Energy, Life, Weaponry, and Choice: Interrelational Reflections on a Hiroshima/Nagasaki Anniversary

Sixty five years ago, to my students, seems about as distant as 65,000 years ago, when the only sources of energy for our ancestors were wood and muscle. As a group, U.S. citizens are about as antipathetic to understanding the past as any people on earth. However, without this commitment to a processing of background, to a comprehension of how the past yields the present in identifiable and important ways, the future is going to unfold as a grotesque nightmare.

Sixty five years ago, of course, the U.S. mounted the second attack in the world's first--and so far, only--nuclear war. This year, with potent opinion pieces in sources as diverse as the New York Times and the Asheville Citizen Times, compassionate and thoughtful memory regarding August 6 and 9, 1945 seemed slightly more likely than often in the past, though the number of people who actually reflect on the decimation inflicted by our government is probably minimal. Thankfully, for the first time, the United States sent a representative to the peace ceremony that has been an annual event in Hiroshima since the attack that annihilated the city and sent roughly 150,000 people, mainly civilians, to their graves.

For a relatively 'balanced' assessment of the causes of and rationale for earth's first two atomic bombings, one might look at a source like the following. This is a subject that I have studied extensively, in both an academic and journalistic way, for both reasons of personal interest and a sense of what the idea of being a 'responsible citizen' entails. My take on the bombing, decidedly an 'informed opinion,' is that three conclusions are demonstrable:

  • The primary purpose of using 'Fat Boy' and 'Little Man' was to demonstrate the power of a new weapon;
  • The use of the bombs was not necessary to end WWII in similar fashion, and with similar casualties, as we actually ended the conflict;
  • The primary 'target' of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at least in some larger sense, was the Soviet Union and not Japan.
    Obviously, advancing such arguments, and possibly developing them persuasively, has profound implications for our understanding of our nation and the contemporary world.

But that is not what I want to write about today. Instead, I will address what turns out to be a multi-layered and central role that energy ought to play in our thinking about the 'lessons' of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those instructional units consist of at least four crucial points.

  • First, whatever folks' political orientation, they must acknowledge the critical role that control of fossil fuels has played in wars since World War One; America's embargo on oil exports to Japan led, ineluctably, to Pearl Harbor, for instance.
  • Second, nuclear weapons are historically inseparable from nuclear energy, and in a period in which both the budget of the U.S. Department of Energy revolves around H-bombs--a period like today--and the foreign policy of the U.S. revolves around sanctioning nations like Iran, whose nuclear energy program U.S. officials liken to the Manhattan Project, to ignore the necessity of understanding events like Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not only folly, but also likely to be ecocidal.
  • Third, neither human security nor energy security is plausible, in this time of inevitable transition from fossil fuels to some other primary source of power, in a context of continuing to boost the use of coal, insisting on the necessity of new nuclear power plants, or completely ignoring the grassroots demand for a massive increase in renewable energy.
  • Fourth, and tying together the other items on the list, a gigantic effort has to occur that simultaneously accomplishes two things: a capacitation of regular people to understand and participate in policy promulgation, and a promotion of not just the forms of democracy, but participatory methods that bring out the maximum effort and insight from everyone.

The first 'lesson' is simple. Both in a global sense and an individual usage, military machines operate on food and oil. Thus, no one should find surprising the conclusion that a key factor in the allies' going to war with Germany in 1914 was a German railroad project that would have gained direct, overland access to the oil fields that the Ottoman Empire nominally controlled in present-day Iran and Iraq. Nor are the following conclusions startling.

  • A core component of defeating the Germans in WWII as quickly as the allies did was the repeated successful destruction of the Nazi oil production capacity in Romania: moreover, as noted above, the denial of oil to imperial Japan was the number one factor in that country's 'hopeless' 'surprise' attack on Pearl Harbor;
  • Much less widely known is the fact that a vital strategic consideration in the United States' assumption of the French role in Indochina after the Gallic defeat at Dien Bien Phu was the actual and possible oil reserves available in the South China Sea;
  • More recently of course, the renaming of the Second Gulf War because of an inconvenient acronym--from Operation Iraqi Liberation to Operation Iraqi Freedom--is merely the most subtle evidence of the undeniable centrality of oil in the last twenty years of a state of war in Southwest Asia: sources as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Greg Palast might agree on very little, but they concur that fossil fuels are at the heart of this newest version of what Kissinger and Churchill have called 'the great game.'

Oil and empire go hand in glove. As the availability of this lubricious fuel of industrial revolution and imperial dominance diminishes--we live in the age of 'Post-Peak-Oil,' we can expect that the inflammatory potential of who owns and controls it will continue to burn. Thus, to take merely the most obvious example, the war in Afghanistan is a profound energy issue, or, put another way, the policy of pursuing war in Afghanistan emanates in part, perhaps in large part, from elements of imperial energy policy.

The second 'lesson' above concerns the connection between nuclear weaponry, which almost everyone acknowledges as a threat to human survival that only Global Warming might exceed in scope, and nuclear power, which governments and businessmen in particular view as the only methodology for managing the energy transition that must occur in the next several decades. For a brief introduction to the elements of this argument about interconnection, readers might refer to an essay that I wrote.

Basically, however, the analysis is straightforward. For reasons that are technological, historical, and political, the strong likelihood, or even certainty, is undeniable that nuclear energy will result in the creation and sustenance of nuclear weapons. One may take the present imbroglio over Iran as only the clearest case of this point in the present pass.

The third lesson from above flows from the first two. No fossil source of energy, even the magnificently abundant coal that represents the remains of previous life on earth, can either provide peace or a secure source of energy. Atomic power, meanwhile, because it leads to the overwhelmingly likely possibility of weapons of mass destruction, is also malapropos in terms of 'national security.' Furthermore, because of issues of cost and environmental problems associated with the 'byproducts' that are not useable in weaponry, both of which issues receive copious coverage from multiple authorities, nukes are also problematic as a viable and reliable energy source.

The final lesson concerns individual and interconnected citizens. It relates to our social responsibilities. Essentially, this required-course-for-survival contends that a culture of complaint, and a concomitant hope for rescue by 'true leaders' or by 'better managers,' cannot win the day in this 'time to try men's souls.'

Instead, people must gain the skills and knowledge, and, equally important, develop the networks, that permit them to watch out for their own and their children's and the ecosphere's interests, a basis for all sorts of important popular organizing over the past twenty years. The nub of this point, which is absolutely the core of this JustMeans blog, is that neither this 'skilling up' nor this increase in comprehension and participation will be possible except in the avowal of and struggle for true participatory democracy. In other words, rational energy choices depend on community-based-participatory political forms.

I've been commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in one way or another, almost every year since 1972. I cannot say with any certainty whether I am more like 'Chicken Little' or more akin to Cassandra. However, much wiser minds than mine--like the author and journalist John Hersey, who wrote Hiroshima, and Nobel Prize winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, to name just two of thousands--that humanity pick up the 'clue phone' in regard to the threat of nuclear weapons.

Simply stated, if we don't want to engage with what Hiroshima and Nagasaki teach, then we are not paying attention. Instead of failing a course in school as a result of this inattention, however, humankind may not survive. As Oe sums up his frustration about this,

As for me, on the day last week when I learned about the revival of the nuclear-umbrella ideology, I looked at myself sitting alone in my study in the dead of night . . . . . . and what I saw was an aged, powerless human being, motionless under the weight of this great outrage, just feeling the peculiarly concentrated tension, as if doing so (while doing nothing) were an art form in itself.

Three years ago, as part of the work that I did to memorialize this blinding flash in human history, I worked with one of my pupils, a Japanese post-doctoral student who needed help with writing and conversation, to make a more accessible translation of a powerful poem. She has a much clearer comprehension about what happened at the end of World War Two than do most Americans, which superior understanding also makes her more aware of the grave risks that confront a world that refuses to disembark from the nuclear highway. As such, she required no persuasion to make a substantial contribution to the path that I had demarcated for my younger charges.

She follows various trends in Japanese culture, including the literature of Hibakusha, who have for decades produced an outsize proportion of Japanese prose and poetry. She selected one of Sadako Kurihara's classical evocations of purpose in the face of infamy. Together, we retranslated, "New Life" (AKA "We Shall Bring Forth New Life") possibly Kurihara's most famous verse, which chillingly evokes the crack of doom awaiting a terran populace that insists on willful ignorance of these issues. The vision of Kurihara, both grim and grasping for hope, might inspire us in our endeavors.

New Life
Night--pressing on a broken building's basement
Filled with sprawling, wretched A-bomb victims--
Darkened the feeble candles which were the only light
To show a room overflowing with bodies
More broken even than their housing.

Sweat and blood and death subsumed my nose,
While moans and keening cries for mercy
Battered my ears with dose after dose after dose
Of the writhing pain that suffused me and all I touched,
Until I thought, "we all must die."

Suddenly, in this basement turned to living hell,
A young girl's voice sounded and transformed the suffering.
Wonder filled, she said, "The baby's coming!" and thus, still,
In spite of everything, a young woman's labor caused all to forget
Their own pain because a newborn might come forth to save us yet.

What could we do, though, having not even matches
That might increase the forbidding darkness of our end?
From a woman's form that had tossed and turned in agony,
Whose wails had punctuated the fetid dirge of our deathsong,
Came simply this: "I am a midwife."

"Before I die, I can bring her child to life," she said with a sigh.
The truth of her promise quite quickly came to pass, and
A new child emerged in the inferno's smoke and smolder,
While the midwife, her wounds still weeping blood,
expired upon my shoulder.

Her promise is the one we live by still.
Even in the fires of hell, as life's blood seeps away,
We will bring forth new life, even unto death.
With birth to tie ourselves to Earth even as we go,
Life is our vow, life is our will.

In part, I include such snippets from humanistic outpourings in an 'energy blog' because I maintain that all aspects of life interconnect with and depend on each other. We cannot achieve what we need to accomplish, in other words, without a mythic element to the task. Ms. Kurihara's optimism must be the basis for what fires us now to action. Our hope must have action as its basis; our hope must commit to peace and justice; our hope must come from a recognition of how we can help ourselves; our hope, if other than carnage is to be our fate, must look to a future that fundamentally transforms a past we have not yet understood.

Photo credits

Hiroshima Genbaku Dome: Nestor
Nagasaki Temple: public domain
Oil Rig: public domain
Nuclear Power Plant diagram: Steffen Kuntoff
Nuclear Plant - Benuski
Hiroshima Survivor artwork: author photo of 2007 Emory University exhibit