70 years ago this week the United States dropped the world’s first nuclear weapon on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, we dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki. This week, I’m thinking about Mairi Cain. Mairi grew up in Fukuoka, halfway between the two cities. She was a young woman in 1945.
Mairi died a little over a year ago. I got to know her in August of 2012, when she and her husband needed someone to shop for them and look in on them; her son and my son were out of town for a month, working, and I volunteered to help. One day, something came on the TV that reminded her of the bombing and she was very upset. Mairi did “upset” by getting angry; her husband explained to me what it was all about while she had stomped off to another room.
Another day she talked about it a little bit; her English was shaky at best, my Japanese nonexistent, so I was glad I knew the basic outline of the story ahead of time. It was clear to me that she was still suffering from the terror of the experience, and from the memory of starvation during the war.
I’d never met anyone who had been in Japan in 1945. All the WWII survivors I knew were either American vets or Europeans. I had learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in school, and learned the standard explanation that the nuclear bombing “saved lives.” I’d never questioned it – and then I met this tiny old woman, who was still feeling the terror of it 60+ years later. I’d never thought much about what it meant for the civilians on the ground, besides the recorded fact that it killed 120,000 people immediately and many more over the weeks, months and years to follow.
It saved American lives. Japan was a particularly cruel enemy. Those were the things I had learned in school, and in conversations with my parent’s generation.
I am part of the Baby Boomer generation who grew up with “nuclear drills,” in the shadow of our imaginings about The Bomb. Mairi didn’t have to imagine: she’d been Bombed. I could not understand a great deal of what she had to say about it, but I know trauma when I see it.
There are articles in the news this week that question Truman’s decision to drop the Bomb, and other articles that defend it. What I notice is that his decision is always cast as “drop it” vs “don’t drop it.” This bothers me.
As Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer put it to us when I was a rabbinical student, our human brains tend to reduce choices to binaries, especially under stress. It all goes back to that first important crisis: fight or flight? Fight the big scary predator or run like mad? There was never much time to make that decision (the third option being “stand there and be lunch”) so our brains adapted to it. We go there quickly, and we tend not to see other options.
“Don’t start analyzing until you have brainstormed at least five options,” he said to us. “Force yourself to do it, and force the people you advise to think of more options than the two they bring to you.” It has been valuable advice to me time and time again: almost always, there is another, better option than the first two.
So I wonder: what if Truman had brainstormed three more choices, besides “drop it on Hirshima” and “don’t drop it on Hiroshima?” Could we have made it clear to the Japanese what a destructive weapon it was by dropping it on a deserted atoll? Could we have described it to the Japanese, and said, “We will use this unless you sign?” Could we have come up with another option?
I don’t know, and at this point it is done. What we do know is that the bomb that terrified Mairi unleashed a new terror upon all of us.
May the tragedy of that day serve as a warning to all of us, in decisions great and small, to stop, to think, to look for options. The Torah tells us to “Choose life.” Sometimes it is very hard to know behind which door it lies.
Image:Effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. View from the top of the Red Cross Hospital looking northwest. Frame buildings recently erected. 1945 Public domain.