception. I mean, I don’t think there are many countries (if any) that make decisions based on the most evil outcome. Countries act because they think they’re doing something good. What’s good for Japan isn’t necessarily what’s good for the US, or what the US thinks is good for Japan.

      I’m sure the US took the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan quite seriously. I’m just saying that it’s my opinion that it was the wrong decision.

  2. Josh says:

    I think that most people will agree that in retrospect, dropping a bomb that killed 100k+ innocent people was maybe not the coolest thing. Just imagine if those bombs had been dropped on San Francisco and Seattle instead. They’d still be writing country songs about breaking foots off in Japanese asses.

    I think one thing you have to remember about the decision that was made, and any decision really, is the context in which it was made. We were coming to the end of a remarkably grueling war, fighting an enemy determined to win at any cost, running out of resources, and scared to death that if we didn’t use this weapon, the enemy soon would and on us. It wasn’t exactly an enviable position to be in.

    Was it wrong? Yes. If placed in the same situation, would I have made a different decision? I’d like to say yes, but I’m not sure.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      I see your point about the context. But I feel like it was a decision made out of fear, and fear often gets in the way of morality. Is it okay to torture this guy to get information out of him to save 100 people? Is it okay to electrocute a murderer to show the consequences to other potential lawbreakers? Is it okay to assassinate a dictator to possibly save his people from starvation?

      I think at a certain point you have to draw a moral line. I’m sure before the bombs were dropped, there was plenty of speculation about the outcomes, both short-term and long-term. But that’s all it was, speculation. They knew for sure that a ton of civilians–people like you and me, going about their daily lives–were going to die if they dropped that bomb. I don’t know how they reconciled that decision.

  3. Dionne says:

    I agree the acts on Hiroshima and Yagasaki were terrible, but my question is, short of the A-bomb, would anything have made their government listen? We are not privy to the details of how FDR came to that most difficult of decisions, nor are we privy to the thoughts of those who were in charge in Japan during that time. I think it is easy for us to pass judgement on a era we were not a part of and a history that we cannot fully understand. Can we say that peace failed in that moment? Sure, but we don’t know if there truly was an alternative that would not have had serious repercussions for the US. How many Pearl Harbor fiascos would it have taken? Some of these questions may never be answered and if they are, would we really want to hear the answer?

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      You have some great points that we’re not privy to the information that the US government had at the time. But I’ll stand by the line in my comment above: “I’m sure before the bombs were dropped, there was plenty of speculation about the outcomes, both short-term and long-term. But that’s all it was, speculation. They knew for sure that a ton of civilians–people like you and me, going about their daily lives–were going to die if they dropped that bomb. I don’t know how they reconciled that decision.”

  4. Dionne says:

    Correction: It was Truman that gave the ok for the A-Bomb, not FDR (he had just passed away).

  5. Bob says:

    Was it wrong to drop the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? To me, that depends on whether there was a way to end the war with fewer casualties, especially civilian? My understanding is that the alternative being looked at was a full-blown invasion of mainland Japan, which almost certainly would have resulted in greater casualties, though perhaps fewer on the civilian side. I guess to me it’s unclear whether it was the right decision, though I’m inclined to give the decisionmakers (Truman being the head one) the benefit of the doubt until I see compelling evidence otherwise.

    It does make me think, though, about the truism that “war is hell” — much because most all logic and morals observed in day-to-day life go out the window. Something that I think Catch-22 does a good job of capturing from a more detached and humorous perspective than, say, an accounting of the dropping of the A-bombs.

    But sad? Most definitely. And I hope it never happens again and that the US and others do all in their power to make that so. Not starting wars in the first place is a good start.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Bob–like I’ve said above, I don’t have access to all the information that Truman and his crew did, but I think we could be pretty confident that way more civilian causalities would happen if we dropped an atomic bomb on Japan than any other measure. By quite a bit.

      Using the logic that the Japanese were just going to keep on fighting (which they probably were), why haven’t we dropped a bomb on Iraq or Afganistan? The insurgents keep fighting–the war’s been going on for almost 8 years, and they show no signs of letting up. Plenty of civilians are getting caught in the crossfire. Why not just take the easy way and wipe the slate clean with a bomb?

      I think the answer is obvious: Because it would be morally wrong. I mean, we wouldn’t even consider it in this day and age. So why do we give our forefathers a free pass for doing the same thing?

      • Bob says:

        Let me primarily address WWII and Japan, and I’ll turn to Afganistan at the end.

        First, a useful reference:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debate_over_the_atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki

        I think that evidence points to your statement that “way more civilian causalities would happen if we dropped an atomic bomb on Japan than any other measure” is incorrect. Estimates vary widely depending on assumptions used (like the degree of Japanese civilian resistance), but I think it’s safe to say that hundreds of thousands of each of US troops, Japanese troops, and Japanese civilians would have died. From above Wikipedia article: “Casualty predictions varied widely but were extremely high for both sides: depending on the degree to which Japanese civilians resisted the invasion, estimates ran into the millions for Allied casualties[1] and tens of millions for Japanese casualties.”

        Also, perhaps you are only making the argument against the decision to kill massive numbers of Japanese civilians without consideration for the fact that it was an atomic bomb used to do it, but I think it should be pointed out that the fire bombing of Tokyo (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Tokyo) was about as destructive to civilian life as either atomic bomb, killing about 100,000.

        All that said, I am slightly less convinced today than yesterday that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was a right decision. Mainly because:
        *It set a precedent for use of an extremely destructive weapon
        *Japan might have surrendered anyway without the US dropping a-bombs (especially the second on Nagasaki)
        *The bombs had a civilian target rather than a military one.

        In the end, I still don’t know what decision I would have made were it have been mine to make.

        As for Afganistan, I think the situation is different for a myriad of reasons. (I would definitely not call for use of atomic weapons there.) A few of the most compelling reasons are:

        -Proportionality of response. The US is targeting perhaps a few 10’s of thousands of Taliban militants and their supporters who have killed a few thousand people. In WWII, the US and allies were fighting millions of Japanese soldiers who had already killed many 100’s of thousands of people. Using an a-bomb would be a massively disproportionate response to the threat we and others face from the Taliban.

        -Geopolitical context for use of the a-bomb. In a world where quite a few nations (and hopefully no individuals or groups) have the atomic bomb, our use of it (especially given the proportionality issue) would rightfully do great damage to our efforts to keep others from using it and to our relations with other nations.

        -Tendency to incite a negative response. I’m sure plenty of people are incited to do violence against the US by the war in Afganistan as it currently exists. Multiply that by 10 or 100 if we were to nuke them.

        -The world has learned. Until the atom bomb was used, the full moral and political implications of its use were not widely understood. Now we know better.

        Okay, this is getting lengthy. Let me conclude by saying that dropping atomic bombs on Japan was a horrific act. The open question to me is whether it was the least horrific among various horrific options.

        Bob

        • Jamey Stegmaier says:

          Bob–First, I appreciate the research. Thanks.

          About the civilian point–the quotes you used still seemed to refer to overall casualties, not specifically civilian casualties. Plus, I’m not quite understanding why we needed to invade Japan’s civilian areas in the first place. Why not just attack military areas? The answer is probably more nuanced than I understand, but I think it’s worth saying instead of just assuming that we needed to kill some civilians to accomplish our overall mission.

          I agree that the fire bombing was pretty terrible too.

          I hope you understand (I think you do, but your points were still good) that I was not advocated dropping an atomic bomb on Afganistan. I was simply pointing out that we’d never even consider doing so in this day and age. Are we better people (Americans) now than we were then? Honestly, I’d say yes. The lack of civil rights for blacks at that time were astonishing–and people really believed that stuff! Can you imagine someone today suggesting that we not allow blacks to use the same water fountains as whites, or try to block Muslims from building a mosque in a country built upon freedom of religion. Oh, wait…maybe we have a long way to go.

          I think the comments on this blog are among my favorite ever. Thanks for being serious with me for a topic, everyone.

          • Bob says:

            People did lots of f-ed up things during World War II and, as far as we’ve come, I wouldn’t put it past us (humanity) to do it again if we got really amped up about something. That’s why I’m such a proponent in not getting in these kinds of messes in the first place by trying very hard to avoid wars in the first place. (Granted, Germany and Japan forced the issue in WWII.)

            And, yeah, I’ve got you on Afganistan, but I was just trying to make the argument that the cases are different enough that just because we don’t nuke Afganistan doesn’t mean that there weren’t compelling (though perhaps not overwhelming) reasons to do the same against Japan.

            And on this serious blog topic, I leave you with this thought:

            booger

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