Shizunome Ohyaku haunted by ghosts (Shizunome Ohyaku)
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892)(Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University)
The well-trod genie genre has a dark sub-trope: the evil jinn. Creepily conjured by Joseph Ruskin in the Twilight Zone’s “The Man in the Bottle,” he offers the owners of a curio shop three wishes. The first two lead to ill end, forcing them to use their third wish to save themselves. Yet the most terrifying tale in this vein is W.W. Jacobs’ short story, The Monkey’s Paw. The first two wishes twine in malignant concert, thrusting a family-couple down the black well of tragedy. Only the third wish saves them from the unholy thing at their door.
The American bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago this week reveal the terrible wages of our own three wishes, visited upon the United States after 1917. Think of the Atom Bomb as part of what we wished for. Yet there was no mercy in wish-fulfillment: the twin-instant of nuclear fission did not end with the mushroom clouds, nor did it end the next day, nor the next year. The war ended quickly, yet each year more joined the roll of more than 300,000 atomic dead. The joy of victory brought unrequitable guilt.
Yet we shirked our guilt. We closed our eyes to the real consequences of dropping the bomb. Like the narcissists we are, we created a distraction. We argued about what we did as though it was a choice: Good or bad, right or wrong. We made the bomb all about us, in the narrowest situational context. 75 years later, we are still bickering with ourselves.
The truth is, the A-bomb was part of the much bigger tale, of America’s fateful relationship with the wishmaster. To get to the big story, however, we need to put our long plaintive, moralizing distraction to bed.
There are two tropes. The “stainless” argument in favor of dropping the bomb has been that invading Japan would have been absolute calamity, worse than the bomb. In the summer of 1945, America’s war energies were flagging. Having destroyed the Nazi Reich at great cost (at least from our viewpoint), we were committed to imperial Japan’s unconditional surrender, by invading it, and like Germany, utterly destroying it. Yet we dreaded the task ahead.
Two rocks had stood in the way of invasion—Okinawa and Iwo Jima. We took them over the winter and spring of 1945. Now remember, the assault on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall—D-Day—cost nearly 10,000 American casualties. Yet taking just two Japanese islands cost upwards of 100,000 American casualties, including 37 ships sunk, and 372 damaged.
The full horror of what we could have expected with an Allied invasion of Japan was much later confirmed by Dennis Giangreco, in his comprehensive and utterly compelling Hell to Pay(2009). Japan had amassed enough manpower, resources, and sheer mass cran (guts) to have made the invasion America’s Verdun: an event that would have turned the Good War into ashes in our mouths.
Take note: American planners seriously undercounted what the Imperial Army had to throw at us. Low-balled as it was, their estimate still warned of four million American casualties and a million dead. And what of Japan? Millions of dead, both military and civilian—10 million? More?
Okay, the counterargument protests: Wait, there was another way out besides the bomb. This rebuttal offers the “humane solution”—just maintaining our mining and blockade. Keep this in mind, however: Japan’s cities had been emptied, large and small, into the merciless countryside. Autumn and winter would bring mass starvation and exposure. There would be no farmer-altruism for city folk—just quiet mega-death.
In the last nine months of the war (and the terrible postwar winter that followed), America killed five percent of the population of Japan. In the hard summer of 1945, 400,000 civilians were dying each month across East Asia. Yet conditions in Japan were much worse. For many months after surrender, with benign American occupation, Japanese were wracked by starvation and disease. Imagine how many would have perished had blockade and mining continued into 1946? 10 million? 20 million?
Simply put, despite the hindsight of history, the United States had a full head of steam up—America’s war-spirit was pure, holy wrath. In December 1945, Gallup ran a nationwide poll in which a third of Americans declared that they were “angry” that we had not had more atomic weapons back in August, so as to have destroyed more Japanese cities. America’s quality of mercy was strained. Japan was going to be punished, no mercy, period. Truth be told, the atom bomb was the most restrained solution to satisfying American blood lust.
What matters is what, by 1945, we had become. We must slough off our own empty, self-serving arguments. Instead, Hiroshima and Nagasaki represents the most tragic metaphor for the wages of America’s three wishes.
Imagine that the last century of the great American narrative has been, since 1917, a classic horror story.
In this eerie tale, the evil jinn approaches an American president, who miraculously won reelection in 1916 under the banner, “He kept us out of war.” The jinn sweetly suggests how Woodrow Wilson may wish for all he has ever dreamed of, for the United States, and himself. Wilson instantly imagines how, in his person, he might rescue civilization and redeem humanity, banishing the curse of war and fulfilling God’s sacred charge to America; and thus, lead humanity like Moses to the promised land, or perhaps, like Jesus ushering in the millennium.
At first, history unfolds just as he wished: the evil serpent of German Militarism writhes prostrate in defeat. European civilization, wrung out and bitter from interminable total war, greets their redeemer in ecstatic acclaim. Wilson proclaims a League of Nations, so that “the war to end war” ushers in the millennium. Yet then, tragically, the American people spurn his vision of world government, while the venal revenge of the victors, eager for spoils, ensures another, yet more terrible world war.
In the summer of 1941, another American president claims God’s mission to America, to complete what had failed in 1919. With a shriveled primate paw in his hand, he wishes for the final triumph of good over evil, and with it, the full redemption of humanity through America’s guidance: an enlightened overlordship of a reformed League, a United Nations.
The paw opens, and then clenches. Thus the second wish is fulfilled, and FDR’s dream is on the verge on total fulfillment. The United States becomes Lord of War. Lend Lease saves Great Britain, and is the decisive margin cinching Soviet victory in the East. Finally, we birth the United Nations in San Francisco’s dappled sunlight, 26 June 1945.
But what hath The Bomb wrought? It was like a drug—no, worse—like some dark fetish, an animated totem promising enduring power: not just dominance, or mastery, but omnipotence. Think of the atom bomb, in story terms, as the Spear of Destiny, the One Ring, the Ruby Slippers, the Ark.
Just look at what Hiroshima and Nagasaki did to Japan. To those who bowed to the rising sun, America had harnessed the sun. Had we not wielded divine arms, as only gods might? So they bowed to a new Sun god, and so hereafter, however they might reach out to others, represent themselves to the world, even defend Yamato itself, they would now, always, first turn to America for permission. As Cold War spread icy fire, was it so very different for NATO Europe, Latin American wards, or Muslim monarchs: that precious flock of “friends and allies?”
From then on, our silver birds of prey—2000 B-47s and B-52s—their perches circling Soviet Eurasia, were gassed up and ready to pounce, all 10,000 megatons, within hours. American nuclear omnipotence took hold of our very souls. Our Atomic Age fanned American hysteria over Soviets and “Red Chinese,” as they built their own arsenals. Their nukes gave cover to ever-spreading Red contagion. Only our nuclear host kept the “Free World” pure.
There were no more world wars, but rather, endless “small wars” that were treated, like Japan, to America’s five percent solution. Ten percent of Koreans (in 1950) and more than a half million Chinese soldiers were killed in the early 1950s. Some five percent of Vietnam (as of 1960) died in the long battle for Indochina: a relentless passage of death.
But war no longer purchased victory. A string of bitter defeats after 1975 brought the United States to constitutional crisis and a kind of national exhaustion. In this bitter moment, a new president, promising “morning in America” sought out the wishmaster for the third time. Ronald Reagan’s petition, in Berlin, was a cry: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The third wish, as before, was fulfilled. Yet this time fulfillment looked different. Here was real authority. The earth moved. The “Evil Empire” fell. Frowning statues of Soviet Communism were cast down. Today it was real. The millennium, 75 years after 1917, had finally arrived. From the priesthood of American Exceptionalism, one vicar proclaimed The End of History. The wicked world had been delivered from evil and, through us, into a golden age.
The millennium ended a mere ten years later: We were delivered, not into a golden age, but rather into a world of endless war and strife. Ceaseless sanctioned killing, “at a time and place of our choosing,” became America’s bedrock national interest. Now, 700 U.S. military bases girdle the globe like a galaxy of lethal enforcement. We command the world’s oceans. We hold the “all seeing eye,” like Sauron, which we use to track down and expunge the disobedient.
Surely, we showed our deepest desires to an evil Jinn, or a malignant monkey’s paw. Say these spirits tricked us. Yet could it be, maybe, that they were warning us: that although our dreams may have seemed exceptionally altruistic, we were really pursuing baser desires. In themselves, our wishes represented temptation and corruption: temptation that we embraced and corruption that we refused to see.
The Manhattan Project and the two first bombs are the most piercing metaphor for how quickly temptation and corruption overwhelmed America, just as the One Ring possessed every man who grasped it. Thus, in the three wishes we saw, fatefully, only what we wished to see.
It is too late now for wishes. Perhaps that is a mercy. If at last we can open our eyes, it may be a blessing, too.
Michael Vlahos is a writer and author of the book Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. He has taught war and strategy at Johns Hopkins University and the Naval War College and is a weekly contributor to The John Batchelor Show. Follow him on Twitter @JHUWorldCrisis