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Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2003 / 16 Kislev, 5764

Neil Steinberg

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U.S. owes Japan no apology at Hiroshima plane exhibit | There is a museum in Tokyo dedicated to Japan's ample history of warfare. But if you visit the plainly named Military Museum, you will find no reference to the grotesque medical experiments the Japanese army conducted in World War II or the sex slaves it kidnapped. The Rape of Nanking, when rampaging Japanese troops raped and murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese, is airbrushed into the "Nanking Incident'' and the facts are said to be uncertain. Civilian deaths aren't mentioned at all until the Americans begin firebombing Tokyo in 1944.

This is par for the course. In Japanese textbooks the relentless quest of military domination that so marked that nation's conduct in the 20th century gently morphs into a brave struggle for independence against a hostile world.

Nor is the museum a relic of the equivocating past. It opened just last year. "The museum's jingoism begins in the very first room,'' wrote Howard French in the New York Times. "There, a saber adorned with gold braid, an ancient relic from the Imperial Palace guard, hangs, dramatically lit, above a block of text glorifying 2,600 years of independence, secured by valiant warriors against unnamed invaders.''

So it is irony of the most extreme sort that Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb are unhappy with how the Smithsonian Institution is displaying the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb used in war on Hiroshima, in its new Air and Space Museum annex next to Dulles Airport.

They would like photos of radiation burns and stats of the 160,000 who died in the first atomic blast next to the airplane.

"As victims of the A-bombs, we can't bear to have the Enola Gay, which killed thousands of Hiroshima residents, on public display without including details of the destruction it wrought,'' said Terumi Tnaka, the Japan Confederation of A-Bomb and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization's director.

This is not an obscure issue of museum policy. History is an argument — a war, so to speak. The battles of the past continue in the present in symbolic form, as academics, survivors, and regular people struggle to decide how a thing will be remembered.

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It is a war, I'm sad to say, that America is losing. Most nations make their history into a flattering story they tell themselves. Japan isn't even the most extreme case — history in North Korea is a fairy tale honoring a madman. And we all know what kids learned in school in Iraq up until last spring.


The United States, however, is different, possibly unique, with the arguable exception of Germany, in how we view our past. Because of our standards and sensitivities, we paint a picture of ourselves that is extraordinarily bleak. Not only have the Japanese complained, but some American academics argued that the Enola Gay should not be displayed without slapping ourselves around.

This fits perfectly with the standard public school version of America: a nightmare of slavery and broken treaties, relieved only by the unsung bravery of pioneer girls and Indian fighters, who are the true heroes of our history, as opposed to dead white males such as slave-owner George Washington and whoremonger Thomas Jefferson.

Such a skewed dismissal is as bad as Japanese self-glory. History should not be a whitewash, but it shouldn't be self-flagellation either. The United States has made mistakes, but those missteps need to be put into the greater story of the miracle that is our country. We need a balance — otherwise our children grow up needlessly abashed, just as Japanese children grow up with a view of their country that enormously diverges from both fact and the perception of the rest of the world.


The United States does indeed have things to be ashamed of. But World War II is not one of them. Shameful chapters — such as the internment of our own Japanese citizens — must be compared to the unchecked brutality in much of the world at the time. Before we honor the victimhood of others, we should honor our own. Before some group of A-bomb survivors guilts the Smithsonian into kneeling on a rail over the atomic bomb, I wish a delegation of Bataan Death March survivors or men maimed at Pearl Harbor would whisper their side.

Perhaps the Enola Gay should be displayed next to that photo of a Chinese baby wailing in the rubble of a Japanese bombing, as a reminder of how the Japanese had very methodically removed themselves from the pale of humanity over a period of years before the bomb dropped. Perhaps the Enola Gay should be shown next to photos of kamikaze planes and descriptions of how surrendering Japanese would pull the pins on grenades, or next to tales of Iwo Jima and Saipan and all the miserable chunks of rock that U.S. Marines died trying to pry away from the Japanese death grip. Harry Truman, a haberdasher from Missouri, perhaps the most ordinary American ever to serve in the presidency, was absolutely right to drop the bomb. The Japanese nation earned the Enola Gay's visit. The rest is just present day politics and the posturing of those not in any position to complain.

JWR contributor Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book is Don't Give Up the Ship: Finding My Father While Lost at Sea . Comment by clicking here.

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