“Cannon and firearms are cruel and damnable machines; I believe them to be the direct suggestion of the devil.”

Martin Luther


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.”1 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 transformed, in solemnly manicured cemeteries, into a symbol of transcendental beauty. Remembrance of the glorious dead will rejuvenate the nation and spur it on to renewed greatness.

Hiroshima’s Peace Park, in the center of the city, under the epicenter of the A-bomb, is not such a place. It is a pity that Mosse finds no room for Hiroshima in his book, for it is a curious spot; in every respect a sacred place of a new civil religion, but not of the same type as the Madeleine, or the Hessendenkmal in Frankfurt, the memorial to Germans who fell against Napoleon. Hiroshima’s Cenotaph does not celebrate God, King, and Fatherland. It is a simple replica of an ancient clay hut, shielding a coffin that contains a register of the names of people who died because of the bomb. On the lid of the coffin the following words, composed by one Professor Saika, are inscribed: “Please rest in peace, for the error will not be repeated.”

Whose error is unclear. Part of the Hiroshima myth is that the bomb simply happened, like a deus ex machina, a blinding bolt from the sunny sky of August. Somewhere behind this bolt is a dimly perceived, demonized America, although not nearly so demonized as the bomb itself, which seems to have had a mind of its own, like a wrathful god. The idea that the bomb might have had something to do with the war that preceded it, with Manchuria in 1931, with China in 1937, with Pearl Harbor, Manila, Singapore, Java, or Hong Kong, does not impinge on the religious Hiroshima mind. Last year some local anti-nuclear citizens’ groups and visiting junior-high-school students from Osaka urged the mayor of Hiroshima to put this right and include, among the many harrowing exhibits of Hiroshima’s suffering, some indication of Japan’s wartime aggression—some hint, perhaps, of the nerve-gas attacks on Chinese, or the bacteriological experiments in Manchuria? The mayor seemed amenable to this until right-wing patriots put pressure on him to nip such unpatriotic ideas in the bud. The same patriots had protested earlier against the ambivalent inscription on the Cenotaph, wishing to make it very clear that the “error” did not mean Japanese militarism. And so a small monument was erected to explain that the error referred to war in general.


What, then, is the civic religion of Hiroshima? It is nothing less than world peace. It is a message hammered home so relentlessly, through memorials, monuments, pagodas, fountains, school-children, missionaries, parks, symbolic tombs, special exhibits, sacred flames, merciful deities, peace bells, peace rocks, peace cairns, statues, and signs, that, in the words of the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani, “even the doves are bored with peace.”

But peace, in Hiroshima, comes with a political twist. For Hiroshima Peace Park has long been a left-wing pacifist counterpart to a right-wing war memorial in Tokyo called the Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine, dedicated to the spirits of men who fought and fell for emperor and country since the nineteenth century, including such prominent figures as General Tojo, hanged in 1948 as a war criminal. Yasukuni, though regarded by worshipers as quintessentially Japanese, is much more like some of the European memorials described by Mosse. Right-wing patriots go there to sing the national anthem, bow in the direction of the imperial palace, and play wartime military marches through loudspeakers. Beside the main shrine is a war museum, which houses a Zero fighter, a howitzer, and the first locomotive to ride the Burma railroad—the same railroad that cost so many Western and Asian lives. Sacred trees bear the names of famous battleships, and even the Kempeitai, the Japanese SS, has a special memorial stone.

Mosse may be right that the cult of the war dead is virtually extinct in Europe, but this is not so in Japan; under protest of Japanese Christians, socialists, and pacifists, cabinet ministers officially visit the shrine. The first prime minister to do so in his official capacity was Nakasone Yasuhiro, who paid special deference to Yasukuni, since it symbolized, in his view, the need to sacrifice for the nation. Prime Minister Kaifu, however, refused to follow Nakasone’s example this year, out of respect for Japan’s former victims—whose propensity, it should be added, to exploit Japan’s war history for their own political ends is sometimes as distasteful as Japan’s willful attempts to forget.

The civic religion of Hiroshima, promoted actively by groups detested by the Japanese right, such as the Japan Teachers’ Union, is a peculiar kind of pacifism, with its own brand of nationalism. The idea is that Japan, after the defeat of the militarist-fascist regime, and after the unique suffering caused by the two A-bombs, had become the beacon of world peace. Then American imperialism dragged Japan back into a belligerent world of cold war and nuclear competition. As though the Japanese of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not suffered enough, the Western imperialists waged war on fellow Asians in Korea and Vietnam. Residual feelings of war guilt and a general sense of having been let down then produced a kind of leftist pan-Asianism. And so the Hiroshima flashbang industry became not only a millenarian peace cult but also a protest against American imperialism; hence the flowers around the Cenotaph from such peace-loving groups as East German trade unions and Soviet-Japanese friendship committees. This, at any rate, was the case until very recently. Now that the left has crashed everywhere, expressions of anti-imperialist solidarity are fewer, such organizations as the Japan Teachers’ Union are losing their influence, and partly because of this the right-wing patriots are making more noise.

The idea of the A-bomb as a modern demon is one that suits the patriots more than the pacifists. Winston Churchill realized this even before the bomb was dropped. In his memoirs the recalls his feelings about using the bomb against Japan:

I thought immediately myself of how the Japanese people, whose courage I had always admired, might find in the apparition of this almost supernatural weapon an excuse which would save their honour and release them from their obligation of being killed to the last fighting man.2

If the A-bomb was not simply a continuation of strategic bombing with a more devastating weapon (the fire-bombing of Tokyo actually cost more lives than either of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but a supernatural, demonic act of wrath, the Imperial Japanese Army would have had to admit defeat in war. As it happened, the diehards could claim they yielded to force majeure. In their view, to have used the bomb was like pulling a gun in a fist-fight; and this demonic conception of the bomb had the added bonus of canceling out Japanese aggression, for nothing, not the rape of Nanking, and certainly not Pearl Harbor, was comparable to the “error” of the bomb. What the Japanese had done in China was to make war; the bomb was, in the words of Professor Saika, the poet of the Cenotaph, “the worst sin committed in the twentieth century.” Again, this was more of a bonus to the patriots than the pacifists, who never denied the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Asia, even though they do not pay much attention to them in the sacred places of Hiroshima.


But the pacifists, no less than the patriots, subscribe to the idea of the A-bomb as uniquely wicked, and the Japanese as uniquely victimized (the roughly twenty thousand Korean victims are only remembered in a little corner outside Peace Park, and their descendents, unlike the Japanese, have not received any compensation). Various reasons, some more plausible than others, are given for the unique wickedness of the bomb: it was an act of anti-Japanese racism; future generations might still suffer from the effects; its technology led the way to the potential annihilation of the human race, etc. The accusation of lethal Japan-bashing avant la lettre is heard often, but has never quite convinced me. Perhaps racism helps to explain the peculiarly vicious nature of combat in the Pacific—when propaganda calls the enemy vermin, it tends to be treated as such—but few Americans would have minded dropping the bomb on Germans, for whom, in any case, it was originally intended. The other two points have more substance. The devastation wrought by one bomb, spreading both immediate and lingering death through radioactivity, as well as the more conventional effects of a bomb blast, added a horrific dimension to an already horrific method of war: the bombing of cities to break morale by terror. Although scientists have found no evidence so far of genetic injury in the children of A-bomb survivors,3 there were cases of deformed babied born of parents who survived the bomb. As far as our capacity to wipe out much of the human race and ruin the ecology of the planet is concerned, of that there can be little doubt.

One of the most effective ways to illustrate the unique wickedness of the bomb dramatically is to emphasize the innocence of the victims, and the sudden nature of the attack: one second there was life, the next there was nothing but death. This was of course literally true, and many people killed by the A-bomb were indeed innocent. But to stress the innocence of the victims, to the exclusion of all else, often ends in sentimentality and national self-pity, which lend neither dignity to the victims nor lucidity to the debate on how to prevent similar tragedies happening again.

To pretend that Japanese life was normal in August 1945 is to ignore the historical setting in which the bomb was dropped. Yet films about the bomb usually begin with the scenes of complete, everyday normality, which instantly turns into hell on earth. Normality is not, of course, sailors polishing guns on the battleships in Kure, or troops being drilled at Hiroshima Castle, but children going to school, father going to work, mothers washing dishes. George Orwell once remarked that the death of young men is no less terrible than that of women and children, yet it is to the latter that people pay more attention in their remembrance of the bombs. The most famous innocent victim of all was a girl called Sasaki Sadako, who was two when the bomb fell, and died ten years later of leukemia. There is a special monument to Sadako in the Peace Park. Betty Jean Lifton, in her rather mawkish book A Place Called Hiroshima, calls her the Anne Frank of Hiroshima.

The main victim in Imamura Shohei’s well-made and remarkably restrained film about Hiroshima, Black Rain, is a beautiful young girl, not a grizzled veteran of the China campaign (of whom there were plenty in Hiroshima, then the main center of military activities outside Tokyo). The innocence of the girl and her loved ones, all of whom die, slowly, agonizingly, of the aftereffects of the bomb, continues to be violated after the war, when they become the victims of social discrimination against A-bomb survivors. The horror of their story is the way they are left to die alone, pariahs in a society that doesn’t wish to know. Despite the childlike innocence of his heroine, Imamura’s film is in fact not sentimental. If anything, it shows up the hypocrisy of a society that takes a sentimental view of the bomb, and that prefers abstract jeremiads to facing the people who actually suffered.

Discrimination is also the topic of Oda Makoto’s novel, The Bomb. The actual bombing is little more than a vignette. But the victim, typically, is a young Japanese nurse, just about to deliver flowers to Southeast Asian patients in a Hiroshima hospital.

Oda Makoto is one of the most prolific writers in Japan, and a veteran flag carrier for the pacifist left devoted to “third world” causes. (That the bomb can still be a boon to anti-American rhetoric in general was shown only the other day, when the Iraqi ambassador to the UN tried to win sympathy for his country by claiming that the bomb on Hiroshima “had killed millions [sic] of innocent people”—as though this should justify the use of chemical weapons now.) There are few left-wing causes in which Oda has not been actively involved. During the 1960s he was an important figure in the League of Citizens’ Movements for Peace in Vietnam. And he has, in his time, defended the likes of Pol Pot and Ayatollah Khomeini, all in the name of liberation from American imperialism.

But if he has said many silly things in his life, he has opposed the whitewash of Japanese history also. If it were not for writers like Oda, revisionists and patriots claiming that the rape of Nanking was a figment of Chinese propaganda, that the Greater East Asian War was justified, and that all Japanese should bow their heads at the Yasukuni shrine, would be but feebly resisted.

Oda’s novel The Bomb tries to be fair. The message, like Hiroshima Peace Park itself, is universally antiwar. Discrimination is the root of all evil. And Japanese militarists and bigots bullying Koreans are as bad as Americans bullying Japs. It is a good message, and Oda has traveled widely enough to have an international view of these things. And yet there is something disturbing about The Bomb. As with many other novels by journalists, the characters are all rather cartoonish, faithfully spouting their stereotypical lines. The problem lies in the stereotypes. There is hardly one American in the book who does not speak lines such as these:

“Geeze, this room is full of gooks. The doctor’s a goddamned nigger and the patients are fuckin’ gooks!”

Or this:

“Let’s set fire to the Jap school!” the white youths had shouted. No, one of them even shouted, “Let’s set fire to the Jap houses. Kill the Japs!”

Or this:

“All scholars are Jews,” said Will. Those words seemed to fan Ken’s dislike of Jews, for he let out a tirade of invective. The worst people in the world were the Japs, followed by the Jews.

It is a popular conceit of Japanese to believe that every white person is an implacable racist. It is, indeed, something that unites the pacifists and the patriots. Oda believes it no less than, say, Ishihara Shintaro, the politician who wants Japan to say no: the Japanese and the Jews were the victims of white racism. Anne Frank lived in Hiroshima. Even though Oda might not explicitly state it, much in his novel implies a moral parity between the two peoples; both occupy the moral high ground of the innocent victim. Praying to the memory of Sasaki Sadako, and all the young nurses who died in Hiroshima, the troops and battleships prepared in that same city to conquer the world are forgotten. Sadako has given all Japanese the priceless gift of innocence.


From claims of innocence to accusations of guilt: Lifton and Markusen’s book on the “genocidal mentality” is about the men behind the killing. The point of their book is not just to draw parallels between the fathers of the nuclear bomb and the Nazi scientists, but to “draw from the Nazi project lessons that might head off the ultimate nuclear Auschwitz.” This is strong language, but then they are dealing with a strong subject, and who can quibble with their aim? There is nonetheless a problem with this kind of language, for terms like “Auschwitz.” are so loaded with extreme emotions (which is of course precisely why polemical writers use them) that they can short-circuit reasonable discourse. The same is true of a phrase like “genocidal mentality.” What is a genocidal mentality? Himmler clearly had it; indeed, he said as much himself, and was rather proud of it. But did Douglas MacArthur? Possibly. Curtis LeMay? Probably. Oppenheimer, Truman, Edward Teller? I should say not. But are we talking about personalities or about a wider phenomenon? Is genocide purely a matter of numbers? If so, how many people does one have to kill or want to kill before qualifying as genocidal? Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, Mao Zedong, Air Marshal Tedder, were they all genocidal? Is indiscriminate killing genocide, or does it have to be aimed at a specific category of people? Unfortunately, the term is employed rather loosely in the book at hand. At one point the authors refer to “earlier American genocidal behavior in relation to black slavery….” Is genocidal the right word?

Still, about the genocidal intent of the Nazi Holocaust there can be no doubt, nor about the catastrophic effect of a nuclear war. There is of course quite a difference. This fact is skated over a bit hastily in the book, although the point is made:

The Nazis killed designated victims—primarily Jews, but also Gypsies; Poles, Russians, mental patients, and homosexuals. In contrast, the stated nuclear intent is to prevent war, and the killing would take place only with a failure of that structure of deterrence.

The question of intent strikes me as crucial.

But what concerns Lifton, a psychiatrist, and Markusen, a sociologist, is the “cast of mind” of the people involved in projects that led to or could lead to mass death. As a psychiatrist Lifton has interesting things to say about the evasions, double binds, and delusions that make it possible for people to live with the idea of killing and still sleep at night. This book tells you in theory what the BBC showed recently in a fine documentary about the surviving crew members of the Enola Gay visiting Hiroshima.4 None of them had been there before (on the ground, that is), and each man reacted in his own way. One looked close to tears throughout and said nothing. One man blustered his way through by slapping bomb survivors on the back and bellowing banalities. Yet another kept asking questions, as though trying to solve a personal riddle. But all found visible relief in discussing the technicalities of the bombing raid; the exact location of the epicenter, the precise colors of the cloud, the altitude of the plane, the weather, the air temperature—anything, in short, that would take their minds off the effect of their bomb on human beings. This showed not that these men were especially callous or wicked, but, on the contrary, that they were ordinary men with ordinary human emotions.

Lifton and Markusen explain how the camaraderie of the laboratory, and obsessive, even fetishistic concern with scientific work can lead to moral numbing. The point they want to make is that men in nuclear labs are capable of committing genocide with the same disregard for humanity as Nazi doctors on the ramps and in operating theaters of death camps, all in the name of scientific progress. These ordinary men, absorbed in their work to the exclusion of all else, end up doing the devil’s work. Germans call this Fachidiotie, literally “job madness.” It was not for Dr. Mengele and his colleagues to question why there was an Auschwitz. It was simply there, and they did their work. In the same way, Lifton and Markusen say, the bombs are accepted as a given, and the scientists work away at finding ever more efficient ways to do humanity in. Until they, and indeed all of us, wake up and reject the evasions and double binds, and look the full horror of nuclearism in the face, we are all doomed to be victims of a nuclear Auschwitz. This psychological breakthrough can only be achieved through a so-called species mentality, a feeling of solidarity with the entire human race. That, in sum, is the argument.

There is indeed something chilling about Fachidiotie, but is it really a modern phenomenon? The book begs the question: Has the potentially devastating nature of nuclear weapons fundamentally changed the cast of mind of the weapon makers, or is their Fachidiotie comparable to the professional dedication of master swordsmiths, gun makers, or carvers of bows and arrows? The great Japanese sword maker Kanemoto spent his entire life finding better ways to hammer and fold many layers of finely forged steel to produce the perfect weapon. Did he worry much about the effect of his swords on a soft human throat? He might have done so, but I doubt it. A Nazi doctor is quoted in the book as saying that killing people in Auschwitz was “a purely technical matter.” So it was, to him, but were the legendary samurai heroes who tried out new swords on commoners to test the sharpness of their blades much less technically minded?

“The near worship of weapons emerged,” write the authors, “as did the claims of scientific racism, from collective attitudes involving science and technology that have taken shape over the past two centuries.” Scientific racism may indeed be a modern invention, though I wouldn’t be too sure even about that, but worship of weapons certainly is not. Javanese daggers are objects of a religious cult, as were samurai swords, not to mention King Arthur’s Excalibur. Weapon fetishism, rightly connected by Lifton and Markusen with sexual potency and the power over life and death, presumably began with the caveman’s club. John Wayne would have understood it. And just think of that wonderful scene in Apocalypse Now, when Playboy Bunnies dance for the boys in Vietnam, twirling guns between their thighs. It might have seemed a little crude to the great Alexander’s troops, but they would have got the point.

The problem with Lifton and Markusen is that they, like many other intellectuals, ascribe far too much to that elusive thing they call modernity. Fachidiotie, Auschwitz, the A-bomb, are, in their view, all uniquely wicked products of the modern mind, along with industrialization, total war, and so forth. Science has gone mad; the machine has taken over; morals and humanity count for nothing: life is meaningless. It is an old complaint, going back to the ancients. Nietzsche simply put it in modern terms: the vacuum after God’s death. This theme has exercized most critics of the Enlightenment: the dry inhumanity of rationalism, man’s slavery to science. As the East German playwright Heiner Müller recently put it in an interview, “When one thinks of the historical catastrophes in our century, it seems plausible that the fetishization of progress is based on an accelerating death wish.” Müller believes that “Auschwitz is the altar of capitalism,” that “without religion, there are no more arguments against Auschwitz,” that “the A-bomb is the scientific substitute of the Last Judgement.”5 Heiner Müller is not a rightwing Christian fundamentalist, but a true believer in socialism.

What is easily forgotten is that great technological inventions, of which splitting the atom was one, were usually regarded in their time as the devil’s work. Gunpowder was, and so were the first railway trains, not to mention the combustion engine and those infernal flying machines, and, who knows, maybe even the wheel. Many people in the world still believe that a camera can rob them of their souls. As far as the ability to destroy is concerned, the leap from swords and arrows to guns was arguably as great as the leap from incendiary bombs to A-bombs. If there has been a fundamental shift in our collective cast of mind, turning us all into numbed accomplices and victims of the genocidal mentality, when exactly did this shift take place? During the Thirty Years War, or in the trenches of Flanders, or was it the carpet bombing of Hamburg that did it? Or was it Hiroshima, after all? To assume that it was Hiroshima is to accept the A-bomb as a deus ex machina, or at least as sui generis. The trouble with any deus is that he stands in the way of a human solution or human responsibility.

This is a point beautifully made by Adam Mars-Jones in his criticism of Martin Amis’s collection of nuclear short stories, Einstein’s Monsters:

Amis hives off the issue of nuclear weapons intellectually from other subjects, but he also isolates the nuclear age historically from everything that came before. Nothing is as it was. This rhetorical construction of a Before and an After with nothing in common has the paradoxical effect of elevating the Bomb above history. The Bomb becomes something like the Uncaused Cause of theology. But it is only in its consequences that the Bomb is absolute: to imagine that the development of the Bomb corresponds to no long-standing ingredient of human nature is wishful thinking. The Bomb need never have been invented, but that doesn’t make it a visitation.6

It is no accident that almost every writer who touches the Bomb uses religious imagery, for that is how the Apocalypse is traditionally discussed. To do otherwise, to use technical, rationalist, political language, is to stand accused of nuclear madness. If Lifton and Markusen had chosen to compare American nuclear physicists to their real colleagues in Nazi Germany instead of to the deathcamp doctors, they would have been struck by an interesting irony here. For rationalisim and amoral abstraction were exactly what Nazis regarded as “Jewish thinking.” As Johannes Stark, one of the leading so-called Aryan physicists, observed, “A German natural researcher should not just be a narrow specialist, but should also feel and act as a German racial comrade.” Or as Hitler is said to have remarked: science is a social endeavor which can only be measured by its impact upon the community.7

Dr. Mengele would have agreed. He was not a Fachidiot, but a true Nazi believer, who abhorred “Jewish thinking” and worshiped racial comradeship. But the men who worked on the Nazi nuclear project, such as Werner Heisenberg, were, on the contrary, pure scientists, with little or no interest in Nazi ideology. Some were even quite opposed to it. Nor were they much interested in the practical application of their research, and it has been argued that this, as much as anything else, stopped Hitler from getting his bomb. One might conclude that there are quicker roads to human wickedness than the Fachidiotie of pure scientists.

Arthur Koestler was both supremely rational and given to strange flights of paranormal fancy; a true believer as well as a child of the Enlightenment. He believed that Hiroshima did indeed change human destiny forever:

The crisis of our time can be summed up in a single sentence. From the dawn of consciousness until the middle of our century man had to live with the prospect of his death as an individual; since Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has to live with the prospect of its extinction as a biological species.8

This is something upon which Koestler, Amis, and Lifton and Markusen are agreed. Up to a point, it is impossible to disagree, although there have been enough mass killings in history to make death more than a merely personal matter. Koestler also wrote that man would be able to live with it by shielding himself mentally from the worst: “‘Hiroshima’ has become a historic cliché like the Boston Tea Party or the Storming of the Bastille. Sooner or later we shall return to a state of pseudo-normality.” In other words, what Lifton calls numbing. But then Koestler identified several symptoms of a uniquely human pathology: the demand for human sacrifice, the lack of inhibition in killing our fellow men, the permanent state of “intraspecific” warfare, leading to mass extermination, and, lastly, the split between reason and emotion.

Our rational faculties have brought about unimaginable technological progress and sophistication, while our emotions are still stuck in a most primitive state. We shake hands on the moon, but are still prepared to kill and die for the tribe, the great ideal, the great leader. Koestler: “Prometheus is reaching for the stars with an empty grin on his face and a totem symbol in his hand.” Here is the nub of the problem: devotion demands sacrifice; the totem of one tribe demands the blood of another. From King Herod’s massacre of the innocents to Saddam Hussein, the genocidal mentality is as old as mankind. And prayer, in one form or another, is still the preferred method of many, perhaps most, people of staving it off.

Lifton and Markusen’s book bears this out: it is a cri de coeur, so to speak, of the religious mind. Paradoxically, it is also an indictment of the use of religious language and imagery in nuclear affairs. The authors call reliance on nuclear weapons a secular religion, “in which grace and even salvation—the mastery of death and evil—are achieved through the power of the new technological deity.” They quote Oppenheimer citing the Bhagavad Gita when he saw the effects of the A-bomb: “Now I am become Death the destroyer of worlds.” But like many critics of rationalism and modernity, they themselves seek to achieve a spiritual solution to secular problems. They believe that only through the great universalist religions and the “modern secular syntheses,…notably those of Marx and Freud,” can the species be saved from Armageddon.

Oda Makoto says much the same thing in his novel, by using that hoary device of a wise Indian tribe on the verge of extinction by the wicked white man. The wise old Indians realize what’s coming, and in their boundless compassion and the wisdom of ages, they pray for the salvation of us all. The idea that nuclear war can be averted by vigilance and political negotiation strikes Oda, Lifton, et alia as mad. Deterrence is to them only an illusion, or worse, another form of the genocidal mentality. It is as though they can only fight fire with fire, totems with totems.


Just as the critics of the Enlightenment were useful in pointing out the inhumanity of dogmatic rationalism, the civic religion of peace can be a good antidote to Fachidiotie. There is indeed something unhinged about the continuous buildup and refinement of means to blow up the planet, even though the sheer terror of this happening has probably helped to preserve the peace so far between those with the means to do it. But the religious mind is singularly illsuited to reasonable discourse, and can inhibit scientific enquiry. To Lifton and Markusen the bomb is chiefly a moral problem.

Martin Amis even uses his fatherhood to scramble up to the unassailably moral high ground, as though being a father uniquely qualifies one to discuss nuclear matters, as though it makes all differing opinions redundant. Moralists believe that the issue is one of human consciousness, which must be changed, spiritually, through religious, or pseudo-religious means. To talk about nuclear arms in their relation to politics or strategy, or science, is not just immoral but virtually impossible. One might as well discuss God rationally with an evangelist. This is no reflection on the good intentions of the evangelist, but his cast of mind is out of reach to the rationalist. The only difference between God and the bomb is that God can be declared dead…. But wait, even that isn’t true. The real believer in banning the bomb has to believe that it can be done, that we can simply redirect scientific progress, when it can be put to ill use.

This may seem utopian, but there is actually an example of it happening, of all places, in Japan. In the middle of the sixteenth century, when Japan was an exporter of superb swords, better than anything made on the Chinese continent, three Portuguese adventurers landed in Japan on board a Chinese ship. They brought harquebuses and ammunition with them and impressed their Japanese hosts during a duck shoot. A mere thirty-two years later, in 1575 to be exact, Oda Nobunaga’s troops, armed with high-caliber matchlock rifles, blasted away as wave after wave of Takeda Katsuyori’s soldiers charged in with swords and spears. Sixteen thousand men died that day on the plains of Nagashino.

Three hundred years after that, the Americans arrived in Japan, meaning business. Commodore Perry, with sixty-four-pound guns poking from his decks, was met in Shimoda by samurai who looked like knights in a medieval pageant, swords proudly worn at their sides, with not a gun in sight. Commander Rodgers, USN, arrived a year later in Tanegashima and was deeply moved to find a sophisticated people, who had never heard of firearms. If Rodgers had known that the people of Tanegashima had been keen shots a hundred years earlier, he would have been moved even more. A miracle seemed to have occurred: the gun had been banned as a dastardly, dishonorable weapon of mass destruction, and Japan had enjoyed three centuries of undisturbed peace and social harmony.

The story is enough to make the most hardened supporter of nuclear weapons weep. Noel Perrin, who wrote about it in his book Giving up the Gun, aimed his tale not at historians or Japan specialists, but at “the much larger group of people interested in the possibility of controlling technology.”9 His book is dedicated to Yukio Mishima, “no pacifist, but a long-time hater of guns,” and begins with the following lines by Charles Lamb:

Alas! Can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize and then burn the world? There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?

This is Perrin’s final statement:

“You can’t stop progress,” people commonly say. Or in a formulation scientists are especially fond of, “What man can do, man will do….”

This is to talk as if progress—however one defines that elusive concept—were somehow semidivine, an inexorable force outside human control. And, of course, it isn’t. It is something we can guide, and direct, and even stop. Men can choose to remember; they can also choose to forget. As men did on Tanegashima.

What a perfect parable! Once again, the accusation of misusing religion: semidivine progress. Men can choose to forget. Can they? Did they? What gives the game away and reveals Perrin to be yet another one among the believers is the lack of politics in his account. Why was the gun banned, who banned it, and how was it achieved?

Here the story becomes more interesting and less noble. Power during the three hundred years of shogunate rule was monopolized by generalissimos, presiding over feudal fiefdoms of samurai lords. The merchant class made money, but remained politically shackled. A ruthless and highly efficient secret police made sure no one stepped an inch out of line. And the peasants were squeezed to the point of being permanently on the verge of starvation. When things became absolutely intolerable, which was rather often, the peasants rebelled, but what could they do with their bamboo spears against sharp samurai blades? Those who didn’t die by Mishima’s favorite noble weapon died of hunger.

The gun threatened to change this arrangement. Perrin remarks that “It was a shock to everyone to find out that a farmer with a gun could kill the toughest samurai so readily.” He goes on to write that Hideyoshi, the generalissimo of Japan at the time (the late sixteenth century), “took the first step toward the control of firearms. It was a very small step, and it was not taken simply to protect feudal lords from being shot by peasants but to get all weapons out of the hands of civilians.” Gradually the supply of guns dried up and Japan remained firmly under the samurai sword. The result? More than two hundred years of police-state authoritarianism, whose legacy still befuddles Japanese efforts at democratic politics today.10

So, yes, the absolute rulers of an isolated country, deliberately sealed off from the outside world, can force people to “forget” technological progress. They can justify this by claiming to protect harmony and peace. And we can all agree that harmony and peace are very fine things, but not when they are enforced by despots with a choice of their own weapons. Peace on those terms might make even the doves of Hiroshima sit up and pay attention.

This Issue

October 25, 1990