Letter from Nagasaki

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

– Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution

I met Eduardo and Lilly Zaragoza two years ago at an event I was singing at, the annual fundraising dinner of the Albuquerque Peace and Justice Center. Eduardo was 79 years old at the time. A short, gentle, quiet man, he had joined the US Navy at the age of 17 and was sent off to occupy the defeated nation of Japan. One month after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, his ship docked in the port, beside the many melted, ruined ships that sat lifelessly in the harbor. He and his shipmates took a walk around the annihilated city, the vast expanse of charred and melted rubble that used to be the city of Nagasaki. On that day, Eduardo joined the ranks of what the Japanese call the hibakusha, radiation survivors.

His life has never been the same since. No matter how much he has tried to forget, the nightmares of the visions he saw have never ceased. The masses of bloated bodies floating in the water. The horribly burned, disfigured, screaming survivors in the makeshift hospital wards he visited. Like the rest of the hibakusha, Eduardo was mentally scarred by what he saw. His body has also never been the same. The symptoms of what we now know as radiation sickness began on his first day off the ship. When I met him, he and his wife were both struggling with cancer.

Eduardo and Lilly described to me how they had had four children, not including the miscarriages. One was stillborn. Two others died of the same rare disease as young adults. Their last surviving child was suffering from cancer when I met them. Both of them came from families with a history of longevity and no history of cancer.

Eduardo was one of many thousands of US soldiers who were purposefully exposed to nuclear radiation. Many of the others, in experiments easily worthy of the Nazi Dr. Mengele, were ordered to walk through desert areas where nuclear bombs had just been exploded. The horrifying results on their fragile human bodies were quite predictable, just as predictable as the military’s denials of reality.

Corbin Harney died of cancer last month at the age of 87. Untold numbers of other hibakusha in what we now call the Southwestern United States did not live to such a ripe old age, but Corbin was special, he was a Western Shoshone medicine man, from a long line of medicine men. Corbin was a veteran of World War II. Upon returning home, his reward for his service was for his home, the Western Shoshone Nation, to become, technically, the most bombed nation on Earth. He was to spend most of his adult life campaigning against nuclear testing in his homeland, the area now generally known as Nevada.

Corbin believed in the healing power of natural hot springs, among other things. I met him at his home, the Poo Bah ranch, in Nevada near the California border. For decades, Corbin got up before dawn every morning to greet the sun in a ceremony to which anybody was invited to join. The ceremony always began with Corbin playing a drum in front of a small fire. When people gathered with him around the fire, on the morning I joined him, like thousands of other mornings, he alternated between singing in his Shoshone language and speaking in English about the importance of the different elements of life.

He spoke first about the dark, and how important that was, how everything needs to rest, how the light comes from the dark, and how important the dark was “in the times when we were hunted” by the white invaders, to hide. He spoke about the rocks, how they are all alive, how some of the rocks are radioactive, which is fine, as long as they are left in the ground where they belong. He spoke about the wind, and the wind gusted. He spoke about the light, and just then, the sun poked up above the horizon. He spoke about the rain, and in this arid desert, for a few brief seconds, right then, the rain fell.

A few days before Corbin died on July 10th, he joked with his friends and relatives present that he would die at 11:00. Not to anyone’s surprise, he kept his word. After he died, his relatives saw four dog soldiers appear from the fog outside his window to take him away. I believe them.

I remember reading in a book how there was a brief period when the Indians were more or less left alone, near the beginning of the 20th century. After decades of “shoot on sight” genocidal warfare against the Indian nations of the west, after the lifeblood of so many people, the buffalo, were systematically slaughtered nearly into extinction by the Army and the settlers, after the last of the free Indian people were driven at gunpoint onto barren reservations and then starved to death en masse by corrupt government officials, there was a brief time when they were allowed to try to survive on their barren reservations. A brief period where although the buffalo were gone, their land was stolen, their previous means of livelihood were robbed of them, at least they were not being slaughtered by the Army.

Then on the Lakota and Navajo reservations and elsewhere, oil, coal and uranium were discovered. For so many hundreds of thousands of people ever since then, life has once again been a nightmare of uranium and coal mines, back-breaking labor, poisoning of the water, land, and air, and premature death by cancer — or by bullets, for daring to resist the uranium-mining corporations, such as the dozens of unsolved, uninvestigated murders of American Indian Movement activists in the 1970’s.

I remember reading somewhere that the cancer rate on the Navajo reservation — where there are hundreds of uranium mines, some closed, some still functioning, all toxic wastelands — is eight times the national average. It was sometime after that, in the early 1990’s, after the first US invasion of Iraq, that I read another statistic, that the cancer rate in Iraq had also risen by eight times what it had been before the invasion. And in southern Iraq, where most of the US artillery had been fired and bombs had fallen, so many of them full of “depleted” uranium, vaporizing on impact, the cancer rate was far higher.

I write this from Japan, where I’m doing a concert tour. I was unprepared for the extreme heat and humidity here, it’s like Houston or New Orleans, and with climate change kicking in it’s even hotter than usual. Seeking respite from the heat, I found myself in my air conditioned hotel room in Hiroshima, reading Robert Fisk’s most recent, magnificent book, The Great War for Civilization. That day I was on the chapter about the “Gulf War” and it’s aftermath. He didn’t use the word, but Fisk was writing about Iraq’s hibakusha, the innumerable children turning up at the overstretched hospital wards of Basra with “rare” cancers — children with leukemia (cancer of the blood), brain cancer, young teenage girls with breast cancer. Cancers the experienced Iraqi doctors had never seen in people so young, and certainly in nothing like the kind of numbers they were having to deal with at that time, and ever since then.

I arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport just about a month ago, and witnessed the almost completely rebuilt megalopolis that is Tokyo, and the seemingly unending expanse of cities surrounding it. During the war with the US, almost every major city in Japan was bombed into oblivion. Hundreds of thousands of children, women, senior citizens and others were indiscriminately slaughtered from the air. A few cities were being saved as potential A-Bomb targets, and the beautiful city of Kyoto was the only major city to survive the war structurally intact. After the USAF began running out of major cities to destroy, they started bombing small cities and larger towns. Indiscriminately bombing hospitals, schools, temples, churches, houses, entire neighborhoods — and yes, factories, too. All this with “conventional” weapons.

At my first hotel room there by the airport, NHK (Japan’s equivalent of the BBC) was delivering the news, talking at length (with English overdubs available at the push of a button for some of the programs) about the earthquake that had just hit northern Japan before I left Portland, and about the nuclear reactor — the world’s largest in terms of electrical output — that had caught fire and leaked radioactive water as a result. Usually this time of year northern Japan is bustling with visitors, but tourism in the area over the next weeks was down by 90%, NHK said. Apparently most Japanese people didn’t believe the government’s assurances that the radioactive leak was “insignificant.” After all they’ve been through with radiation, it’s easy to understand why.

On NHK they were also broadcasting the Asian Cup, the Asian version of the World Cup, one of the most-watched sporting events on the planet. (Except for in the US, where the 45 minutes of uninterrupted play make soccer a commercially unviable sport for TV.) Iraq won, and in halting English, the Iraqi team’s captain spoke out in front of the world’s media against the US occupation of his country, and said that after the game he was going to Qatar because it wasn’t safe to live in Iraq. He spoke of some of his dead friends and family members.

And then it occurred to me, not for the first time, but there in Japan for the first time, the thought hit me that the United States has been bombing a nation somewhere in Asia for most of the past 66 years. So soon after the virtual annihilation of Japan from the air, the USAF went ahead and did the same thing in Korea, dropping even more bombs on Korea than all sides in WWII combined, killing millions of innocent people and half a million Chinese soldiers (did you even know, dear reader, that we fought a war with China?).

In the same year that that war ended, we were sending in Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit, to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Iran, replacing him with one of history’s most tyrannical dictators, the Shah, who was to rule Iran with unspeakable brutality for the next quarter century. Then a few years later we were to invade Vietnam, completely destroying the country over the course of fifteen very long years, in the course of which we also invaded Laos and Cambodia, killing an estimated three million innocent civilians through indiscrimate carpet-bombing of three countries, leading directly to the insane Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia which then proceeded to kill so many more. (And I wretch every time I hear yet another person in the US say that “55,000 people died in Vietnam.” Just what defines “people” to those who would utter such a scandalous sentence?)

There are always pretenses for these invasions, and they are never called invasions. We support dictatorships in the name of democracy, overthrow democracies in the name of fighting “communism,” and when that bogeyman no longer inspired fear, then “terrorism” became the new watchword. And every day, more people worldwide die in car accidents than die in a year from non-state terrorism. Every day, more people die from falling down the stairs than those who die in a year from non-state terrorism. Every day, far more people die from breathing the toxic air – of cancer – than those who die in a year from non-state terrorism. But we invade countries and kill millions to stop the “terrorists,” while we relax environmental laws (in the name of “the economy”) which results directly in the deaths of millions more.

And when people in “America” doubt the wisdom of these invasions, when people raise questions about our government spending more every year on “defense” than the rest of the world combined while our cities are flooded, our bridges are collapsing, and millions of our children are going to bed hungry, sick and without health care, or the ability to read or write, we are told that we mustn’t be “isolationist.” We are told that there are “evil men” and “evil regimes” in this world that we must stop before they acquire nuclear weapons.

But they are mostly arming themselves to defend themselves from a possible — even likely — invasion by us. This is the historical reality, whatever the pundits say, whatever the textbooks say, whatever the politicians say. (And if you’d like to see the hard evidence, please pick up a copy of Joseph Gerson’s excellent book, Empire and the Bomb)

Somehow we are never the ones who started it. Somehow we need to have these 10,000 nuclear weapons, each one 1,000 times deadlier than the bomb that annihilated Hiroshima. And if you don’t believe it, they say, if our arguments about evil regimes and WMD’s and democracy are not convincing, remember World War II. Remember Hitler, remember the Nazi holocaust, remember the “Good War.” (Now, if you believe that the US entered the war in Europe to save my Jewish relatives then maybe you also believe that we’re in Iraq to save the Kurds and the Shiites, and I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Minneapolis, but I’ll save that tract for another essay.)

Remember the Good War. Remember the Rape of Nanking, when Japanese occupation soldiers raped and murdered their way through China, killing an estimated 100,000 in Nanking alone. Remember Hitler, who systematically killed millions in an orchestrated orgy of death unlike anything the world had ever seen — well, at least not since the Turks and their Kurdish underlings did the same thing to the Armenians, with nobody seriously doing anything to stop them, one short generation earlier, during the dying throes of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Systematic killing of millions in an orchestrated, high-tech genocide, aimed at wiping out entire populations of human beings.

Walking around the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the reminders of the atomic bombings, and of the desire of the people of these cities for a peaceful world free of nuclear weapons, are everywhere. On plaques, in museums, in the parks. Everywhere I went, walking around beneath the blazing sun that shines mercilessly, constantly, after the rainy season ends every summer, I just kept getting the same cold, eerie feeling I remember well from visiting the concentration camps that have been preserved for posterity in Germany.

Visting Buchenwald I remember the feeling, how can such an unspeakable horror as the Nazi holocaust possibly be represented effectively within the walls of a building? How can pictures, videos, hair, shoes, teeth, the few remains of the many dead, how can these things project the scope of this nightmare? hey can’t, really. But somehow, being there – and I know I’m not alone in this feeling — the ghosts are alive. Sit quietly for a few minutes in Buchenwald and you can hear the screams of the dying, feel the silence of the dead. The single candle burning in the middle of the empty room in the former gas chamber, with the Jewish prayer for forgiveness in the background, somehow communicates more than you might imagine if you haven’t been there.

It’s like that in Hiroshima. Seeing the few documentaries that ever make it onto TV in the US, hearing the testimonies of the hibakusha who occasionally visit the country that destroyed their cities and speak to the relatively few people who come to hear them, just isn’t the same. These cities were wiped out. They ceased to exist. Everything was gone. How can nothingness be memorialized? It can’t. But of the three steel-reinforced, concrete structures in Hiroshima that partially survived the apocalypse of August 6th, 1945, what is known as the Atomic Dome has been left as it was on that day. Mostly destroyed, but still recognizeable as a building. Most of the concrete turned to rubble, steel beams bent like straw, the inside completely gutted and burned long ago, when my parents were children.

This is what happened to an earthquake-proof, steel-reinforced structure. But this was a city of small wooden houses with clay tile roofs. All around this dome for miles, in this city surrounded by mountains, in this valley as far as the eye could see, were just flattened houses. In and around those houses, 70,000 people died in a matter of seconds, mostly women, children, and senior citizens.

Thousands more lived long enough — sometimes only a few minutes, sometimes a few hours — to walk, naked, their clothes having been burned off of them, their bodies charred black and red, their skin hanging off of them like seaweed, their arms outstretched, crying, walking on top of the collapsed houses of their neighbors, stepping over the dead and dying, walking towards one of the two rivers that flowed through the city. Many died before they got to the river, others died once they got to the river, and the rivers turned red from blood, and then black from radioactive ash that rained down from the sky. There were so many bodies in the river that they piled up and formed a huge dam.

Standing between those rivers, there in front of the dome at 3 am one evening, the words of the hibakusha I had had dinner with earlier came back to me. They were recounting the bits that they remembered, that trauma-induced amnesia had not obliterated. Every time was like reliving the experience, but they felt duty-bound to tell the stories to those who would listen.

Dr. Shoji Sawada was 13 when the bomb fell. He was sick that day, and unlike most people in Hiroshima, at 8:15 am he was not up and about, but was in bed, shielded by walls from the initial flash of light that burned tens of thousands of people to a crisp instantly. Shoji suddenly found himself covered in the rubble of his house, but managed to squirm out from under it.

Then he heard his mother calling. He looked around and couldn’t see her. Then he realized she was beneath him, pinned underneath a smoldering beam of wood. He tried with all his might to move the beam, but it was far beyond his physical abilities. He looked outside for help, but everyone around him was dead or dying. He went back in and tried to move the beam again, to no avail. The initial blast was as hot as the sun, which is what instantly killed anybody within a kilometer of it who was directly exposed, and most people within several kilometers of it. Immediately following this was a massive gust of wind many times stronger than the strongest typhoon, which is what flattened all the houses and snapped all the trees like toothpicks (leaving only parts of those few aforementioned steel structures, and a number of smokestacks, their cylindrical shape protecting them from the blast of wind).

Just after the wind, Shoji-san explained, everything combustible immediately caught fire. With the flames lapping at his legs, unable to move the beam of wood, he said, “forgive me, mother,” and ran towards the river. “Study hard and be a good student,” were her last words. And then she was burned to death, as her son survived the rest of the day in the river, surrounded by what can only be described as hell on Earth. Every day he remembers his mother, and her last words, and feels the pain and the guilt of the survivor once again.

Now multiply this scene by 70,000.

This was premeditated, high-tech mass murder targeted at civilians. Genocide. It was the Japanese holocaust. It was done to a country that was in complete ruins, whose government was in the process of attempting to surrender, but the “Allies” were pretending not to hear these messages because they wanted to drop the bomb first, to “send a message” to the Soviet Union, among other reasons. It was done to a country that had virtually no functioning industry. Yes, Mitsubishi had an armanents factory in Hiroshima, I learned from a visit to the museum there, but what the museum didn’t mention was that the workers were going there and waiting for parts which never arrived. Japanese industry was essentially totally crippled by the summer of 1945. There was no military value to the city of Hiroshima – even if having military value could possibly justify slaughtering 70,000 civilians.

Against the advice of most of the top military brass, Truman and Churchill connived to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima, knowing full well that it would result in indiscriminate death and destruction to an entire city.

And then they did it again, three days later, in Nagasaki, after the Japanese emperor had personally become involved in attempting to surrender to the “Allies,” under the same conditions of Germany’s surrender at Potsdam. Incidentally, the bomb over Nagasaki was dropped directly above the biggest concentration of Catholics in East Asia, almost directly over the biggest cathedral in East Asia, over a city that contained a POW camp, and all this was known to Truman and Churchill and his advisors who supported dropping the first and second bombs.

Completely annihilating one city full of civilians, and then doing it to another — after raining down death from “conventional” bombs indiscriminately throughout almost every population center in the nation. This “conventional” holocaust of unprecedented proportions was carried out by “FDR,” that great hero of the working class in the United States. Nuclear hell on Earth was brought to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by that down-to-Earth hoosier who never went to college, Harry Truman, and by his good friend Winston Churchill, the man lionized in the history books for saving Britain from Nazi tyranny. The fact that he also ordered the gassing of Iraqis a few years earlier and supervised the firebombing of Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg and most other major cities in Germany, himself responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians, is usually conveniently overlooked.

There was no “Good War.” Every war the US has been involved with since the “American” Revolution has been a war for empire, based on lies just as blatant as Colin Powell’s 31 lies he presented to the UN a few short years ago, as the corporate media hung on every ridiculous word. The victors write most of the histories, but many other histories are out there, often out of print, growing mold on the book shelves in the libraries of “America,” rarely used. As a result, we are a nation made up largely of idiots (thank you, Green Day). A Gallup poll two years ago asked people in the US whether they thought the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan was “necessary” to end the war. 57% said it was. This is beyond shameful, not to mention completely ahistorical, proof of the effectiveness of the bald propaganda of the victors of this “Good War.”

What if you asked a modern-day German whether they thought the holocaust was “necessary” — perhaps “necessary” to garner support for the German occupation from the largely anti-Semitic populations of the nations of eastern Europe? Even the very question would be appalling. Anyone answering “yes” would be considered something akin to a holocaust denier, some kind of monster, appropriately enough. What if you asked a modern-day Japanese person if the rape of Nanking was “necessary”? If he was a politician and answered in the affirmative to this question he would probably be driven out of office, just like Prime Minister Abe’s Defense Minister last month.

No, the Japanese Holocaust was not “necessary.” By any reasonable accounting of history, what was done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a holocaust as horrible in scope as what the Nazis did to Europe, except that it was carried out in a matter of seconds rather than years. By any reasonable accounting of history, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill were morally equivalent to Adolf Hitler. By any reasonable accounting of history, those in charge of the US Air Force were moral equivalents of the SS.

And why does it matter whether long-dead presidents were war criminals or not? Because the cliché is true: if you don’t understand history, you are doomed to repeat it. Because many of the hibakusha in Japan and around the world are still alive, and they deserve some ounce of dignity. Because if you believe the billionaires that run this country are capable of fighting a “Good War,” capable of defending the rights of the oppressed somewhere in the world, you might believe they could do that again. But they never have, they aren’t now, and they never will. Not in Vietnam, not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, not in Iran, not in Syria, not in North Korea, nowhere.

They are running an empire — a vicious, genocidal empire that’s been dominating much of the world for many decades. Kennedy was running it — he nearly ended life on Earth twice in his short tenure as president. Eisenhower, the butcher of Korea, was running it. Johnson, the butcher of Vietnam, was running it. Nixon, the butcher of Cambodia, was running it. Clinton was running it — he, like the rest, threatened to use nuclear weapons against both Iraq and Korea. He said “nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of our foreign policy.” His wife, Hillary, has also said “all options are on the table.” And we hopefully all know about Bush.

All of these people were (and in the case of the Clintons and the Bushes, are) terrorists of the worst kind. They are nuclear terrorists. What they seem to have learned from history is that it’s OK to kill and to threaten to kill millions of innocent civilians — and to risk the lives of billions more, including hundreds of millions of vulnerable people inside the United States — if they deem that it serves their interests.

What is clearly in our interests – and certainly in the interests of other human beings around the world — is to rise up against these “democratic” despots. If there is any possibility of redeeming the soul of this place we call “America,” this madness must be stopped. We may have exported our entire manufacturing base to China, but the weapons of mass destruction (and most of our “conventional” weapons) are still made in the USA.

The functioning of the government requires the consent of the governed. It can and must be withdrawn. One by one, or hopefully, in our millions. The most important lesson of history, the one that the rulers of “America” most want to keep from us, is that mass movements can achieve everything. That another world is possible. That democracy is in the streets. And that “evil” does not usually come in the form of a frothing-at-the-mouth dictator.

Evil, as has been pointed out before, is more often banal. Evil pays taxes. Evil pushes papers. Evil designs missiles, programs computers. Evil drops the bombs, but evil also sits by while others do that, and evil watches and fails to act. Evil is silent. Evil is patriotic. Evil waves a flag. Evil writes lying propaganda for textbooks and newspapers. Evil believes that genocide could possibly be excusable, let alone “necessary.”

David Rovics is a singer-songwriter who tours regularly throughout North America, Europe, and occasionally elsewhere. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.