I’m not a war connoisseur or a history buff but I watch a ridiculous quantity of war documentaries on Netflix. The way that these stories have been crafted are really interesting to me. You couldn’t write more compelling fiction. There’s pain and heartbreak, death and triumph of the human spirit. There are heroes and villains. There’s greed and power and corruption and there are messages to humankind about never forgetting the lessons that we have learned thus far.And then there are the bombs. Two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, stamping an exclamation point on the end of the world’s deadliest conflict.
You can’t watch a World War II documentary without seeing a few dramatic frames of the Enola Gay dropping the first nuclear weapon and the oddly beautiful mushroom cloud that inevitably ensues. Often, this is how the documentary ends. One last show of power that seems to achieve what General Marshall had prophesied.
“We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”
In these wartime documentaries, the scenes that are far less frequent are those that show the aftermath on the ground. Miles below the blooming mushroom cloud were scenes of death, devastation, disease, and terror. Children with open wounds. Bodies in the street. Homes reduced to piles of filth. These scenes are horrible and hard to watch. If the awe-inspiring mushroom cloud is the thirty-thousand foot view, then the cameras on the ground capture ground zero.
General Marshall’s quote has bothered me since I first heard it. I know it’s complicated. I know the wars that this country has engaged in continued to be a source of dispute for thousands of people. Of course there are arguments that the bomb was the best of several bad alternatives. I cannot speak to this.
Marshall’s sentiments just seem so contradictory. Fear us, we are free and not afraid to use it if we feel threatened. One way or another, let our freedom overwhelm you. Scenes that capture the Japanese, dying at the hand of the overwhelming power of the United States force us though to put faces and feelings to what we have otherwise classified as collateral damage. It’s easiest to spout ideologies when you don’t have to worry about those that will be damaged in the process. Documentarians understand this and can craft the sentiments they choose to leave us with.
But I’m not here to just talk about war.
In less dramatic ways, there are bombs dropped every single day. There are political candidates that make ideological statements about swaths of people, declaring war on them and rallying others to share a similar view. Christians decide in no uncertain terms that our LGBT neighbors are not wholly human and must give up some aspect of their identity in order to receive a better one. Systems continue to exist that keep some races subjugated while others continue to flourish.
Force and devastation take many forms.
There are at least two perspectives on the mushroom cloud. One that induces awe and one that demands terror. In a similar way, each stance we take from a position of power has multiple truths. Each time we celebrate the impact of a political candidate declaring war on Muslims, we cannot ignore the ground zero of their lives. There is irreparable and traumatic damage in isolation. We have seen ghettos before; let’s be wary of establishing them again. When a Christian figurehead campaigns on the basis that gays are the enemy of America, those of us who have long enjoyed our relationships without controversy must think about what it would be like to be demonized for who we are and to be accused of bringing harm to our neighbors because of who we love. As long as privilege of any sort is ignored, we have to deal we have to deal with the idea that thousands of people are individuals have less because we have such easy access to more.
When we choose to only see the mushroom cloud, when we aren’t exposed to the humanity of collateral damage, we are missing a fundamentally powerful other side. I get that it’s easy to ignore. To know that there is more than one side to a story means that we have to do the work of resolving for ourselves the differences in wha the encounter. We have to figure out in the face of these humanity whether a our particular act of war is justified. How many other people are we willing to hurt in order to have our particular truth be declared the victor?
How can we be known for both an overwhelming sense of force on one hand and enduring sense of freedom on the other?