By George Capaccio. Axis of Logic exclusive
It was, after all, New Year’s Eve, and Lynn our hostess naturally wanted the evening to be a festive occasion. She and her husband Carl had spared no expense in providing us with the most decorous of settings in which to welcome the birth of the New Year. Besides offering us a selection of vintage wines and an abundance of food, they had lovingly planned the evening’s agenda. We would chat and nibble tapas in the family room, then consult a set of Celtic runes for answers to our most pressing questions, and top things off by pulling apart golden party poppers that showered us with confetti, tiny toys, and clever sayings on strips of paper.
Near midnight, with drinks in hand, we traipsed downstairs to the TV room to witness the venerable Times Square countdown. Five-four . . . one! Down came the signature ball! Fireworks exploding, corks popping from Caracas to Istanbul. Champagne foaming, filling up glasses. Couples kissing. Jubilant music announcing the arrival of the New Year in a shiny limousine stocked with hope and the promise of good fortune and cheer, love, and every conceivable success. And so many shiny, joyful faces caught up in the cameras’ close up views. Each face a living proof that a change in the calendar had the power to transmute all our past sins and sufferings into a golden innocence, a second chance to have the life we have always aspired to but could never quite succeed in reaching.
When all the televised hoopla was through and we had finished off a bottle of champagne, we moved upstairs to the living room where faux logs burned on a gas-fed hearth and preset flames safely danced behind protective glass. There were six of us. Three couples squeezed together on opposing sofas with plates of sweets on our laps and cups of coffee at the ready. Cuddles, the family cat, settled down by the fireplace. Prim holiday lights twinkled around the room. Christmas bric-a-brac charmed the mantle. Our hostess, trying to keep things gay and frothy, suggested another game, which we played with great delight.
And then, when the game was over and the conversation resumed, I asked Roy, a fellow reveler in his late eighties, what he did before he retired.
“I was an engineer,” he answered. “I went to MIT after I got out of the Army.”
Roy had enlisted in 1941, was assigned to the infantry, and eventually fought on Okinawa where one of the bloodiest battles of the war in the Pacific took place. I hoped he would tell us something about his wartime experience but I knew better than to ask him directly. We hardly knew each other so it was unlikely he would open up about what had to be well guarded, if not traumatic memories. Besides, we were there to have fun and not ruin the atmosphere with anything dour or bleak, or, heaven forbid, serious.
Inexplicably, given his wife’s wishes for a party atmosphere, Carl our host brought up the atomic bombings that ended the war in the Pacific where his old friend Roy had fought and nearly died. Carl stretched out his legs and clasped his hands behind his head in an attitude of sublime comfort and ease.
“I’ve often wondered,” he said, “about what we did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Was it the right thing to do?”
“Hooray!” I wanted to shout out loud. “At last, a topic we can sink our teeth into!” Alert as a leopard getting the scent of something big, I sat up in my seat, prepared to engage in an adult discussion.
“But then I remember what the Japanese did in Manchuria,” Carl continued. “They murdered thousands upon thousands of people in the most savage ways, and not just soldiers. Women and children, too. Innocent civilians bombed, bayoneted, beheaded, tortured, and raped. And it didn’t stop in Manchuria. They invaded China in 1937 and caused something like 20 million casualties over the next eight years.”
I could see where Carl was going. The savagery of the Japanese justified our use of atomic weapons to end the war. Besides, the death toll from the twin bombings paled in comparison to the number of civilians the Japanese killed in Japan’s war with China and its involvement in the Second World War. Ipso facto, the Japs had it coming, and we’ve got nothing to regret about dropping the big one on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Carl yawned and stretched again. He was clearly comfortable with this line of reasoning. Lynn tried to change the subject. Roy’s wife Greta, a dignified lady in her late seventies, seemed taken aback by Carl’s sudden leap into ancient history. Her husband, sitting at the fireside end of the couch, lifted his coffee cup from a slightly trembling saucer. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Should I yield the floor to my host and not disturb the bonhomie we had spent the evening creating? Should I leave the room on the pretext of answering a call from nature? Or should I challenge Carl’s view of nuclear annihilation as a morally acceptable response to Japanese war crimes?
I decided to speak my mind. “What about our strategy of bombing civilian populations during the War?” I said. “How many innocent people did we kill in firebombing raids over cities like Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo? Was this indiscriminate bombing any less barbarous than what the Japanese had done and still were doing?”
Make no mistake. I had awakened the dragon. The atmosphere in the room significantly warmed. Gone were the polite exchanges, the humorous retorts, the good-natured rapport, and the lavish gaiety. All eyes turned toward Carl and me. Meeting on the field of battle, we unsheathed our swords after not having clashed over political matters for nearly a decade.
Carl struck first. “Yes, we’ve done some terrible things. I grant you that. But Truman had no choice. He wanted to end the war without our having to invade Japan. By dropping the Bomb, he saved hundreds of thousands of our men. And he saved Japanese lives, too. A land invasion would have killed more Japanese than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
For a brief moment, I was speechless. Carl’s argument was formidable indeed. Its pure rationality and logic shone like an impenetrable suit of armor. I had one move left and I made it.
“But that’s a myth,” I said.
“What myth are you talking about?”
“The myth that says we had to use atomic bombs in order to save lives and avoid a land invasion.”
By now, Carl was becoming heated. So was I. We were both coming dangerously close to each other’s tripwires. For Carl, it is his deeply held belief that the United States would never have deliberately incinerated two Japanese cities unless the end justified the means. For me, it is an equally strong belief that this country is quite capable of committing crimes against humanity, has done so in the past, and will continue to do so as long as people remain blind to their own history and prefer the embrace of comforting myths.
Carl’s wife Lynn suddenly stood up. “I can’t take this any longer,” she said, close to tears. “This is not what this evening is supposed to be about.” She left the living room. The rest of us remained seated.
After a brief, awkward pause, I decided, wrongly or not, to press my case. “The Japanese,” I argued, “were ready to surrender. One of their conditions was that the Emperor be allowed to remain if only as a figurehead. It was not necessary to drop atomic bombs to end the war in the Pacific. Truman knew this. But he wanted to show the Russians that once the war ended, the United States would be in charge of the postwar world. He also knew the American people could never condone a calculated act of massive destruction using what was up until that time the most fearsome weapon in the history of humankind. So he spun a story about dropping the Bomb in order to save American and Japanese lives. That was vastly more palatable. But it was a lie. The truth was something else.”
Full disclosure: I never said my peace in exactly those words nor in one continuous stream of rhetoric. Rather, at each step of the way, my worthy opponent and longtime friend objected, fought back, denied, rejected what he considered mere personal opinion and a sign of my abysmal ignorance. When I repeated my argument that the use of atomic bombs (nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy) was more for publicity purposes than for bringing about Japan’s unconditional surrender, Carl landed a glancing blow.
“How can you sit there and call Truman a liar and say the Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender before we dropped the Bomb!”
Carl leaned forward in his chair and gestured toward Roy, the World War II vet still sitting on the end of the sofa. Sounding personally offended, he said, “And you have no right to insult this man. Roy was there. He fought on Okinawa. He knew what the Japanese were capable of. And he knew what had to be done to stop them once and for all.”
I started to respond but Carl cut me short. Rising to his feet, he shouted, “That’s enough! No more!”
Out of deference to his seniority and the fact that I was a guest in Carl’s home, I stepped back, sheathed my sword, and was silent. The battle was over, or so I thought.
Hoping to defuse the tension and restore our former amity, my wife introduced what she thought would be a neutral subject. “So what do we all think about Wikileaks?” she asked.
The others were familiar with Wikileaks and the controversy swirling around that “Australian guy,” who has published thousands of classified government documents. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to mention that the alleged source of these documents is Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old Army private who had been working as an intelligence analyst. I added that Manning is being held in solitary confinement in a military brig in Virginia.
By now, Carl’s wife Lynn had returned to the living room and was adjusting the flames in the fireplace. The couple’s cat, curled up at Lynn’s feet, had fallen asleep.
I went on: “He sits entirely alone in his cell for 23 hours a day and is under constant surveillance. He’s not even allowed to exercise.” I could feel myself becoming emotionally invested in what I was saying and wanting to lash out at the cruelty of Manning’s captors and of the policies they enforce.
My wife could read the signs. She discreetly tugged at the sleeve of my sweater. This was her way of signaling me to stop now before I went too far.
I ignored her signal. “His isolation is so severe that medical personnel are dosing him with anti-depressants so he doesn’t lose his mind.”
My wife tugged my sleeve a tad harder. But I was on a roll, and there was no stopping me now. ““From what I’ve read, Manning’s treatment amounts to torture.”
Roy put down his coffee cup. “Sounds to me like he deserves the sort of treatment he’s getting,” he said.
“He deserves to be tortured?” I asked, not quite believing what I was hearing.
Roy nodded. “He shouldn’t have done what he did. It’s a crime what he did. A serious crime.”
Poor Roy. He had no idea how many volatile feelings his words had struck in me. I lit up in a flash of anger. For the second time that night my training in nonviolent communication had broken down. I know. I should have kept my mouth shut and played the part of the amiable guest enjoying the company of friends and looking ahead to the New Year. But Roy’s attitude toward torture as an acceptable form of punishment demanded a response.
As I raised my voice, preparing to bring down the wrath of God on Roy’s head, a compressed file of images exploded in mine. Each one was evidence of a decade-long series of crimes for which none of the perpetrators have been charged. Rather, they publish their memoirs, appear on talk shows, are regarded as senior statesmen worthy of our respect and admiration, or simply recede into a posh, cashmere retirement. No solitary confinement on their horizon.
My attention returned to Roy, still sitting on the fireside end of the sofa. Gentle, soft-spoken Roy with a giggly, almost girlish laugh and two fingers missing from his right hand, probably lost on Okinawa. Hard to picture him in combat gear, lobbing grenades from a foxhole or charging full steam ahead with bayonet fixed and eyes ablaze with warrior valor. But Roy, patriotic, church-going elder, believes in torture for anyone who crosses the military or the government.
Sensing that I too had crossed a line of sorts, I shut my mouth and almost apologized for being such a buzzkill. Gradually, the atmosphere lightened and the spirit of the occasion flickered back into life. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve, time for looking ahead, for emulating our forward-thinking President who prefers to let bygones be bygones and wars of aggression, torture, indefinite detention, and black sites fade into a bipartisan mist.
Hit it, boys! One last time!
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
George Capaccio is a writer and peace activist who traveled many times to Iraq during the sanctions era and is now involved with the Iraqi refugee community in Massachusetts. Contact George Capaccio