This was a man who had earned the right to hate the Japanese. He fought them for four years in the South Pacific. He was the captain of a U.S. Navy mine-sweeper. The Japanese blasted it out from under him in the bay of an island near New Guinea. He and his men were forced to swim to shore. Not all of them made it.
Yet I never heard this man express hatred or even resentment toward the Japanese. And I had plenty of opportunity to hear it, because this man was my father.
My father is not with us today to say his piece - he died a little over a year ago. Yet with all of the rhetoric flying through America today about V-J Day and the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit, it’s important to remember that not every veteran harbors vindictive thoughts about the people they had to fight.
Yes, I do mean vindictive. I’ve heard some of that vindictiveness firsthand. A WWII veteran called me a few months ago to complain about a joke I made about the Enola Gay exhibit. The joke was fairly mild, the point being that no matter how you feel about the necessity of using the bomb, there just might have been a few innocent victims among the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This caller refused to see any validity to my point. The Japanese deserved exactly what they got, he said.
Finally in exasperation, I said, “Surely you’re not saying that even the babies in Hiroshima deserved to die, are you?” “Yes, I am,” he said.
My father, whose life may have been saved by Truman’s decision to use the bomb, never once imagined that the babies in Hiroshima deserved to die. Hiroshima was a tragedy of war - a necessary tragedy - but a tragedy nonetheless. It was not something to be gloated over.
As a matter of fact, the entire war was not something to be gloated over. He never sat around telling war stories, he never joined any veterans groups, he didn’t keep Japanese flags or samurai swords in his den. He never uttered the term “Jap.” Only under coercion would he tell us about his Navy days. We kids had to beg him.
Yet neither should you get the impression that he had any patience for politically correct historical revisionism. If hatred toward the Japanese offended his sense of humanity, then historical revisionism offended his sense of perspective.
I remember a conversation I had with him once about Hiroshima. One of the textbooks in a college history class had raised a difficult and controversial question: Was dropping the bomb on Hiroshima a criminal act of mass murder, done purely for revenge, racism and strategic positioning in the post-war world? My father said: Not from the point of view of the Americans who were there. He put the issue into historical context. The Japanese had already demonstrated a total unwillingness to surrender. They were perfectly capable of digging in on their home islands, causing untold misery on both sides for months or even years.
So Truman found himself with a weapon that could shock the Japanese to their senses. He used it.
To Truman, to most Americans and to my father, it seemed the only thing to do. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way in 1995, but what difference does that make? The decision was not made in 1995.
Still, I don’t believe my father ever considered it a noble thing to do, or even something to celebrate. Here’s the crucial distinction between my father and that veteran I talked to on the phone: My father had enough perspective to understand that all of war is a tragedy. Pearl Harbor was a tragedy. Hiroshima was a tragedy. Hiroshima would never have happened if Pearl Harbor hadn’t, but that doesn’t make Hiroshima anything to be proud of. Too much humanity was lost.
World War II remains, in my mind and in the minds of most Americans, “the good war.” America was forced into it, we did not strike the first blow, and we were on the side of right.
I am proud of my father for fighting in that war. But I am even prouder of the fact that he never, despite provocation, succumbed to the temptation to hate.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jim Kershner The Spokesman-Review
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