August 6 is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and it is appropriate to remember in the ways that we can. There are millions of stories connected in various ways to that event and two are very close. They are quite different from one another, yet at root they bear the same message.
Even in the early 1940’s, when an atomic explosion was only a theory and had never been witnessed, the conflagration that would be produced was well understood. That was a different time, though, and the imperative was to win the war with a minimum of American casualties. Estimates ran north of a million dead and injured, should we attempt a land invasion of Japan, so, awful as it was even to contemplate, using an atomic bomb to subdue the enemy looked like the better option. Indeed, in those days, there was little controversy over whether to use such a weapon if doing so would avoid suffering 25,000 marines killed on every island in the Pacific on the way to Japan.
My father-in-law was a scientist, a chemical engineer Ph.D and for decades was a go-to guy for making chemical manufacturing plants operate well. He was so talented that he was called to serve on the Manhattan Project during WWII. What that meant for him and all the scientists working on the Manhattan Project was that in order to honor their duty and responsibility as Americans to help win the war, they would have to set aside their concerns over the moral dilemma of dropping a bomb on Japanese cities. Some, like my father-in-law, had to compromise a piece of their souls to do that, a compromise they came to deeply regret.
While the construction of that new and terrible weapon was ongoing, my father was posted in England and flew a P-47 fighting the Nazis, escorting bombers, dodging bursts of flak, getting shot at and shooting back, sortie after sortie. In today’s more gentle terms, he was in harm’s way, but there was nothing gentle about what was happening. He lived in a world of brutality every day, a world of sudden death and long suffering, a world where human beings saw and did unspeakable things. Indeed, like so many vets, even years later he was unable to speak the raw truth of those days and most of his terrible secrets died with him.
He did not entertain the post war moral analysis made from the comfort of peacetime over the dropping of the bomb. He had completed his tour of duty before that bombing, had served as an instructor to new recruits after his combat days and was on inactive status with the army. Had a land invasion of Japan been mounted, he would have been called back into active service and sent to the Pacific to wage war once again. Dropping the bomb made good sense to him, yet he was anything but absent of regret over those terrible days.
He had been raised to be a good boy and not do harm to others, but it had been wartime and doing what he did was his duty and responsibility, so he, like my father-in-law, did what had to be done. And he, too, had to compromise a piece of his soul, a compromise that came with deep regret. There are literally millions of stories like these from that awful time.
Today we use the word “sacrifice” to describe what our military people have to do. Yet in this country where less than 1% of our people shoulder our military burden, most of us don’t really understand what that means. My father-in-law and my father understood quite well. They did their duty and honored their responsibility for their loved ones and for our country. Their sacrifice was enormous, as both men shouldered a weight that they carried throughout their lives as a continuing torment to their souls. They paid an enormous price for us.
In their sacrifice they left us a country that remains free. Over the years they let me know in countless ways that they believed in personal responsibility and that they expected me and all of us to honor our duty and the responsibility that is inextricably bound to our freedom, just as they did. It’s likely that all of those brave men and women of that greatest generation would expect us to do that. Part of the keeping of our freedom is to sacrifice a piece of our convenience every four years and vote.
Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
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