“When I was growing up, I knew very little about Hiroshima, and what I did know was typical of what many Americans knew: that the bomb was a marvelous weapon that saved lives and ended the war. When I was about 30, however, I interviewed my great aunt who had been in Hiroshima with the American Occupation and had seen the destruction first hand. She told me about her experiences as a translator for American doctors who were trying to convince grieving mothers to give up the bodies of their stillborn babies for scientific study. She told me about the disfigured Hiroshima Maidens whose injuries took over 30 surgeries to fix. She told me about the massive American cover-up. She was so angry. I confess, it was too much for me. I couldn’t hear what she was saying then. It was years before I could finally get my head around it enough to see if it was true.”
This is an excerpt from my essay, Once Upon A Time in Hiroshima, featured on Medium. In it, I reflect on the different stories we tell ourselves, and the different realities we create. In this cultural moment, there is nothing more important that understanding what truth is, and what cause and consequence are, and in finding the courage to see clearly what we have suffered and wrought. As the current top highlight on this essay underscores, “We can’t learn from our mistakes if we were never told we made any.”
One of the things I love about Medium is that readers highlight passages that are meaningful to them. Feel free to stop by Medium, read the whole essay, and tell me what you think. Meanwhile, here is the passage that resonates most with me:
“The truth is, we are ordinary. Not super-powered. We are human, and fragile. We make mistakes and we break. Our government may indeed have the ability to bring about unprecedented suffering, but the suffering will fall on humans just like these little boys. Just like my own. Because the one super power we don’t have is the invulnerability to keep the fallout from coming back to strike us.”
In 1942, as the US president moved to exclude and incarcerate 120,000 people based on race, Hawaii chose to call B.S. My article on Salon.com details how the most decorated American fighting unit in history grew out of that choice, and reminds us of the dangerous ground we now find ourselves in, and the possibility of choosing a different path:
“The mission that was accomplished by Roosevelt’s Executive Order was not safety for America. Despite the excuse of national security, there was not one single case of espionage during the war. The result was the successful cleansing of the West Coast of all persons of Japanese ancestry, and the transfer of between $150 million and $400 million of assets back into Caucasian hands.
“In the territory of Hawaii, however, events spun out differently, with history-making results. There, martial law was also declared, with similar exclusion orders. However, the commanding general, Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons, refused to evacuate the Japanese Americans, who made up 37 percent of the population and a significant portion of the economy. Emmons flipped the script, arguing that it was better for the overall economy to leave them free. He refuted the rumors, false claims of espionage and the violently anti-Japanese sentiment that was fueling calls for exclusion. Instead, he chose to do something radical: to treat the Japanese Americans as lawful, loyal citizens, and trust them. He even gave them back their guns.”
Read the rest of the article here.
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
We knew this was coming, but where do we go from here?
After dumping 11,500 tons of radioactive water into the sea within a month after the Fukushima meltdown began, in violation of international law, TEPCO continued to store a flood of radioactive water, assuming that – someday, somewhere – it could be cleaned and disposed of.
From the New York Times on Monday:
“Groundwater is pouring into the plant’s ravaged reactor buildings at a rate of almost 75 gallons a minute… A small army of workers has struggled to contain the continuous flow of radioactive wastewater, relying on hulking gray and silver storage tanks sprawling over 42 acres of parking lots and lawns. The tanks hold the equivalent of 112 Olympic-size pools.
“But even they are not enough to handle the tons of strontium-laced water at the plant …. In a sign of the sheer size of the problem, the operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, plans to chop down a small forest on its southern edge to make room for hundreds more tanks, a task that became more urgent when underground pits built to handle the overflow sprang leaks in recent weeks.
“‘The water keeps increasing every minute, no matter whether we eat, sleep or work,’ said Masayuki Ono, a general manager with Tepco who acts as a company spokesman. ‘It feels like we are constantly being chased, but we are doing our best to stay a step in front.'”
Although these studies aren’t making headlines in major news outlets, researchers are beginning to track the Fukushima fallout in humans. In Japan:
“The Tenth Report of the Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey, released earlier this week, with data up to January 21, 2013, revealed that 44.2 percent of 94,975 children sampled had thyroid ultrasound abnormalities. The number of abnormalities has also been increasing over time as well as the proportion of children with nodules equal to and larger than 5.1 mm and any size cysts have increased. The report has also revealed that 10 of 186 eligible are suspected of having thyroid cancer as a result of the exposed radiation.” (Read the full article here)
And in the United States, a study in the Open Journal of Pediatrics found that more than one-quarter of the children born in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington in the first four months after the meltdown had thyroid abnormalities. According to Common Dreams:
“Congenital hypothyroidism results from a build up of radioactive iodine in our thyroids and can result in stunted growth, lowered intelligence, deafness, and neurological abnormalities… Because their small bodies are more vulnerable and their cells grow faster than adults’, infants serve as the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ for injurious environmental effects.”
Shortly after the meltdown began, I talked with Joy Behar on her show about the effects of radiation on the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima, some of whom I interviewed for my memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning. Radiation is invisible, and easily dismissed as being prevalent in the atmosphere. The effects of radiation are obscured (at least as far as many scientific studies) by other factors in modern life. But that does not mean that they do not exist, or that they will fade away. Nearly seventy years after the first atomic bombing, we are still unable to protect ourselves from the literal fallout of our own poisonous creations.
I love this idea. And this wonderful festival has already begun. I will be reading and having a conversation about Country and Conflict tomorrow afternoon. Join us. The full schedule is here.