Wed, 06 Aug 2003

The lunchbox and the Hiroshima bomb

Tzvetan Todorov, Director of Research Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris, Project Syndicate

Each anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reminds us that memory is not morally neutral. It leans towards good or evil, and four main perspectives powerfully shape every historical account: The benefactor or his beneficiary, and the malefactor or his victim.

To be the beneficiary of an action is less glorious than to be the benefactor, because it hints at powerlessness and dependence. But to be the victim of a crime is more respectable than being a criminal. And while no one wants to be a victim, many nowadays want to have been a victim: They aspire to victim status.

Victimhood confers a right to complain, protest, and demand. It is in your best interest to retain the role of the victim, rather than receive reparation. Instead of a one-time satisfaction, you retain a permanent privilege.

And if it can be convincingly shown that a group has been the victim of a past injustice, this group obtains a bottomless line of moral credit. The greater the crime in the past, the more compelling the rights in the present -- which are gained merely through membership in the wronged group.

We now recognize more clearly than ever that history has always been written by the victors, which gave rise in recent decades to frequent demands that the history of the victims and the defeated be written, at least next to that of the victors.

This is an entirely legitimate demand, because it invites us to become familiar with a previously ignored past. Yet speaking in the name of victims doesn't bring additional ethical merit.

Indeed, no moral benefit can be derived from evoking the past if we fail to realize our group's shortcomings or errors. But doing so is problematic. In 1995 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington sought to take a fresh look at the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. John Dower, an American historian and specialist of modern Japan, studied the issue at length.

He demonstrated how history can be presented and valued in totally different ways: From an American or Japanese point of view, even though no one is making up facts or falsifying sources. Selection and combination of data is enough.

For the Americans, there was "a heroic or triumphant account in which atomic bombs represent the final blow against an aggressive, fanatic, and savage enemy." From the Japanese perspective, there was an "account of victimization," in which "atomic bombs have become the symbol of a specific type of suffering -- rather similar to the Holocaust for the Jews."

At the Hiroshima museum itself, the victim role has been exploited in ways that similarly distort memory. Neither the Japanese government's responsibility for initiating and continuing the war nor the inhumane treatment that prisoners of war or the subject civilian populations suffered under Japanese rule are adequately acknowledged.

Everyone chooses the point of view that fits him best. Whether we identify with the heroes or the victims, with the pilots of the plane that put an end to World War II or with the passive population subjected to the hell of atomic annihilation, we are always rooting with the "innocents" and the "good guys."

At the Smithsonian, the Enola Gay was to play a central role in an exhibition meant to depict the Hiroshima bombing in all its complexity. However, due to the pressure of various U.S. patriotic groups, the exhibition was canceled; it was seen as an offense against memory. By failing to depict the Americans in the role of heroic benefactors, it suggested that they were responsible for a massacre that could not be totally justified.

What would an account about evil be like if the author refused to identify himself with either the hero or the victim? Dower's research into the different ways Americans and Japanese remember Hiroshima provides us with a good example. He could identify with both groups: He belongs to one and his work has made him intimately familiar with the other. The title he gave to his version of the facts, after trying out "Hiroshima as a victimization" (the Japanese point of view) and "Hiroshima as a triumph" (the American point of view), was "Hiroshima as a tragedy."

Tragedy: The word signifies not only suffering and distress, but the impossibility of redemption. Whatever path is chosen, in a tragedy tears and death inevitably follow. The cause of the Allied forces was superior to that of the Nazis or the Japanese, and the war against them was just and necessary. However, even "just" wars provoke tragedies that cannot be dismissed lightly under the pretense that it was the enemy that suffered them.

The 12-year-old child's lunchbox blasted at Hiroshima, preserved by chance, with its rice and peas charred by the atomic explosion, weighs as much on our conscience as the Enola Gay. Indeed, it was the display of the box among the artifacts that the Hiroshima museum lent to the American institution that made the exhibition unacceptable to the former "heroes."

Only if one musters the courage to envision the bomber and the lunchbox at the same time is it possible to comprehend the tragic vision of history that Hiroshima -- like other episodes that have seared our modern conscience -- most clearly represents.

The writer is the author of Hope and Memory, published by Princeton University Press.