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With another Memorial Day upon us, I again find myself pondering its magnitude, which invariably brings me back to 2016, when President Obama met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on May 27. In the background stood the remains of the only building to survive the atomic blast. The Genbaku (Atomic Bomb) Dome is a skeletal-steel cupola perched atop four stories of broken brick and concrete. Grimly defiant, it is a different kind of memorial, in that its still upright but lusterless visage pays homage to our power to endure amid unimaginable pain and loss. Reflecting this in a speech after the wreath laying, Obama sugarcoated nothing; “In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die – men, women, children no different than us, shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death.” In the fallout of this event, it is impossible to ignore that both his words and the tell-tale edifice behind him seem to lament our seemingly endless necessity for memorials.
Soon after, however, he offered up a paean of hope:
“And perhaps above all we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race…. We can tell our children a different story – one that describes a common humanity; one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted. We see these stories in the hibakusha. The woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself. The man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own.”
Hibakusha is a Japanese word that means people affected by a bomb or radiation. After Obama gave his speech, he met with a number of hibakusha, most notably Shigeaki Mori. An 8-year-old when the bomb fell on Hiroshima, he’s dedicated his life to commemorating seemingly forgotten American POWs who had died in the blast. A famous photo captures him and Obama hugging, the snapshot solidifying a flesh and blood memorial.
Abe and Obama met again in December of that same year, the occasion marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which included a dual wreath-laying at the USS Arizona Memorial. Like the Genbaku Dome, a remnant of war is the centerpiece – in this case, the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona anchors the actual edifice, a ruined gun turret appearing to rest atop the waves like a rusted tombstone.
Watching the ceremony once more, it is predictably somber, and I again search for a deeper meaning. Toward that end, off to Abe’s right as he laid the wreath, was a Marine standing at attention; a sergeant by stripe, impeccably uniformed, spit-shined black shoes refracting the stark whiteness of the marble, her medals hanging from a single row of ribbons, solemn as a statue, and definitely East-Asian. But putting ethnicity aside, her entire demeanor accents the straight-backed stoicism that is typical of soldiers in general and marines in particular; that haunting sense of duty which, in this case, is safeguarding the forgiveness permeating the ceremony.
This got me thinking of how our memorials have traditionally revolved around wars and battles that, for centuries, involved only men. Many women have indeed died in our wars, but always behind the lines and off the radar. It was in 2013 when, with President Obama’s full support, the Pentagon reversed “a ban on women serving in frontline combat roles,” confirming that they are just as capable of fighting and, if necessary, dying for their country. Anything less is a mockery of equal protection. The shine on her shoes is, therefore, symbolic of something hard-won; so hard-won that it out glitters all that gold so unserviceably entombed in Fort Knox.
That marine also reminds me of another Asian American woman, Maya Ying Lin. Lin was just 21 and an undergraduate at Yale when she won a blind competition to design the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. The fact that she turned out to be both female and of Asian descent rankled many an American, Vietnam Veterans not the least. But when complete, both her courage and vision were mirrored in the ebony-embossed depths that seemed to foreshadow the shine on our marine’s shoes; floating upon the polish of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are the names of more than 58,000 of our honored dead, eight of them women, the latter of whom are equally honored at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial a short walk away.
At a lecture at UC Berkeley in 1995, Lin said:
“The Vietnam memorial is a place where something happens within the viewer. It’s like reading a book. I purposely had the names etched ragged right on each panel to look like a page from a book… I also wanted remembering the past relevant to the present. Some people wanted me to put the names in alphabetical order. I wanted them in chronological order so that a veteran could find his time within the panel. It’s like a thread of life.”
In this, Lin was as attentive and as stoic as that marine standing post over so many other similarly submerged dreams. Most of us are indeed at a loss for words this time of year, when our memorials in a sense resurrect such horrific wounds of war, but I think the cenotaphs go a long way in filling those gaps, although never enough – and this because we know in our hearts that these memorials need never have been built even as we are, stupefyingly, obligated to keep building them.
Back at Pearl Harbor, there were again dueling speeches, in which Abe, like Obama seven months earlier, tried to make sense of it all by refocusing the sights of such all-encompassing loss onto a human microcosm:
“Yesterday, at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay, I visited the memorial marker for an Imperial Japanese Navy officer. He was a fighter pilot by the name of Commander Fusata Iida who was hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor and gave up on returning to his aircraft carrier. He went back instead and died. It was not Japanese who erected a marker at the site that Iida’s fighter plane crashed. It was U.S. servicemen who had been on the receiving end of his attack. Applauding the bravery of the dead pilot, they erected this stone marker.”
It’s the dignity inherent in Fusata’s memorial that is, I think, crucial in Abe’s remarks – especially the dignity in honoring, like the hibakusha, the death of our enemies. There is also, however, a universal nobility in a forgiveness that recognizes not a foe, but a fellow soldier embroiled in the same contorted, Fucked-Up-Beyond-All-Recognition wantonness of war that all combat soldiers, far removed from the brass manning the levers, are caught up in. If, therefore, glory can be found in these conflicts, then perhaps it is that; the willingness to die for your country even knowing, especially knowing, your country may be wrong, but that perhaps it, too, can one day be forgiven.
Copyright 2023 Matthew J. Parker
Matthew J. Parker teaches writing at Berkeley.
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Matthew, I so appreciate this essay’s vision that bifurcates and then unifies this horrible intimacy that humankind finds in war. My heart, with others’ hearts, cries at all the big and small wars going on right now, and especially for those hundreds of thousands atomized on August 6 and 9, 1945. Never again.
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Thank you, Judy!
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I will have a memory forever in my mind: My mother hanging out a white bedsheet from our window. I was only little, but felt her relief – almost joy. That was Germany, May 1945, 50 km from Dresden.
The Americans made soon way for the Red Army and I felt my mother’s fear.
And after so many years of living in a false reality, here we are again. On the brink of dictatorships bopping up like mushrooms all over the world.
I hold fast to those words ““And perhaps above all we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race…. We can tell our children a different story – one that describes a common humanity; one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted. “
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Thanks, Rose Mary. As they say, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
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And why must we and why do we and why when some profess to envision a higher being of love instead of hate do we still glorify that which destroys love and elevates hate?
Exactly. Thanks Barbara.
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“The woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself. The man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own.” The war. Guns. The war. Guns. All those dead. Sometimes my heart is too deeply without hope…
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