Thursday, December 06, 2007

J's Book Report: "First into Nagasaki"

I just finished a really good book loaned to me by my roommate. It's called "First Into Nagasaki," by George Weller. Basically, it's a bunch of news reports written by Weller, who was, literally, the first free Westerner to enter Nagasaki after the 2nd atomic bomb was dropped. The thing about these reports is that they were never published - General MacArthur had them all censored before they left Japan. Weller's son discovered them, half molding, in a box of his father's documents a few years ago.

I was expecting more of a book documenting the effects of the bomb on the city and its inhabitants. What I ended up with were essentially news reports - short stories and essays about the bomb, as well as a ton of statements from surviving POWs - American, British and Australian. The most disturbing part was reading the accounts of the 'hell ships.' These were ships used by the Japanese to transport Allied POWs, often unmarked by Red Cross or any other signifier, so some of them were attacked by Allied aircraft and sunk. The account discusses the depravities undertaken by the POWs, who were stuffed into the holds in such numbers that many asphyxiated or went insane.

One of the more interesting accounts was by a group of American prisoners who were directly beneath the blast, yet managed to survive by hiding in a shallow trench when the plane flew overhead. You have to wonder what people would've said had they known that 'the Bomb' had been dropped on their own countrymen.

Another interesting idea that can be gleaned from the book is the capacity for barbarism in the human soul. A lot of the prisoners were quoted as saying the Americans should drop more bombs just to clean up these 'animals,' as the Japanese were called. A rather understandable sentiment from someone who survived the Bataan death march and 2 1/2 years as slave labor in a deathtrap coal mine. But what strikes me is seeing the Japanese of today, and thinking how unlike the people I've met the Japanese of sixty years ago seem. It just goes to show that you, I or any other person is capable of the things done by the Japanese during WWII. "There, but for the grace of God, go I," and all that. It's only the rule of law and the mores of our society that prevent this, somehting that should be kept in mind when people try to tell you, 'waterboarding isn't torture.' It sure as hell is. The American POWs underwent it, as did they stress positions and being placed in rooms with vast temperature swings. They also suffered a million other atrocities, depths we have yet to plumb - but if a stand isn't taken here, I don't think it will take long for Americans' sense of decency to break down.

The book does an amazing job of recounting the Japanese response, essentially unchanged from now - "Oh, pity us poor Japanese, upon who was visited this most horrific of atrocities for no reason, none at all. What, war? I didn't see any war around here, did you?" Anyways, that's about all I'm going to rant about it. It's well worth your while to read about the semi-forgotten (at least in the American mind) other half of WWII.

(edited for title)


Anonymous said...

Good write, enjoyed reading it. When I was stationed in Berlin, I could not understand why a cultured, literate people could be blind sided by Hitler. No easy answer in any case. Every people will "posture" some to build their case. Too bad the guys who put the Sarin in the subway weren't so considerate. Think the muslim extremist who get get their hands on a nuke won't use it? Not on Japan but they will use it on "their Great Satan".

Your thoughts well put and well taken, though I'd ad my 2 pence.


Jeremy said...

"I could not understand why a cultured, literate people could be blind sided by Hitler."

It's not that hard. Just tell the population, who is suffering some sort of (real or perceived) hardship, that the gays/Jews/commies/Muslims are the source of all our problems and the rest will take care of itself.

We've barely dodged that bullet a number of times in our history - against Germans and Italians in the first two decades of the 20th century, against Japanese during WWII, the Red Scare, and now the militarists carrying on about the "Islamofascist threat."