Something I said in my high school graduation speech has come to be a source of deep regret as I have learned more about the civilian side of World War II. As you may know if you’ve been reading my posts, I have been diligently plowing through presidential history over the past few months. In the course of the past week or so I’ve turned my attention to WWII and “No Ordinary Time” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’ve also been watching Ken Burns’ “The War” and recently finished the PBS special “Victory in the Pacific.” It was during the latter which I came to a realization, or reminder, of the plight and suffering of Japanese civilians during the war and remembered my graduation speech.
In my graduation speech, I cited Carl Sagan, Walt Whitman, and Paul Tibbets as examples of three people who have “shaped the world” we live in today. During high school I did read almost all of Carl Sagan’s books and his writing did bring about what is still my greatest intellectual awakening when I was 16. I cited Walt Whitman because my friend Elizabeth was a big fan of his, even though I had not yet read much of his work (and still haven’t, regrettably.) I cited Paul Tibbets because I had recently been reading about World War II, and had just learned about Tibbets, and was thinking through a historical lens of “heroes.” Tibbets certainly was a hero in the American sense and his actions of piloting the Enola Gay over Hiroshima did help bring about an end to the war but it was also mass murder and could have been avoided with better strategy.
I have not yet read much on Harry Truman’s decision making which led to the droppings of the bombs so I’m not well-equipped to criticize it but I am well-aware of how much civilian suffering and loss of life occurred as a result of these decisions and decisions of other leaders during World War II. In high school we’re taught mostly about the “heroes” of history and the focus on civilians is not as in-depth or adequately conveyed (or maybe I just did not fully grasp the concepts when teachers did talk about society, I do remember an excellent lecture from my world history teacher on life for medieval serfs). To an 18-year-old me, Paul Tibbets was a hero but now as a 27-year-old (yes, I know, not much older or wiser, but still) my heroes are the civilians across the globe who persevered and dealt with a reality of powerful nation states at war with each other. Whether that was a Bengali trying to feed some starving children in the famine of 1943, a young George Takei at Rowher (in my own home state of Arkansas) or even a little old German lady holed up in Berlin at the end of the war, people had to go through an awful lot and it is absolutely overwhelming to ponder the totality of human suffering during the war. Of course, we had to defeat totalitarianism or at least that’s how we are taught. As Kearns Goodwin discusses in “No Ordinary Time” there were many opportunities for the U.S. government and Franklin Roosevelt to save the lives of countless European Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany. The totalitarianism of Hitler was defeated but Stalin was our ally and the post-WWII empires of America and Russia went on to be responsible for many more wars and losses of civilian life throughout the rest of the 20th century. I’m not going to write today about the aftermath of WWII and what has become of nation states since then but I had to get a few things off my chest.
Paul Tibbets may be a hero, but his story is part of a narrative we’re taught as students and which lends to a very Americentric view of the world and a relative disregard for our neighbors across the globe. I wish I could travel the world to learn more about people in Japan, or Israel and Palestine, or Tunisia, Sicily, Germany and France but all I can do right now is ramble some thoughts online. It is easy to sit here in hindsight and lambast every decision made by FDR, Churchill and Truman and I’m not qualified to do that. I am however qualified to understand there is another side to the story and “Billions and Billions” of stories every human on earth could tell.
On Hiroshima and heroes, Paul Tibbets is dead. But there are still living survivors of the atomic bombings and I only wish I could travel overseas and listen to their stories and the stories of other veterans, civilian or military, across the world still out there as living encyclopedias of history.
Update (6/7/2015): A professor of mine shared this video with me which illustrates just how much loss of life there was during World War II. It is truly mind-boggling to try to contemplate the vastness of it all.
Another update 6/7: I think a major part of this is also that as a teenager I just did not truly grasp the human condition or have a deep understanding of human suffering. As an 18-year-old I thought of the world and human life in a much different way than I do today. I am now a person who is trying to learn as much history as possible so as to help our country, our neighbors, our allies and our “enemies” try to avoid wars such as World War II, the American Civil War, the Iraq War, etc…
In a cyberworld we don’t need any more Gettysburgs or Stalingrads. Digital diplomacy, economics, and international cooperation can lead us to a better tomorrow. Unfortunately on the horizon there will likely be wars and skirmishes over matters that are not at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. When people, or entire countries are needing water or food (or oil) to survive they will fight their neighbors over those basic needs and 18th and 19th century “ideals” or “values” will take a backseat. But those are thoughts for another day.
I still focus on reading about the lives of individuals, such as U.S. presidents, which might seem hypocritical as I talked about civilians and society in this post, but I focus on how their decisions influenced the country and its people of the time and of the future. Also I read biographies like others may read novels. However, I do want to turn my attention to books on society after I’ve read some more biographies but this is all just my “fun” summer reading and bored substitute teacher reading. The thoughts I have recently had about Andrew Jackson, or James Madison, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson are much different than I would have had several years ago. And throughout my current reading of “No Ordinary Time” I’m acquiring a much more pessimistic view of even the supposed Democratic saint FDR too.
All I can do now is keep reading.