AS something of a historian/activist on the subject of the atomic bombing of Japan, I was relieved to watch the HBO "The Pacific" series conclude two days ago (re-runs airing this week)with an unusually non-triumphal treatment of the subject, especially coming after two months of viewers watching sympathetic U.S. military men getting butchered by the "Japs," as they were usually called.
Now, one might expect that a series produced by Hanks, Spielberg and their colleagues to tread lightly here, but I feared a more justifying tone. Instead, they delivered only a brief mention of the dropping of a bomb on cities that killed thousands "in a blink." Soldiers, naturally, were shown celebrating the Japanese surrender but there were no further mention of The Bomb. Viewers could draw their own conclusions, which given most treatments on this subject, was a relief.
Iwatched the entire series and found it a bit disappointing after "Band of Brothers," some of them unavoidable (grim, lookalike Pacific islands no match for Europe), others perhaps not (less vivid characters who disappeared for entire episodes). Given my longtime views that the use of the atomic bombs on highly-populated cities, it was valuable to, once again, experience some of the carnage that preceded that. In my own writing, and with Robert Jay Lifton (including articles for The Nation and our book Hiroshima in America), I have expressed immense sympathy with the common response of soldiers who served in the war, and their families: The Bomb seemed to save American lives, even as it cost 250,000 civilians in Japan.
That view is understandable, but also avoids the historical evidence that has piled up over the decades. Although not clear cut, my reading of it has been: the bombings could have, and should have, been avoided.
I don’t want to rehash that here, but just note that "The Pacific," in leading up to the one Hiroshima mention, had presented a couple of episodes in which the killing of Japanese civilians on Iwo Jima and Okinawa hit home to the lead character in the series, Eugene Sledge, who went on to write one of the best combat books from the war. When he hears the news of the atomic bomb, he does not smile, just looks grim, and when he returns home from the war he remains haunted, and refuses to wear his uniform, even to attract young women.
In any case, more than sixty-four years after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb is still very much with us, as evidenced by last month’s great nuclear summit and new proposals to curtail stockpiles presented by President Obama.
Yet despite some positive signs from Obama, I fear that moving very far in the direction of a no-first-use policy for the U.S. is still a long way off in America. Perhaps the strongest reason is this: most Americans, our media and our leaders (including every president), have endorsed our "first-use" of the bomb against Japan. This remains true today, with little shift in the polls or change in heart among our policymakers and elected officials.