No Headstone, No Regrets

How do you survive the ordeal of executing the killing of some 140,000 people and counting. Perhaps, by counting on facts and figures to counter or discount any accounts of fatality and disfigurement; by recounting to myself, for decades to come, that I could not be held accountable, having merely carried out orders as someone to be counted on; or by counting the praises bestowed upon me by those of my countrymen I would be pleased to encounter, for having been instrumental in ending a war that, without my precise handling of the instruments, might have ended the lives of countless more.

Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr., the commander of the Enola Gay, whose idea of a loving tribute was to name after his mother the B-29 out of whose womb “Little Boy” dropped onto the roofs of Hiroshima, insisted that he had “no regrets” about the outcome of his mission, that he slept “clearly every night.” Clearly, he won’t be counting sheep, or charred bodies, tonight. Mr. Tibbets, the world took note, died today at the age of 92.

When I came across that announcement, I was reminded of “14 August,” a radio play by poet-journalist Norman Corwin (previously discussed here to mark the 60th anniversary of VJ Day). With it, Corwin sought to assure Americans that “God and uranium” had been on their “side,” that the “wrath of the atom fell like a commandment,” and that it was “worth a cheer” that the “Jap who never lost a war has lost a world; learning, at some cost, that crime does not pay.”

Broadcast on VJ-Day, “14 August” asked listeners to remember those Americans “dead as clay” after defending “the rights of men,” after “fighting for “people the likes of you.” No mention was made of the Japanese whose lives were turned to ash in the streets of Hiroshima; no words uttered to suggest that achieving peace at such “cost” might, too, be considered a “crime” for which someone other than the dead might have to pay.

I am reminded, too, of the aforementioned radio writer-historian Erik Barnouw, who, upon learning that the US government had “seized and impounded” reels of film shot in Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) by Japanese cameramen (headed by Akira Iwasaki), the reported return of which to Japan in 1968 led Barnouw to produce the documentary Hiroshima-Nagasaki, 1945 (1970). Reviewing the long-suppressed footage, Barnouw commented (in Media Marathon [1996]):

The material we saw had been organized in sequences, which included “effects on wood,” “effects on concrete,” “effects on internal organs,” and so forth, as though scientific questions had determined the shooting. Other sequences showed grotesque destruction of buildings and bridges.

Finding only a “few sequences of people at improvised treatment shelters,” Barnouw was “troubled” by the “paucity” of what he referred to as “human effects footage.” Who could be counted on to tell the stories so often unaccounted for in the records of history?

The Allies’ fight against the Axis was a worthy cause; what is unworthy of those who lost their lives on either side is a victor’s sweeping dismissal of any consequences other than victory and the suppression or outright erasure of documents suggesting trauma rather than triumph.

VJ Day was hardly an occasion to show compassion for the defeated enemy, you might say, and that it is understandable that relief about the end of the war expressed itself in levity (as heard on the Fred Allen Show from 25 November 1945, a clip of which is featured in the above video [since then removed]). To consider it appropriate, some thirty years later, to restage the Hiroshima bombing for a Texas air show; to insist, another thirty years on, that it is a “damn big insult” to acknowledge the sufferings of those who were killed for however worthy a cause, as Mr. Tibbets has done, strikes me as a failure to rival the inhumanity that is the success of Hiroshima.

Having long refused to draw attention to the death of thousands, Mr. Tibbets decided to make his own farewell a gesture of self-erasure. He had the foresight to request that no headstone be placed on his burial site, predicting that his contempt or disregard for others might tempt those ignored by him to turn his final resting place into a stage for protest. Mr. Tibbets, it seems, was one to shun debate. Perhaps, a remarkably headstrong patriot like he deserves nothing more than our respect for his final wish: a vanishing act in keeping with a life of denial, a grave as unmarked as those of the victims unremarked upon.

“No regrets.” It is these words, and the words of those who call resolve what is a lack of compassion and an unwillingness or inability to countenance doubt, that we must mark, lest we are prepared to mark the occasion of another Hiroshima . . .

4 Replies to “No Headstone, No Regrets”

  1. In school, in American history (at least the late 70\’s early 80\’s) the curriculum was honest about what happened to civilians in Japan due to the atomic bombs. It was always justified with the argument that more American lives would have been lost trying to take Japan rather than forcing a surrender in this way.But however you look at it, what happened to humanity as a result of the bombs, was devistating.

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  2. Yes, that sounds familiar. It is probably true; but it was Tibbet\’s reported defensiveness that troubled me here. I am now reading Erik Barnouw\’s account of the filming of Hiroshima-Nagasaki, 1945 (1970) and will edit the above as I go along.

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  3. We — I say \”we\” as a naturalized American, and proud to be one — did what we thought would preserve the greatest number of lives. Of course there\’ll always be Monday-morning quarterbacks, but that doesn\’t change the conditions the decision makers faced in the summer of 1945.

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  4. In other words, stick to your guns, and don\’t trouble yourself to examine the losses caused by them? I did not so much condemn the decision to bomb Hiroshima, but tried to share my response to the pilot\’s expressed indifference to the suffering that resulted.

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