Some Things I've Learned About War

By Bruce Jackson

When I learned about the bomb I thought it was just swell. Three windows on my block in Brooklyn had gold star flags in them. You got a gold star if a member of your immediate family was killed in combat. I was nine years old and death was far more abstract a concept for me than it is now, but I knew each of the men those gold stars represented. I knew the mothers of two and the wife of the one who was old enough to be married. I went to school with some of their younger brothers.

Moreover, in "The Purple Heart" (1944, starring Dana Andrews, Farley Granger, Sam Levene, Richard Conte and Benson Fong), I'd seen brave American fliers tortured and then taken off to be executed by sneering Japs because they wouldn't squeal on their buddies.

"Japs" was what we called Japanese people then. Japs and Nips. I remember a headline in enormous letters on the front page of the New York Daily News: "Nips Nipped at Iwo." And I remember Joe Rosenthal's famous photo of the Marines raising the flag atop Mt. Suribachi under that headline, though perhaps after all these years I am conflating front pages.

Japs, as we learned from the newsreels that accompanied the double features, were fanatics who jumped up and down waving swords while screaming "Banzai!" Japs gleefully died for Emperor Hirohito in suicidal charges against American troops or in Kamikaze raids. Japs sneaked in from the rising sun early on a Sunday morning and dropped bombs and strafed your barracks and ships while you were sleeping.

The day the war ended I was in a summer camp in upstate New York. The camp director proudly told us that we Americans had dropped two of the biggest bombs anyone ever heard of on two Japanese cities and the Japs had quit. Two bombs; two cities; the war was over. He yelled something patriotic and we yelled something patriotic back.

In time to come, there would be discussions about whether or not the bombs should have been dropped or even made and whether the war would have ended when it did even without the bombs. Some people would argue that the people who developed the atomic bomb wanted it dropped so they could prove that the two billion dollars invested in the Manhattan Project had been well spent, and that Truman's primary reason for destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn't to force the Japanese to surrender but rather to send a warning to the Soviets about how tough we were going to be in the post-war years.

Some or all of those assertions may very well be true, but I can tell you that in August 1945 very few ordinary Americans had any idea of the implications of the bomb other than that a few days after two were dropped and two cities were incinerated, the Japs quit, the war was over, and there weren't going to be any more gold stars in any more windows on the block.

Even now, I don't think any moral line was crossed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; those brilliant fireballs in the sky just revealed to us what we had become. We had already incinerated more civilians in the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo in February and March 1945. The only real change was, the atom bomb took the ambiguity out of the killing. You couldn't claim, "I don't know about those other guys, but MY bombs landed on a factory," or "I know MY bombs landed in a pond outside town." We had become a nation willing to slaughter civilians to put pressure on politicians and military people. The atomic bombs clarified that.

I also think that the value of the arguments currently raging about the dropping of the two atomic bombs lies only marginally in what they tell us about the past. The real value is in the warning they offer for the future. They remind us that the apparent simplicity of the moment dissolves like morning fog on a low country road, and that if you're going to engage in profound acts of violence, then you'd best be ready for profound consequences you can't even yet imagine. Killing, however efficiently you do it, isn't simple, and it isn't free.

What did we learn from August 1945? Here's one thing: in all the conflicts the world has had since August 1945, no one has launched a nuclear device of any kind against anyone. We've come close. In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, U. S. air force chief of staff Curtis Lemay tried to precipitate a nuclear engagement but President Kennedy resisted him. Kruschev resisted similar temptations. Since 1945, all the presidents and chairmen have resisted all the generals who thought nuclear death a useful option.

That's not the only change in our attitude toward war since 1945. It is far more difficult now for the government to get any of us to agree to go off and get killed or send our children off to get killed on the basis of "Trust us, we know more than you do." Vietnam was responsible for that. That is because Vietnam was our least censored and most visually accessible war.

People forget how heavily censored World War II was. No pictures of dead American soldiers were released to the press until late 1943, and even then few American newspapers printed many of them. The Office of War Information vetted Hollywood movie scripts and newsreels to be sure they presented the right attitudes, and Hollywood happily complied, even after the war was over. The entire action of "Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949, starring John Wayne, John Agar and Forrest Tucker) led up to a reenactment of Joe Rosenthal's Mt. Suribachi flag- raising photograph; just moments before the flag was raised, John Wayne was killed by a sniper. The military adored that movie. It was the only movie we got to see when I was in Marine Corps boot camp in 1953. They showed it to us twice.

After the Japanese surrendered, the American government classified footage taken by a Japanese cameraman of casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was okay for us to see photos of man-made clouds mushrooming in the afternoon sky, but it was not okay for us to see children and women with shredded skin and no eyelids. Those reels of film were locked up for 23 years. The government also locked up for 35 years "Let There be Light," John Huston's 1945 documentary film about American soldiers who had mental breakdowns. They didn't want potential soldiers in subsequent wars to see American combat veterans crying.

Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, recently lamented that American soldiers are far less willing to charge into battle nowadays. He complained that because of the Gulf War Americans think "you can make combat surgical and clean and pristine. And you cannot. Combat when joined is dirty and painful, and casualties are almost a natural by-product."

The primary reason younger Americans think combat should be "surgical and clean" is the military spin control in all of our wars since Vietnam. Vietnam was our television war, and televised combat scared the hell out of everybody.

After Vietnam, the lid came down far more tightly than it ever had in World War II. In Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), the Gulf War (1991), and Haiti (1994), American military officials kept the press out entirely or restricted press access to small pools that were taken only to places and events approved beforehand by military press officers. We've seen no combat footage from any of those places: just videogame footage from the nose cones of smartbombs, press conferences, and American planes in the Baghdad night sky and Scuds in Israel and Saudi Arabia on CNN.

We're not close to figuring out a way to deal with what's going on in Bosnia, in all those places where people still slaughter one another in the name of ethnic cleansing or ancient grudges or greed or confusion. Evil still rages in our world. But at least we have never again used the most awful weapon we have and I doubt any American president would dare to authorize anything like the firebombing of civilian populations that FDR agreed to in Dresden and Tokyo and Johnson and Nixon ordered in Vietnam. It's not a lot of progress maybe, but it is progress, and I'm happy for it.

The difference in sensibility over these five decades is for me crystallized in the monuments. Our primary memorial to the soldiers of World War II is the statue adjacent to Arlington Cemetery of the flagraising on Mt. Suribachi. The statue rests on a high pedestal and can be seen from far away. The memorial to the dead of Vietnam is two planes of marble engraved with specific names of specific men and women, one after the other, in the real order of their deaths. The fifty- eight thousand names are at eye level; if you can read them, you're close enough to touch them. That is the horror the fireballs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki for a brief while seemed to hide: that it is individuals who die and it is individuals who kill them, whatever the technology.

Copyright 1995 by Bruce Jackson

Bruce Jackson is a Marine. He served from 1953-1956.
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