Before and after the A-bomb

By Susan Van Haitsma

Just after dark on August 8, 2004, I watched from the leafy banks of Barton Creek as a beautiful, ephemeral fleet of luminarias floated silently upstream from Lou Neff Point. Each handmade luminaria had been carefully launched by participants in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Ceremony of Remembrance held in the Zilker Park Peace Grove. Although the night was still, there must have been a faint breeze out on the water that moved the glowing lanterns quietly, steadily against the current.

Across town, another image of peace appeared last year in relation to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Installed as a permanent mosaic outside Brentwood Elementary School and created by local artist, Jean Graham in collaboration with Brentwood students and teachers, the artwork depicts a flock of beautifully diverse birds flying together around the words, “I will write peace on your wings, and you will fly all over the world.”

This quotation from Sadako Sasaki, who died of radiation poisoning at age 12 as a result of the Hiroshima bombing, comes from the well-known story of Sadako’s passion for life as she strove to fold the 1,000 origami cranes she believed would heal her. When she died, her friends completed the task, and a statue to Sadako’s memory in Hiroshima Peace Park is strung with origami cranes that persons all over the world continue to send. Inscribed on the monument is a plea from the children of Japan, “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.”

This month, feature articles in Time, Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines commemorate the 60th anniversary of the test of the A-bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945, its use three weeks later against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945. Every story credits the bomb with ending the war. Claims the Time cover story, “An awful weapon had saved lives; a terrible instrument of war had brought peace.”

One of the Smithsonian articles, entitled “It’s Over!” is a compilation of readers’ mostly enthusiastic accounts of where they were and how they responded when Japan surrendered. Only one response, sent by a Japanese-American, mentions effects of the atomic bombings on the
people of Japan.

Another Smithsonian article, adapted from the new book, “American Prometheus,” about atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, recounts the dramatic moments leading up to the test and use of the A-bomb. While recognizing the moral dilemma faced by Oppenheimer and his colleagues, emphasis is clearly on the “success” of what Oppenheimer benignly called “the gadget.” Only briefly noted are the estimated 70,000 people killed instantly in Hiroshima. The article does not give a number for deaths in Nagasaki or for the tens of thousands more who died from radiation sickness.

Entitled, “Living With the Bomb,” the National Geographic story includes four dramatic photographs of nuclear weapons tests, one captioned with a description of the “terrible beauty” of the mushroom cloud. The article refrains from describing the effects of the bombs on human beings. Only Time magazine offers photographs and accounts of Japanese Hibakusha, survivors of the A-bomb.

Significantly, the Time and Smithsonian features discuss the critical shift in US policy leading to justification of the atom bomb. Citing the massive incendiary bombing of Japanese cities during the spring of 1945 that killed an estimated 100,000 in Tokyo alone, Time author and historian, David Kennedy concludes, “The US had already crossed a terrifying moral threshold when it accepted the targeting of civilians as a legitimate instrument of warfare.”

Smithsonian agrees, “The firebombings were no secret. Ordinary Americans read about them in their newspapers.” Today, when ordinary Americans read about ordinary Iraqis killed by US military forces, the underlying justifications that have propelled such policies for 60 years continue to give the message that the lives of Americans are worth more than the lives of others.

Americans decry terrorist bombings that target civilians. But we must also acknowledge how we intentionally target civilians through military force. On this 60th anniversary of the use of atomic weapons, will we continue to insist that bombs save lives? Or can we take an honest look at the human costs of every lethal weapon, affirm our most basic American principle that all lives have absolutely equal value, and conclude that no life can be traded for any other. Our cry and prayer, the words written on our wings and pushing us steadily upstream, must include this essential truth if we are ever to replace terrorism and militarism with lasting peace.

Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation.

Beyond Guilt and Innocence

By Susan Van Haitsma

Global Resistance Network / Dissident Voice

In the wake of the London bombings, reporters and commentators have referred to the deaths of innocents and have speculated about unstated motives of the unknown perpetrators. Reading these commentaries, I wonder who is guilty, who is innocent, and whether it is helpful to discuss the bombings using these dichotomies.

An Austin American-Statesman editorial responding to the bombings quoted President Bush’s statement, “The contrast couldn’t be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who’ve got such evil in their hearts that they will take the lives of innocent folks.”

News of the London attacks made headlines around the world and most victims have been identified. On the same day as the attacks and possibly every day for the last fifteen years, civilians have been killed in Iraq as a result of bombing, embargo, invasion and occupation. News accounts of Iraqi civilian deaths are underreported in the US media, and victims rarely are named. Disproportionate numbers of the dead have been children.

The American-Statesman editorial refers to the London bombing perpetrators via typographic error as “al terrorists” and claims “what the terrorist leaders want is the destruction of the Western way of life. Nothing less.” How do journalists know this? Is it certain that terrorist “leaders” planned the London bombings? And how would one define the “Western way
of life?”

The editorial not only ascribes motives but also predicts future strategies of an organization assumed responsible for the London bombings. “If all foreign troops left Iraq today, al Qaeda would make other demands.” Who actually speaks for al Qaeda, what demands are made and to whom are the demands directed?

The US and Britain vow to not appease terrorists who induce fear and attempt to pressure governments by killing civilians. Yet, for more than a decade before the invasion and occupation, Iraqi civilians were the objects of brutal economic sanctions and systematic bombing conducted by US and British forces — policies designed to pressure Iraqi leaders to accede to demands that kept changing. If one defines terrorism as targeting civilians through secretly planned and coordinated acts of violent retaliation with goals that are often unclear, then methods used by terrorists and methods used in the war against terror become indistinguishable.

Columnist Thomas Friedman calls Muslim leaders to account for the London bombings even while he states there is “no obvious target to retaliate against.” At the same time that Friedman warns the West about the dangers of “making every Muslim in its midst guilty until proven innocent,” he blames Muslims and suggests that an appropriate response to terrorism is to find something we can punch in the face,” as the US did in Afghanistan.

When US and British leaders know beyond doubt that bombing campaigns will kill civilians, where is the line between those who care about human rights and those who kill? Maintaining a distinction between civilians as targets and civilians as collateral damage is not possible. President Bush’s “contrast” between human beings who value life and those who plan death blurs to gray.

In a democratic society, who is responsible for government policies? In an undemocratic institution such as the US military, who is responsible for the actions of individual soldiers? As a US citizen, I theoretically help determine US policy. If policies have included killing civilians, am I guilty? Is a soldier who has killed civilians under orders innocent? If soldiers who kill are beset with post-traumatic stress, what does guilt or innocence mean then?

Friedman describes the British as “resilient, determined people.” I have heard the same words used to describe Iraqis. While I admire these attributes, I also want to stop and remember every human being who is killed as a result of terrorism and war. Whether civilians, soldiers or suicide bombers, I’d like to know their names, ages and something about the universe of possibility that is lost with each life that is stolen.

Though it may seem like a brave response, we cannot simply mourn and move on. Families of victims are not back to normal within a couple of days, and even if it is not acknowledged, neither are societies. I wonder how long war and terrorism could continue if we were able to set aside labels of guilt and innocence and learn the intentions and the hearts of every victim and perpetrator.

Dylan’s America

By Greg Moses

CounterPunch / Dissident Voice / Global Resistance Network

For this Fourth of July, I’m sitting with young Dylan at a reading room in the New York Public Library scrolling through newspapers from 1855-1865: “There is a riot in New York where two hundred people are killed outside the Metropolitan Opera House because an English actor has taken the place of an American one.”

In the build-up years to the Civil War newspapers portray a certain would-be Senator from Illinois as a baboon. No way to suspect what Lincoln would become. “Anti-slave labor advocates inflaming crowds in Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Cleveland, that if the Southern states are allowed to rule, the Northern factory owners would then be forced to use slaves as free laborers.” Defeat the South, save our jobs! “This causes riots, too.”

Writes Dylan, “You wonder how people so united by geography and religious ideals could become such bitter enemies.” What was the Civil War about? For Dylan’s friend Van Ronk, “It was one big battle between two rival economic systems is what it was.” Slave system vs. imperialist capital.

If Van Ronk was correct post-war Reconstruction in the South would stand for imperialism at its progressive best — the kind of thing one might believe could work better in Baghdad than it did in Dallas. But then again, Baghdad had no General Lee. On Lee’s word and Lee’s word alone, writes Dylan, “America did not get into a guerilla war that probably would have lasted ’til this day.”

For Dylan’s friend Ray who was a “nonintegrator and Southern nationalist” the Civil War was a useless war, a tragic reversal of history. Sure slavery was evil Ray agreed, but it would have died a natural death anyway, Lincoln or no Lincoln. “I heard him say it,” recalls Dylan, “and thought it was a mysterious and bad thing to say, but if he said it, he said it and that’s all there is to it.” Ray was as much anti-slavery as he was anti-union (as in anti-United States.) And he smoked opium.

If you took a Van Ronk angle on Ray, between slavery and imperial capital, there was no comfortable choice, and certainly no historic destiny worth living for. From the reconstruction period Southern white gents simply learned to seize the post-colonial attitude, re-making their racial order in the image of credit banking. In return for Lee’s peace pact, token attempts at de-Dixification died quickly in Washington from lack of zeal, just as de-Baathification would fall hard on its face in Washington were a General Lee good enough to appear in Falluja.

For Dylan himself, the Civil War was also a battle between two kinds of time: “In the South, people lived their lives with sun-up, high noon, sunset, spring, summer. In the North people lived by the clock. The factory stroke, whistles and bells.” It must have been a Southerner who coined the term “New York minute” to describe the Northern kind of time — yes the kind of time that forges capital into imperialism, post-colonialism, and oh-so-helpless-hand-wringing-witness to Jim Crow or Abu Ghraib, whichever.

“After a while,” says Dylan, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” And the archetype for this sort of story is found in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. “Back there, America was put on the cross, died, and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The god-awful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”

Resurrection without synthesis. Crucifixion upon the cross of the Fourth of July. This is the underlying song of the great American folksinger. Why he must die in his shoes.

“In American history class,” recalls Dylan, “we were taught that commies couldn’t destroy America with guns or bombs alone, that they would have to destroy the Constitution — the document that this country was founded upon. It didn’t make any difference though. When the drill sirens went off, you had to lay under your desk facedown, not a muscle quivering and not make any noise.”

“Living under a cloud of fear like this robs a child of his spirit,” says the author of Masters of War. “It’s one thing to be afraid when someone’s holding a shotgun on you, but it’s another thing to be afraid of something that’s just not quite real. There were a lot of folks around who took this threat seriously, though, and it rubbed off on you. It was easy to become a victim of their strange fantasy.”

Dylan’s counterpunch against the “lame as hell big trick American mainstream culture” was the folksong. “There was nothing easygoing about the folksongs I sang. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.” He foraged the songs from fellow singers, from 78 records, from archives. He would pitch them fast and hard to his audiences, practicing live in front of people because he couldn’t bear up to the experience of practicing alone in some room somewhere rehearsing for who knows who?

In Irish folksongs especially, Dylan found the rebel voice. “There were songs like that in my repertoire, too, where something lovely was suddenly upturned, but instead of rebellion showing up it would be death itself, the Grim Reaper. Rebellion spoke to me louder.” But Ireland was not an American landscape, and in order to translate the rebel songs he turned to the library. “I needed to slow my mind down if I was going to be a composer with anything to say.”

As we know, everything worked out pretty well. Dylan became that composer he was looking for. America was ready to rock. And in a passage that I’m having difficulty locating right now, Dylan says acid was helping to move history in the right way.

But what happens next is really hard to say. Dylan describes a life run over by American feet, grabbed up by American hands, and tossed around by American voices. The composer who would write resurrection songs for rebel America found himself projected into some kind of leader. Identity he had created was made into identity he needed to destroy. So he rebelled against his own alienation.

At this point you have to know more than is possible to know, but I think about the scene in the Oliver Stone movie The Doors when Jim Morrison gets the quivers in the experience of a chanting crowd. There is a quasi-fascist tingle in American adoration that the strongest leaders know to reject. To Dylan’s credit, he got really sick of it, as if the very thing that his songs rejected was being taken up, stitched together and brought to him to wear.

On the other hand, America has weak leaders too, who stitch together for themselves costumes of quasi-fascist adoration. They can be any kind of leader with a name. You praise the Lord in America if you don’t have one of these creatures for your boss. Whereas great folk songs from the Dylan point of view are ever busy tearing the clothes off of this kind of power, there is another kind of music that puts people in the marching mood.

So here I sit on the Fourth of July, slowing down my mind. On this day in particular, I want nothing of the marching kind, certainly none of that music. Give me a 22 verse folk song where a vicious hammer splits open a rebel’s resurrection, yes over and over again.

Source: Bob Dylan. Chronicles: Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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