Once upon a time, in a land called The United States of America, May thirtieth was a day that commemorated the soldiers who lost their lives while serving their country.
The graves of fallen servicemen and women were decorated with flowers and flags on Decoration Day as a highly inadequate but heartfelt tribute to honor those soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Laying flowers on graves is a prehistoric practice but consensus has it that Decoration Day was established May 30, 1868 when General John Logan eulogized the deaths of over 600,000 American soldiers who died during the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. After the speeches and oratory on that Saturday at Arlington Cemetery an army of 5,000 volunteers laid flowers on the graves of over 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers to honor the dead and work toward healing a devastated and divided nation.
Memorial Day arose from Decoration Day and in keeping with America’s evolving sense of prioritization in 1971 the inconvenient May 30th remembrance was changed to the last Monday in May, effectively paving the way to the trivialization of this salute to our fallen warriors. For many Memorial Day now simply marks a three-day weekend ushering in the beginning of summer. For me it is much more.
Many of us confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day. Veterans Day is November 11th and honors all US military personnel while Memorial Day is a day in which we remember military personnel who died serving our country. I associate hundreds of faces with Veterans Day, including my sister’s and her husband’s, but the face I think of on Memorial Day is that of my uncle, William Kenel.
My father, his four brothers and my mother’s brother all served in the US military. Three of these men, Philip Markey, Daniel Kenel and William Kenel fought in World War II. Phil and Dan returned from service but Bill was killed, murdered, while being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese.
World War II ended nearly sixteen years before I was born. I was not reared on racial prejudice and though my father refused to buy a Japanese car because of his brother Bill’s POW murder he was proud of the fact that in the 1960’s big brother and WWII veteran Dan graciously accepted a Japanese foreign exchange student into his home. Dad was also pleased when I hosted a Japanese exchange student for a short term visit to the USA in 2008.
War is an atrocious thing. Some wars are more heinous than others. Over 60,000,000 people died in World War II. Germany, with her death camps and agenda of genocide, has acknowledged its part in the devastation of the world that occurred between 1939 and 1945. This is far less true of Japan.
World War II was again in the news with President Obama’s visit to Japan. Obama is the first US president to visit Hiroshima which, on August 6, 1945, was destroyed by nuclear bomb when Little Boy was dropped by the Enola Gay over the city. Three days later Nagasaki was also destroyed by uranium bomb. Less than one week later Japan ended her reign of terror.
I remember arguing with my father over the morality and necessity of the two US nuclear strikes on Japan. Fifteen is a sophomoric age and it was then that I earnestly asked if perhaps we couldn’t have detonated one of our two atom bombs over an unpopulated area with a warning that there were many more at our disposal. Dad shook his head in dismay. The US had only two bombs and there was no assurance that they would work. Soldiers and sailors were dying daily as the empire sent out kamikaze pilots hell bent on saving the Japanese mainland. Using nuclear weapons meant shortening the war and saving hundreds of thousands of lives, both US and Japanese. I listened but at that point I did not hear. The threat of nuclear annihilation was far different in 1976 than it was in 1945 and my limited experience made me blind to the reality of that difference. I have since come around to conventional 1945 US dogma concerning the use of A-Bombs on Japan.
I do believe that ending the war of aggression that the Axis Powers reaped upon the earth was essential. It is undeniable that Japan committed atrocities throughout Asia and held in contempt any who dared stand against it. Ending the war was essential but what of the use of nuclear weapons?
The main goal of using nuclear weapons against Japan was to show them the futility of continuing their war. The morality concerning the decision to do so in 1945 was very different than it would be today. Over 100,000 people had already died in Tokyo bombings, roughly the same as Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Defeating Japan was essential and bringing the war to a quick end without an invasion unquestionably saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The destruction of these two cities was in keeping with the lethality of World War II and represents a necessary reaction to Japan’s imperialistic ferocity. For all these reasons I feel that the United States in no way owes Japan an apology for the nuclear strikes. Not all agree.
Many of President Obama’s detractors criticized his decision to visit Hiroshima. I do not share the feeling that a Hiroshima visit was ill advised.
There was also much discussion concerning the possibility that Obama would apologize for our 08/06/45 bombing mission, a possibility that filled me with anger. President Obama did not apologize for the US bombing of Hiroshima. He called for peace and nuclear disarmament: A hope that human beings can leave behind barbarism and ascend to a higher way of working out differences. His speech, while full of platitudes, was one of hope and a need for change. It was not an apology, it was a declaration that human beings need to settle grievances and dispute without resorting to force or war; something I hope we can all work towards.
Nearly three quarters of a century has passed since World War Two. The United States and Japan, once mortal enemies, are allies. Nationalism, religious ferocity, xenophobia and countless other barriers to peace still exist and we have a long way to go before swords will be shaped into plowshares. Acknowledging horrors and fighting against them is important work but apologizing for the horrid actions of another gets us no closer to peace than does capitulation; I’m glad President Obama seems to realize this.
BTW- Do I think that retribution played any part in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Seems to me that then vice-president George Bush’s September 7, 1988 gaffe says it all, ”Today is Pearl Harbor Day – 47 years ago from this very day we were hit and hit hard at Pearl Harbor.” Was Bush’s statement a mere slip of the tongue or the world’s most telling Freudian slip concerning how America’s Greatest Generation really felt about payback to Japan? I’d lay long odds that in 1945 most Americans felt that Japan got exactly what she deserved for attacking us, whether that’s true or not I certainly don’t think we owe the aggressors an apology for ending the war that they began. Just look at how well peace at any price worked in 1939.