Thursday, 6 August 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

"People struggled, then burst into flames where they stood. The fiery air was blown down toward the ground and it was often the refugees' feet that began burning first: the men's puttees and the women's trousers caught fire and ignited the rest of their clothing." 

"Under the wind and the gigantic breath of the fire, immense, incandescent vortices rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening sucking whole blocks of houses into their maelstrom of fire. Wherever there was a canal, people hurled themselves into the water... hundreds of them were later found dead; not drowned, but asphyxiated by the burning air and smoke. In other places, the water got so hot that the luckless bathers were simply boiled alive."

Today, August 6th 2015, is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Around 60,000 people were killed almost instantaneously. Tens of thousands more suffered radiation-related illnesses in the weeks and years that followed. But the picture above, and the quotes from a journalist eyewitness who survived it, were not from that terrible bombing. They were from five months earlier, when over 100,000 civilians (the nature of the tragedy is such that exact numbers are impossible to determine) were incinerated in Tokyo by the largest fire bombing raid of the war. The sad truth is that - as terrible as the morning of August 6th was - it was not the most terrible thing that happened to Japan that year. From March to August 1945 the US made several fire bombing raids a week against Japan, the larger ones, like on Kobe, dramatised in the painful and moving film Grave of the Fireflies, killing tens of thousands of people at a time. As Dan Carlin put it in his excellent Hardcore History podcast 'Logical Insanity', perhaps the more interesting question about the atomic bomb is not 'did we need to use it?', but 'whoever thought that deliberately massacreing cities full of civilians was a valid tactical choice anyway?' Because by 1945, make no mistake, that was where the Allies had got to. There was a fiction about military targets, an incremental slip from 'area bombing' to 'morale bombing', but by 1945 the firebombing raids were quite simply and deliberately designed to create firestorms that erased enemy civilian populations. Britain may have sold the fire raid on Dresden to the public as "revenge for Coventry", but that is to blur the distinction in scale and intent from the admittedly terrible attack by the Luftwaffe, which killed 570 people, and the deliberate incineration of 25,000 German civilians by the RAF. USAF General Curtis LeMay freely admitted after the war that, had it taken a different course, it would be people like him and Arthur 'Bomber' Harris in the dock at Nuremberg, charged with Crimes Against Humanity. This was a deliberate policy of massacre, little distinguishable in its effect, possibly even in its intent, from the mass shooting of Polish and Russian civilians by SS Einsatzgruppen, and the fact that "they started it", "they did bad things first" and "this was a  just war against a terrible enemy" do not detract from that.

What lessons do we draw from history? The lesson that the world seems to want to draw from the atomic bombs is that they were unique in their terribleness, and that as a consequence they must never be used again. Well, to be sure that is a good, possibly even world-saving result, it may have helped us survive the Cold War, and the Japanese have certainly capitalised on their sense of national nuclear victimhood to become loud and enthusiastic proponents of nuclear disarmament (by the by, though, they continue to muddy the water by not accepting any responsibility for the terrible crimes Japan inflicted, especially in China). I visited the Peace Museum at Hiroshima 25 years ago and it is a powerful, overwhelming place, and the stories of the bomb's effects and aftereffects chilling and depressing. Afterwards I talked to someone whose mother had survived the bombing. She still carried shards of window glass driven into her skull by the force of the blast, buried too deep to be surgically removed. But... it's not the whole story. You don't need to use nuclear weapons to commit terrible atrocities. As the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero and the Rwandan massacres have shown us, if the will is there, all you need are farm implements or machetes. A Museum of the Firebombing could tell equally terrible stories, like those I quote above, were it to actually exist. But it doesn't. There is no International Firebombing Day every March 9th. And in some ways the US has collaborated in this by trying to portray the atomic bombings as one-off, terrible events, designed to end a war. And do you know what - they probably did. They may not have shocked Japan into surrender, but they were at least a convenient excuse for the Japanse goverment to decide to capitulate - an honourable way out - against such weapons, who could be expected to fight? They probably saved Japan more pain, more firebombings, and hence perhaps the deaths of millions more. But, and it's a big But - that was only because the US was quite happy to go on incinerating Japanese people at the time, and as far as Curtis LeMay was concerned, the more the better. In some ways the atomic bomb debate is a distraction, because it focuses on the means, and not the ends and intentions.

So as we commemorate the atomic bombings, amidst all of the pious declarations about their terribleness and "never again", let us pause to spare a thought for the wider context, the step-by-step loss of our collective humanity that led us into a place where dropping the atomic bombs was actually preferable to what we were already doing on a daily basis. That slow slide into inhumanity to me is the real lesson from Hiroshima, and not an arbitrary dividing line drawn across some types of weapon that make some "acceptable" and others not.