What difference would it make if President Obama did take time during his official visit to Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bombs? Who would the President be speaking for? After-all, the overwhelming majority of soldiers who fought in WWII have not offered an apology nor do they want someone else to offer one for them. Whatever we can say about the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons on a human population, the weapons were used in the context of relentless war and unconditional ferocity. It was a time of kill or be killed.
Not to mention, the Japanese had struck first at Pearl Harbor. Whether Roosevelt and Churchill had advanced warning is irrelevant. It was the Japanese who seized the opportunity to devastate our naval fleet and murder hundreds of our servicemen for no justified reason whatsoever. Pearl Harbor- with or without Roosevelt’s collusion- was a watershed moment that transformed the Japanese people into barbarians in the eyes of most Americans. The bomb was used to pulverize an imperial empire which was hellbent on causing as many Pearl Harbors as it could get away with. Furthermore, we know that Truman went to great lengths to prevent civilian casualties. He picked Hiroshima and Nagasaki because they were industrial centers where the Japanese war effort was being catalyzed. When the decision was made to deploy the bombs, every few minutes an American soldier was being killed on a battlefield somewhere in the Pacific. Again, the Bomb was dropped in the context of total war. There were no good decisions. Every decision would result in the terrible loss of civilian and non-civilian life. The only decision which seemed to be moral was the one which had the potential to bring this ghastly war to an end. Were the Japanese people treated as a means to this ends? Of course they were. They were seen as victims of a tragic set of circumstances which could not be avoided without making them victims in some other way. Is it worse to be incinerated or stabbed to death? Is it worse to be burned alive or to be tortured to death? Would we choose to die from atomic radiation or mustard gas poisoning?
Letting these questions marinate in their own filth, let’s ask a different set of questions. What would an apology by the President mean? Who is he speaking for when he apologizes for the decisions of former military commanders and politicians? What goals would he be trying to achieve by making this public statement of national contrition? Would it be a pure apology or would it be an apology in the philosophic sense of the word only-namely, a defense of American principles and inherent goodness? Would the President be using the apology to speak with more conviction and authenticity when it comes to curbing nuclear proliferation, which has been a signature effort of his administration? By apologizing for dropping the bombs would he be claiming for the U.S. a certain nobility that other nations are incapable of exhibiting with such dignified transparency? The line of thinking goes something like this: since we are the only nation to have used atomic bombs, we know the weight which this decision carries. Our role as leaders of the free world is to use our knowledge and experience to help eliminate such weapons of mass destruction and political tyranny.
But is this a genuine apology? Can we truly say sorry when we are trying to pursue an ulterior motive? Granted, saying sorry in order to take moral responsibility for the presence and potential use of nuclear weapons is not a bad thing. However, it does in some way distort the genuineness behind the apology. A true apology always refers to the needs and requirements of the victim first. The question should not be what can I get out of offering this apology, but what do you need from me in order to make this apology real? In other words, how can I express my condolences in a way that is not contaminated with personal agendas or national security interests? As a nation with a rich and complex social and political history, what is it that you need from us in order to honor your worth and to make amends for the ways we contributed to your ultimate period of terror? Regardless of how the war started and what happened leading up to the horror of Hiroshima, what can we do now to make you feel like your pain and suffering is not only recognized but realized?
What is most important to understand is that how this pain is realized is dependent on the needs of the Japanese people rather than the goals of American leaders. How do the Japanese want Americans to empathize with this unfathomable disaster? That is the main question which must be asked before any apology is issued on behalf of the American people. We need to ask permission to apologize and then be ready to listen to what that apology entails. To just say that you are sorry without wanting to hear how the apology lives in the hearts and minds of your victims is to commit yet another act of violence against them. Far too often our words become types of weapons used to say one thing and imply another. Even when it appears on the outside that a great act of reconciliation has occurred, it is within the implications where most of the psychological violence is committed.
An apology is not a string of syllables but an expression of sincerity.Yet to merely express sincerity is not good enough. If President Obama is speaking from the heart, he does not even need to speak at all. The way that he acknowledges the suffering of war victims in the past, present and future is something that happens without words. The way he thinks is more important than the words he uses to justify the way he thinks. When the President thinks about war differently his actions will reflect his most sincere beliefs. If the President truly was sorry for the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki he would also be truly sorry for the hell fire missiles being fired into Aleppo. If he was truly sorry for the atomic bombs, then he would be truly sorry for using newer more sophisticated bombs today. What difference does it make to a civilian whether they were evaporated by the blast of a hydrogen bomb or ripped into shreds by the earth shattering force of a cluster bomb? The result is exactly the same.
The only real apology that matters has nothing to do with geopolitical summits, historical pronouncements, or grand symbolic gestures meant to solidify powerful democracies. The real apology will come when Mr. Obama says I am sorry for war and I will study it no more. As absurd and unrealistic as that sounds in our hyper-militarized culture, it’s the only real apology that deserves the name. It is also the only apology that will make future apologies unnecessary.