Today is a day that was supposed to live in infamy.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. response, kicked off a chain of events – including the internment and the atomic bombings – that still reverberate today.
What do we know? President Roosevelt called Pearl Harbor an “unprovoked and dastardly attack” by a nation we were at peace with. Months after declaring war, Roosevelt deemed it “militarily necessary” to give the Secretary of War the power to control large segments of the country, and strip people of their citizenship, liberty and property (via Executive Order 9066), which resulted in the imprisonment of 120,000 American citizens and their Japanese immigrant parents. Three and a half years later, President Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, calling the bomb “marvelous,” and “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.” He threatened the complete and rapid obliteration of Japan and promised “a new era” of atomic energy.
What if it was also common knowledge that before Pearl Harbor the US had imposed economic sanctions on Japan, frozen Japanese assets, and broken the Japanese diplomatic code? That two weeks before the attack, the Secretary of War (him again) wrote in his diary of efforts “to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves”? Would we still believe that acts of war have no provocation?
What if schools taught these truths about the internment: that there was no evidence of spying, that it was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” for which the US government apologized, and that the Japanese Americans who volunteered to serve the US army out of the internment camps were some of the most decorated US soldiers in military history? Would we still have politicians today pointing to it as an example to emulate today?
What if the public knew that Japan had been trying to surrender for months before we bombed them to “save lives”? What if our government have not squelched the images of the devastation, or the very unmarvelous truth about radiation sickness – would we have detonated more than 2000 nuclear bombs since then? Would we be more aware of the fact that 75% of our nuclear power plants in the United States are leaking? That, four years after the disaster in Fukushima, Japan is still dumping tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, and it is now detectable in the water of the US coast?
History, as we have famously been reminded, is written by the victors, and alternate narratives are too often dismissed as conspiracy theories or beside-the-facts. My point in this history lesson is that we do know much more than the safe, comfortable sound bites that we choose to hang onto. We have actual images, diaries, records, declassified documents that prove that reality is more complicated that we allow it to be.
In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel reminds us of this truth: ”the world did know and remained silent.”
How does a writer “break the silence” when the facts are readily available, just ignored?
For me, this infamous anniversary is a reminder of how we choose not to hear, not to see, not to know, and most of all, not to learn from our mistakes. It is not a lack of information that hampers us, but a plethora that paralyzes us. As a result, we tend to come up with simplistic responses, and, at the same time, throw up our hands in despair at the complexity of the situation. We block each other out, refuse to listen; we let ourselves be led away from common ground. Silence, rhetoric, despair – all different ways to come up with the same response: nothing.
To police brutality. Gun violence. Racism. Environmental degradation and climate change. Redlining, redistricting, resegregating, restricting the vote. Limiting access to women’s reproductive healthcare. Closing our borders to refugees. The list goes on and on.
What do we do, as writers?
I don’t know. Do you?
At the Goddard MFAW residency in January, Douglas A. Martin and I are going to be initiating a discussion on resistance. We’ll see where it goes: What do we resist? How can we resist? How do we as writers take the information we have and shape an understanding? How do we change the narrative once and for all?
In the comments below, I invite you to share a “silence” that we know. Maybe if we each focus on just one, we can begin to understand the narratives that are spun to confuse and obfuscate; the falsehoods and tangents that encourage complacence. We can find ways to “interfere” rather than become “accomplices”:
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.” (Elie Wiesel)
*reposted from the Goddard MFAW blog: thewriterintheworld.com
I was interviewed by Lara Dunning for her blog recently. My responses are up now. She asked me a question about the role of visual media (TV and internet) on triggering lost or pushed aside memories within the hibakusha, a question no one has ever asked before. Here is my answer. You can read the rest of the conversation on her blog.
“Interesting question! Visual media, and especially the sound that comes with it, is absolutely in-your-face. You can’t put up a nice, safe emotional wall between you and what you are seeing. With words, you can. You can put down the book, but you can also engage your brain to accept the story in a more distant way. And of course, the writer is also making decisions about how to tell the story, so the raw material is already being shaped. But image, and sound, go directly into your brain and your emotions before your mind can protect you. I remember, I think it was a Michael Moore documentary, a black screen where you couldn’t see but could only hear the sound of the 9/11 attacks. That was really powerful.”
From an editorial that went out through the Progressive Media Project:
“In August 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 170,000 people were killed immediately, but the total number of “bomb-affected people” peaked around 380,000. These are people who may not even have appeared sick immediately, but have suffered high rates of cancer, blood disorders, fatigue and other ailments over a period of years. They were not all in the city centers when the bomb was dropped; some came in later to search for family members and help with rescue and cleanup.
“What we know about radiation exposure and its effects on living creatures comes from Japan. The fact that there is so much that is not common knowledge is also Japan’s legacy. After the bombs were dropped, pictures and video were censored, confiscated and classified, and news reports limited.”
Read the whole article here.
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Today, I am sending love and prayers to the people of Japan. They suffered the only atomic bombs ever used in war, and are now facing the biggest nuclear disaster in peace. Please join me.
On the 65th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we risk losing the memories of the survivors.
I went to Hiroshima in 2001 to interview the hibakusha — literally, the “bomb-affected people.” I made this journey as a Japanese-American woman who had no knowledge of the atomic bombings — no experience of war at all.
When I got to Hiroshima in June 2001 and began my interviews, good-hearted people shared their testimonies with me, all beginning with where they were the moment they saw the plane, where they fled to, and who among their family and friends survived. Even those stories with some gore in them — descriptions of how the six rivers of the Hiroshima delta were so swollen with bodies that you couldn’t see the water — were curiously detached. It was not that they were afraid to offend the American interviewer. It was that they had forgotten precisely what it felt like.
The survivors recited the facts I had found in books: 100,000 dead within days, 100,000 more dying; everything within two kilometers irradiated; thirteen square kilometers burned to the ground. Drinking the water was deadly. Small fleshy body parts, like ears and noses, melted long before the people themselves died.
Often, the hibakusha ended our conversations with a speech about the need for peace and nuclear disarmament. There were even people who expressed their belief that the world was already at peace, and that, by dying spectacularly, the victims of Hiroshima had made it impossible for any sane leader to use nuclear weapons again.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that their sacrifice was almost invisible where I came from. Photos, film, documentation of the city had been confiscated and censored almost immediately after Japan surrendered, and the only indelible image of the bombing was the power of the bomb itself: the “shock and awe” version of the mushroom cloud. John Hersey’s Hiroshima, first published in 1946, remained the only “oral history” account released by a major, commercial American press. As a result, most Americans know almost nothing about nuclear fallout beyond the 1950’s advice to stock your bomb shelter with canned food.
But after September 11, 2001, when terrorism exploded on television, the interviews began to change.
Witnesses recalled being trapped under beams, screaming to be saved from the tornadoes of fire that were whipped up as the shock wave advanced. One woman I spoke with, who was about eight at the time, told me about trying to fit her mother’s eye back into its socket. Another remembered giving her child water and watching his lips attach and pull off onto the spout of the kettle. One man said:
They brought my sister home, lying on a door. She died the next night, calling, ‘Mother, help me, please.’ My sister’s agony, her terrible burns, her skin slithering off… it was common at the time.
The global instability — the terrorist attacks, the anthrax, the war in Afghanistan — had seeped into the past and made the kind of unconscious link between inhumanities that only trauma can. The hibakusha had been stripped of their trust in the future, and they passed that insecurity to me.
In 2001, living at the world’s first “ground zero” and watching on TV as my New York City home adopted that label, war seemed to be an act that could only be possible if we could fool ourselves into believing that other people’s children were not as precious, or human, as our own.
Hiroshima should have taught us not to be such fools.
This article was first published by the Progressive Media Project. When I sat down to write something for this anniversary, I realized that nothing has changed, except the date. So I changed the date. It is now also available on The Huffington Post and Discover Nikkei.