Today in downtown Charlottetown, a small but dedicated group of peace-loving folks gathered outside Province House to memorialize one of the defining moments of the 20th century, the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. I was not quite the baby of the group, but judging by appearances, most of the people in attendance had at least been born by the time the B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay released its deadly payload over the unsuspecting denizens of Hiroshima. Many in the ranks carried signs, some protesting the current Canadian involvement in Afghanistan; a trio of elderly men hefted a large poster-board with a picture of the Hiroshima devastation, underscored by a quote from recently deceased activist Howard Zinn: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people…” The final part of the quote was omitted, whether from space limitations or ideological differences, I couldn’t tell: “…for a purpose which is unattainable.” Whatever else one might say, however, the purpose was not unattainable; the intent of the bomb was to speed the Pacific front of the war to a close, to bring the Japanese government to its knees, and it did exactly that with the utmost dispatch.
I have had two tenuous connections with Hiroshima over the past several years, one firsthand and one a very near second-hand. My first-person experience with the city was as a member of a Japanese bus tour to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial; I was the only non-Japanese aboard the bus, and feeling distinctly like a koi out of water, as you might imagine. Never mind that I am Canadian (the Canadian armed forces did most of their fighting in the European Theatre), and born well after that fateful day, I was still the closest available representation of the hand of destruction, and more than a little aware of that fact. When I took my turn to strike the large bronze peace bell, the ice began to break. It melted completely when my leaky eyes betrayed me in front of the statue of Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl who survived the bombing, only to contract the “atom bomb disease”, leukemia, a few years later. Believing in the old Japanese legend that one who folds 1000 origami cranes will be granted a wish, she embarked on the task, succumbing after completing only 644. As the story goes, her friends completed the 1000 cranes, and they were buried with her. Even now, Japanese school children fold origami cranes in her memory, and the colorful creations can be found throughout Hiroshima. I challenge even the crustiest of curmudgeons to remain unmoved in the face of Sadako’s statue.
My other Hiroshima connection actually dates from a few years earlier, to perhaps 2000-ish, at which point I attended the fifty-something reunion of the engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My stepfather, John Carroll (Jack) Pennock, was one of that august group, a young officer with little notion of the magnitude of his assignment, just that if it worked, it could in some form or fashion dramatically affect the outcome of the war. Over the years, we had had our differences (occasionally loud ones) regarding the use of nuclear weapons, with Jack taking the position that the early end of the war actually saved countless Japanese lives (and American lives as well, of course), while I championed the “Give Peace a Chance” stance, firmly asserting that Pandora’s box should have forever remained unopened. Now that it has been opened, however, I have a huge difficulty seeing how it can ever be closed again, despite the fact that a nuclear weapon-free world is a laudable goal, at least in the abstract. One problem: if the US were to give up its nukes, how do we all ensure that some rogue fundamentalist faction plays by the same rules? I’d like to be optimistic, truly I would, but history seems to side with the pessimists at every turn.
I read a great story, probably apocryphal, sometime back, about a CNN reporter who was sent to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to interview an elderly rabbi who unfailingly said his prayers there on a twice-daily basis. He had been engaged in this ritual for some fifty years, and was quite the legend in the holy city.
“What do you pray for?” the reporter asked, holding the microphone toward the rabbi to catch his reply.
“Well,” he said, considering, “peace between the Jews and the Arabs, a safe environment for our children to grow up in, an end to the hatred and hostility that has plagued our people for generations…”
“And how do you feel it is working?” the reporter asked.
The rabbi gave her a resigned look and said, “It’s like I’m talking to a #%@%# wall.”
Still, human frailties notwithstanding, we have managed to go sixty-five years without detonating another atomic weapon in anger. Let’s raise a glass to the notion of another sixty-five, shall we?