Raising the Question of Disarmament, Again

Hiroshima, Japan -- Inside the building there is a soft shuffling sound amid the silence. People shuffle on the carpet as if entering a wake. In some sense, they are. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum commemorates the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the first manmade nuclear catastrophe. In some sense, it also mourns our loss of innocence as a species, when we learned we had the power to completely destroy ourselves.

The museum tour begins with footage of the mushroom cloud and a pastiche of facts. The first heat blast was 900 times hotter than the sun. Eighty thousand people died instantly when the U.S. Enola Gay dropped "Little Boy" on Aug. 6, 1945. Approximately 200,000 people died by 1950 from injuries and radiation poisoning. Another 100,000 may have died from bomb-related causes since.

On Aug. 9, another U.S. plane dropped a larger bomb, "Fat Man," on Nagasaki. Because of the mountainous terrain, fewer people died: 70,000 by the end of the first year.

Burnt baby clothes. A warped metal lunch tin still filled with its incinerated contents. More gruesome mementoes: the hair that fell out, warped nails, keloided skin. One homemade wooden sandal, the only object that identified a dead girl. We visitors peered at each remnant behind glass, fragments of the lives that were lost.

I was sickened at the description of students burnt so badly that the skin on their arms slipped off and forward, hanging from their fingertips like loosened gloves. I finally started to cry when I saw the placard by a little rusted tricycle. One month shy of his fourth birthday, Shinichi Tetsutani was riding his tricycle in his front yard when the bomb hit. Burned beyond help, he spent the day in agony and died that night. Shinichi's father buried him in the backyard with the body of a girl he used to play with, and with his tricycle. Forty years later, the family re-buried the remains, and donated the rusted tricycle to the museum.

My mind flipped to an image of the Raggedy Ann doll found in the rubble of the World Trade Center, and then to the story of Juliana Valentine McCourt. The 4-year-old was flying with her mother to visit Disneyland on September 11. A family friend, also traveling from Boston, was supposed to meet them there. McCourt and her mother Ruth boarded United Airlines Flight 175, which hijackers steered into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Their friend Page Farley Hackel was on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower. When I cried for Shinichi I cried for Juliana and many other children who have died in conflicts they can't understand.

The people who filled the museum were mostly Japanese, from babies in their mothers' arms to an old man walking with two canes. I wondered if any were hibakusha, or A Bomb survivors. Would they want to see the vivid reminders of what they'd lived through? Among the many Westerners were crew-cut U.S. military men from local bases, solemnly absorbing what the endgame of war might mean.

Hiroshima's peace museum is filled with exhortations never to relive the "evil" of this day. From the Japanese perspective, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were evil. From the American perspective at that time, they were heroic military actions taken to end the war and further suffering.

Japanese citizens I spoke with during my trip were shocked that the Smithsonian Museum exhibited the Enola Gay on the 50th anniversary of the bombing. That exhibit became one of the most controversial in the museum's history. Veteran's groups objected to materials that they said made them look bent on vengeance. Because of their protests, the plane was exhibited with almost no historical material, and the director at the time resigned.

"The past isn't dead. It isn't even past," said William Faulkner. And even today, our country and Japan are reliving the legacies of World War II. We, as the victors, have largely retreated into the comfortable haze of laudatory war movies about the greatest generation. Japan not only lost the war, but its ability to occupy and control territories throughout Asia, particularly China and Korea. The rebuilding of post-war Japanese society has come with constant soul-searching about the place and meaning of the past, with some defiant neo-nationalists beginning to mix their opinions with the general remorse and regret for actions like the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.

Our leaders can't seem to get enough of the word "evil" these days. During the State of the Union speech in which President Bush named Iran, Iraq and North Korea an "axis of evil," he said "Evil is real, and it must be opposed."

There's no lack of opposition. Today humans across the world can arm themselves with weapons fit for gods, point them at each other and cry "evil." Evil, at least on this earth, is still a flexible and subjective term. Our concept of it bends to public opinion, nationalism, fear and historical perspective. What the majority condones at one moment -- slavery, the Holocaust -- may become the evils of the next age.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of our time is to draw the clarity of historical perspective ever closer to the present day. What is happening now that will seem evil in 40 years time, or least unbelievably stupid and self-destructive? My long personal list ranges from the tacit acceptance of the global AIDS epidemic to the U.S. prison industrial complex. At the top, a point so depressingly obvious I can't bear to think about it often: We will never be safe so long as multiple countries and possibly unknown free agents have the power to end the world at any moment.

I am a nuclear baby. I grew up at the end of the duck-and-cover age, doing silly drills in my first-grade classroom, seeing those radiation signs leading us to a basement that would never protect us from a blast. Watching TV during dinner in the Reagan 1980s, I felt the tensions of a Cold War I couldn't fully understand, and read fatalistic novels about what would happen after a nuclear strike. And then the Soviet Union crumbled under glastnost. We had earned a blessed respite.

But our plans to disarm went awry. Even Ronald Reagan said in 1982 that nuclear war "cannot be won and must never be fought." Under pressure from disarmament advocates, he implemented treaties with the Soviet Union. But President Reagan also initiated the plan for a "Star Wars" national missile defense initiative, or bombs that would explode enemy bombs in the sky.

Today, although the United States has spent over $120 billion testing the system, it point-blank does not work. But President Bush increased the fiscal year 2002 budget 60 percent to roughly $8 billion per year. He also stated, "Now is the time not to defend outdated treaties but to defend the American people."

Because we are spending money we don't have on a program that doesn't work, we risk inflaming the nuclear threat rather than decreasing it. Russian president Vladimir Putin remarked that if the United States unilaterally violates anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaties with "star wars" technology, Russia would then consider all arms agreements void. But this economically hard-pressed country may not be able to protect the arms it has, which, like its biological weapons, could pass into the hands of terrorists. We'd be better off devoting our efforts to making sure they decommission their nuclear weapons, and lessening ours.

And a Pentagon report called "Foreign Responses to U.S. National Missile Defense" states that if the U.S. builds a shield, China will expand its long-range nuclear arsenal tenfold, from 20 missiles to 200. In other words, if we get new guns, so will the other guys. And just as the Cold War bankrupted the Soviet Union, a War on Terrorism that relies on overblown military spending could empty U.S. coffers.

At a conference in Switzerland last year, I ate dinner with a U.S. military official working on "star wars." He tried to convince me that the $60 billion or so price tag was a bargain. He also gave me a gray missile defense sticker featuring a variety of little bomb-like icons. I suppose if I put that on my window, like an alarm system label, the nukes will avoid me. (The stickers, by the way, are extremely ugly. If nothing else, the Federal Government could have shaved a few dollars on that.) Another person at the table gave me a look of disgust, reserved for traitors, because I didn't support the missile plan.

I have no desire to burn to death, explode, melt, vaporize or die from radiation poisoning. I don't think President Bush and his advisors want to either, but I question their means of keeping us safe.

President Reagan began disarmament in large part due to pressure from citizens, scientists and policymakers who saw the dangers of the arms race. These dangers are hidden in the silos of middle America and the Rockies, while the nuclear devastation Japan lived through is now concealed by skyscrapers.

When I stepped outside the peace museum, I found it hard to believe Hiroshima had ever seen tragedy. A toddler in a shirt with red, white and blue stars stomped up to me, took my hand and led me a few steps through the plaza. Folk musicians sang along a bridge by the water. Their backdrop was the Atomic Dome, the ghostly shell of the only building left close to the blast epicenter. Most of the central city and its occupants were vaporized.

Today, Hiroshima is beautifully rebuilt, clean and new, filled with shops and tourists. It is a Phoenix risen from the ashes. Of course, the bombs we have built since 1945 are much, much stronger. So will we have to be, not to use them.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.com.

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