Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars
The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat
“Cannon and firearms are cruel and damnable machines; I believe them to be the direct suggestion of the devil.”
I have visited Hiroshima twice. On both occasions I had the embarrassing, inappropriate, even offensive urge to laugh. This was not because there is anything especially comical about Hiroshima. It is in almost every respect a normal Japanese city, so normal, in fact, that marketing people like to test new products there, for what they like in Hiroshima, it is thought, they like everywhere else in Japan. The pride of the city is its baseball team, the Hiroshima Carps, and the gastronomic speciality of the region is oysters. They make cars in Hiroshima, as well as ships and Buddhist altars. The fourth industry is Peace, or nuclear disarmament, or, as irreverent Japanese sometimes call it, the pikadon shobai, the flash-bang business, pikadon being an onomatopoeic phrase describing the effect of the A-bomb, which exploded over Hiroshima at 8:15 AM, August 6, forty-five years ago.
Visitors to the city are informed by the Hiroshima Peace Reader, a pamphlet published by the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, that “Hiroshima is no longer merely a Japanese city. It has become recognized throughout the world as the mecca of world peace.” It is as a mecca of world peace that Hiroshima causes that embarrassing urge to giggle—a nervous giggle, of the kind that afflicts some people at funerals, where the seriousness of death can be rendered slightly comical by an exaggerated air of reverence, of ceremony, of awe, where what ought to be moving becomes sentimental, and so seems absurd.
The center of peace activity is Hiroshima Peace Park. Nuns gather there to pray, and foreigners dressed as Buddhist monks recite mantras, fingering their beads. There used to be an old Hiroshima woman who became a Shinto priestess to defeat the dark power of the bomb with special herbs. There is a retired professor of philosophy, known as the “Human Reactor,” who sits for hours, sometimes days, praying for peace in front of the Hiroshima Cenotaph. When a girl asked him whether he could stop war by simply sitting, he answered, “A chain reaction of spiritual atoms must defeat a chain reaction of material atoms.” Then there are the ubiquitous groups of uniformed Japanese schoolchildren who, like little missionaries, approach foreign visitors with the question: “Do you love peace?”
In his latest book, Fallen Soldiers, George Mosse describes war cemeteries, especially those of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as “sacred spaces of a new civic religion.” The religion is based upon what he calls the Myth of the War Experience. The myth presents war as a glorious drama in which men sacrifice their lives for the nation. As he puts it: “War was made sacred, an expression of the general will of the people.” Mosse traces the myth to the French Revolution, but also to Christian images of death and resurrection. Ghastly death in the slimy mud of trenches is …
The Nuclear Difference January 17, 1991