As mentioned in my previous post, my interest in John Hersey’s Hiroshima originates from David Griffith’s A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. While not a classic, A Good War is nonetheless excellent, and its essays—all of them grounded within Griffith’s personal experiences—are valuable in that they pose some challenging and necessary questions about our relation to violence in contemporary society. Additionally, while Griffith’s analysis mostly involves cultural and media criticism (as opposed to Hersey’s on-the-scene reporting), he (whether consciously or not) is able to identify and theorize about the nature of violent motives that, while implicit, are undeniably important to the narrative of Hiroshima.
The 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal is the historical event on which Griffith centers his writing and derives his primary argument. Using the stories of Flannery O’ Connor as an interpretive lens, he argues that photographic evidence of the scandal demonstrates what O’ Connor once referred to as an “acute ‘disjunction between sensibility and belief’ ” (115). As he writes in an online response piece last spring, violent photographs like those that emerged from Abu Ghraib “have the capacity to wake us up to the ignorance and ugliness of our beliefs and cause us to meditate on those beliefs.” Yet not only do we routinely ignore this potential for critical reflection, we also are prone to excusing the actions that are documented. They become aberrations that simply result from “a few bad apples,” or are a byproduct of our (in this case, “our” meaning “American”) larger mission to assert our moral status in the world. As Griffith comments in the piece above, when this happens, it is easy for the suffering of others to be “beyond concern” to us.
Griffith uses this general argument to drive home an important point that reemerges in different forms throughout the book:
“When we deny that we have anything in common with [Army Spc. Charles Graner] and the others who are pictured in the [Abu Ghraib] photos, we allow all that is most despicable and ugly in our nature to thrive. If we are too proud to see ourselves in those photos…then we have no hope of finding any meaning whatsoever in them” (136).
What this means is that when we create a moral binary contrasting ourselves as “good” against certain other people that are “evil,” we are ignoring the ambiguous nature of humanity. This is why Griffith relies on O’ Connor, for “[h]er stories reveal the hidden evil residing in the human heart, the pursuit of good that masks a secret pride” (34). Even when we think we are incapable of committing the type of violence and torture that occurred at Abu Ghraib, the photographs tell a story of how ordinary people are capable of committing extraordinary acts of evil. To ignore this less is to perpetuate a “profound misunderstanding of sin and evil” (100).
How does this relate to Hiroshima? For Americans, World War II has become a source of nostalgic pride, where the “Greatest Generation” fought the “Good War” against the tyranny of fascism and the recklessness of Japanese imperialism. When we accept the parameters of these designations, then the use of an atomic bomb upon Hiroshima (and later Nagasaki) becomes more or less a justifiable means to an end—tragic, sure, but the final action that ensured the end of the war and prevented the further loss of American life. I believe that Hersey’s book quietly argues against this. The gruesome details of physical and emotional suffering, the inability of the survivors to fathom what had destroyed their lives, and the tremendous barriers that they faced simply to recapture a life close to being normal—all speak of an event so horrifying that it remains, in many ways, incomprehensible for anyone that didn’t directly live through the blast. The question of viable strategic alternatives to the atomic bomb is one that historians have wrestled with for decades, and Hersey is careful not to weigh in on the decision. Yet he clearly delineates the high cost of its use, and it becomes foolhardy to argue that inherent goodness lay behind the mass destruction of civilians and their city.
Consequently, although Hersey and Griffith forward different styles of argument, they ultimately converge in their rejection of dualistic notions of good and evil, demonstrating that the truths of Hiroshima and Abu Ghraib fundamentally resist such an oversimplification. It is by acknowledging the internal struggle of good and evil that we are able to acknowledge these truths—difficult as they may be—and fruitfully apply them within our lives; short of that, we are committing a delusion.