A lifetime haunted by the bomb

by Elizabeth McAlister

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By Yuki Miyamoto
Published by Fordham University Press, $26

It is rare to read a book that brings under scrutiny so many significant moments of one’s life. Beyond the Mushroom Cloud did just that, taking me back to my 5-year-old self, standing at the entrance to the altar with my twin on Aug. 4, 1945 -- two days before the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan -- flower girls at a cousin’s wedding.

Many of my relatives celebrated that marriage’s 50th anniversary. I missed it. I was commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima with a witness for disarmament at the Pentagon. It included a condemnation of our nation’s use of that weapon against the people of Japan. But the focus was wider: We included condemnation of all the “offspring” of those early nuclear weapons and the many crimes they enabled over the decades, and a plea for disarmament. We might have described our effort as a call to go beyond all the mushroom clouds.

Two months after that anniversary, my younger brother died of cancer. Family and friends gathered after the funeral and burial. A daughter of one cousin was sharing photos of the family’s August gathering. “There was no way I could be at that celebration,” I told her, and expressed my regret. Then I tried to explain that the family party conflicted with a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings and I’d felt compelled take part. A cousin, brother of the bride, was listening and asked: “Does that mean that you think the bombings were wrong?” He had not been at the 1945 wedding; he’d been a Marine fighting in the Pacific theater -- moving from island to island. He was one of the few survivors in his unit, and highly decorated.

I took several deep breaths before continuing the conversation. This was a beloved cousin, a good man; I loved him dearly. That love intensified my grief that his whole life had been built on the lie with which he confronted me: “Those bombs saved my life!” A whole section of Yuki Miyamoto’s book deals with what the author names “the myth of the war experience.” That myth was etched in my cousin’s life. Miyamoto writes, “The memory of war was refashioned into a religious experience which provided the nation with a new depth of religious feeling, putting at its disposal ever present saints and martyrs, places of worship, and a heritage to emulate.”

The book brought back Louise Franklin-Ramirez, prime mover of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Peace Committee, which she helped found in 1981. Louise was dedicated to ensuring that the nuclear holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki be neither forgotten nor repeated. For many years, every Aug. 3-10, with Louise at the helm, the Peace Committee organized activities in and around Washington, D.C., to increase public awareness of the bombings and their consequences.

With great fidelity, incredible expense and organization, the group brought two hibakusha (atomic bombing survivors) to the area -- centerpieces to the events. Always the hibakusha schedule included some time with people coming together to remember the nuclear atrocities in a Faith and Resistance retreat that my community at Jonah House in Baltimore helped organize and facilitate.

The spirit of remembrance and reconciliation that Miyamoto unfolds throughout the book was evident, powerful, memorable and contagious in each of the women and men we were privileged to meet, listen to and act with. Above all, the hibakusha voiced what Miyamoto named the ethics that emerged from their experiences: They came to us with an invitation to the depths of our beings to go beyond the mushroom clouds. 2011 was the first year in 30 that they did not come. Finances were part of the issue; the earthquake and tsunami that decimated so much of Japan another.

The book brought back amazing re-collections of the hope many of us had for an exhibit that had been planned for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at the time of the 50th anniversaries of the bombings. We were watching events at the museum with rejoicing. We anticipated that the exhibit would tell something of the truth of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In time, however, it became clear that the exhibit planned by museum director Martin Harwit, curator Michael Neufeld and others planned would not occur. A group of us asked for a meeting with them. As people of conscience, we wanted to encourage them to fulfill their promise, to create the exhibit they envisioned. It was a sad gathering in which they shared with us something of the controversy in which they were entangled. They described the forces amassed against them and the truth they longed to share. Our enthusiasm and support was too little, too late.

On Dec. 15, 2003, the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, went on display. The occasion was the opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center for historic aviation and space artifacts too large for the National Mall buildings. I was there with a large group of people, including hibakusha who, even though they knew the Enola Gay was on display, could not believe they were seeing it again. A couple of them spoke of having seen it as it dropped the bomb on their city. It was a tragic and stunning moment, one that has brought me back to Udvar-Hazy repeatedly to speak out against the museum’s failure to even inform the public about what that plane did.

When Miyamoto explores the religious influences on the hibakusha from Hiroshima to Nagasaki -- the former are Buddhist and the latter Roman Catholic -- I confess her treatment was beyond me. Interesting but evasive. I felt the author was asking me to uphold the image of the victims of the bomb as “sacrificial lambs.” That was a stretch until, as often happened in reading this book, I recalled that my late, beloved Philip Berrigan was wont to speak of our journey of faith as being one “from sheep, to shepherd, to sacrificial lamb.”

As she closed the section devoted to religious interpretations, Miyamoto asks this question: “What role should those of us not directly afflicted by the bombings take in achieving reconciliation and participating in the creation of a community of memory?” What indeed? It is the most compelling moment of the book and the question that haunts my days and nights.

[Elizabeth McAlister must go to court later this month in Virginia for a Pentagon arrest on the feast of the Innocents. Jonah House, the Baltimore community she helped to found in 1973, will continue to give bags of food to the poor in their neighborhood each week, and resist at the White House and the Pentagon and wherever.]

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