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When the war in Vietnam was first televised, most believed seeing the violence and its aftermath would dissuade us from acting out against one another. Now our entertainment features greater and greater conflicts—destroying worlds that are rebuilt to be destroyed again by yet more diabolical villains. We watched realistic battles in films such as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and appreciated how life-like the carnage was even as new global conflicts were bringing new slaughter. But we still aren’t jaded enough to want to confront the true aftereffects of our two nuclear bombs—especially the probability that they weren’t the last the world will experience. Most would rather talk about the invention of the new weapon, what the Japanese did to deserve annihilation, or mass murder as the only way to end a world war. We don’t want to take seriously the Hopi prophecy that the United States will be destroyed by nuclear bombs and radioactivity if the world doesn’t make different choices now. And, as a civilization, we aren’t ready to seriously consider empathy instead of revenge.
When my husband read TO HELL AND BACK: THE LAST TRAIN FROM HIROSHIMA by Charles Pellegrino, he told me it was a hard read—worth the effort, but something you can’t forget. In the book, Pellegrino presents the human side of the twin WWII bombs—what happened to the molecules and individuals below. The descriptions are as scientifically accurate and as focused on particular people as possible, given that so many–including mothers, grandparents, and children—entire families–were vaporized or horribly disfigured. I was reluctant to read it until I thought about the many families of butchered children who have stood up in court to forgive the perpetrator of the murder. How do you forgive the murder of a loved one—much less the devastation of cities filled with noncombatant friends and family? What do you gain from resentment or guilt? What’s the best outcome possible?
Without recounting the unimaginable suffering of those who barely lived through and fled Hiroshima only to walk into another bomb in Nagasaki, as well as the almost unending suffering of those who freakishly survived only to become worse than lepers in their own country, forbidden to ever marry or bear children because of the eventual effects on their descendants, a reader can’t help wanting to deny the pain or point fingers at the master minds. We met double survivor Masahiro Sasaki who told a child at a lecture who asked him who dropped the bomb that he couldn’t remember—not that he couldn’t, of course, but he concluded blame doesn’t erase ongoing suffering such as repeated bouts of cancer and loss. He called himself a survivor not a victim, because “victim” implies the necessity of a victimizer and begins a cycle of blame that never ends. Revenge doesn’t lead to peace.
The issue is to focus not on the wounds of the present or past but on what Pelligrino calls “…Tomorrow’s Child.” The meaning of whether to kill or not kill lies in the future. What are we building? Try to imagine a world in which diverse peoples live in peace, following their own free will without attempts to control or dominate or hoard resources. The myriad indigenous peoples in Ken Burns’ documentary THE AMERICAN BUFFALO were known for taking from the land whatever they needed, not more, living in relative peace for centuries. Wealth was defined as having enough to be able to share. They didn’t always live without any violence, but they never indulged in genocide. The white man’s cold-hearted extermination of the buffalo with the expressed aim of decimating a population dependent on them for survival was both offensive and shocking—perhaps more so than the deliberate crushing of indigenous culture. Even many Westerners were appalled by the waste and cruelty.
At a commemoration ceremony in which he was the only non-Japanese person attending, James Cameron, on whom many depended to tell the true story of the immensity of the Japanese nuclear catastrophe to the world, said, “So now it’s up to us to do something about it and to everyone of good conscience to do something about it.” Echoes of the sentiment reverberated after 9/11. Mass murder is no solution but encourages us to repeat horror again and again. How much can the planet sustain?
I dare you to read TO HELL AND BACK by Pellegrino with an open mind and heart and try to imagine a less terrifying future than the one that sends school children to hide pointlessly. What can we do instead of perpetuating hate and blame? What does our future look like if the ways of the world don’t change?