Essay by Martha Quillen
Modern life – September 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine
We can learn from history; I thoroughly believe that.
Except lately, I’m not at all sure just what it is we can learn.
Upon the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everyone seems to be discussing whether Truman should, or should not, have employed nuclear weapons.
I haven’t the foggiest idea.
But I suspect that if I had been the President of the United States in 1945, with a weapon that could conceivably end a long and brutal war — I probably would have used that weapon.
On the other hand, since our side presumably built atomic bombs because we feared Germany was working on an atomic bomb, and since Germany was out of the picture, perhaps I wouldn’t have used an atomic bomb in 1945.
That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have used it in 1946, if our invasion of Japan had gone wrong. And it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have eventually used nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union — if, in the absence of a nuclear stalemate between the super powers, our cold war had gotten hot.
But what I would have done as the President of the United States, in a time before I was born, doesn’t really matter. Just as, I suspect, it doesn’t really matter whether Truman was right or wrong.
What was done, was done. And although some now contend that Truman was unconscionably wrong, and the U.S. should therefore apologize, an apology under such circumstances seems ludicrous.
What are we to say?
“We apologize for vaporizing your people and disintegrating your buildings.” And in turn, the Japanese can say they are sorry for sinking our fleet, and for the Bataan Death March. And then everything will be better, right?
Sure, and people who believe that have taken too many fatuous classes in conflict resolution.
In a pinch, an apology may serve to excuse bumbling and belching, but an apology can’t mitigate tragedy. Besides, these are not real, heartfelt apologies. These are apologies tended upon demand.
To allow some small measure of justice, victims get to make the guilty grovel. But since it seems doubtful that anyone is actually placated by shallow, inadequate apologies — I can only conclude we’re now using the apology as a form of saber-rattling.
That’s hardly surprising, however, since guilt has become the preeminent weapon of our era. If you can’t lick ’em — then shame them.
This strategy has overrun political battles, until it appears that neither party has much to offer besides aspersions about their opponent’s character, morality, honesty, and sexual habits.
Under the circumstances, we might conclude that today’s politicians are lustier than those of the past — if we didn’t know that we haven’t got a politician popular enough to rival Kennedy, or even Lincoln. These are not guys anyone sane would want to get in bed with — even in a metaphorical sense.
Yet, our politicians are not so different than the rest of us.
Perhaps that is the most frightening legacy World War II has left us with. The horror is not that Germany threatened the world, it’s that the Germans turned on their own: the Jews, the Gypsies, the gays, German men, women, and children, their neighbors, and their friends.
In the years following the war, the entire world sensed the danger of racism, bigotry and intolerance, and earnest efforts were made to integrate our disparate citizenry, not only in the United States, but also in Europe, and even in the communist strongholds.
But at the same time, the horrific events in Germany had bred distrust and fear.
After the war, suspicion stalked us. We fretted about our neighbors. Were they pink? Were they red? Were they selling secrets to the Russians? We established agencies like the CIA and the DEA to protect us, and we armed virtually every agency, including the Division of Wildlife and the Forest Service.
We worried about Hollywood. Were movies brainwashing us? And about the music industry. Was it corrupting our youth? And about the government. Was it too big, too bureaucratic, too unresponsive?
But worrying didn’t help. We merely added more laws, more law enforcement officials, and more expenses — and worried more.
At first, Jews and blacks worried about their status. Then, women, the elderly, and the handicapped joined them.
— And now everyone feels they’ve been victimized.
Well, it does make a certain amount of sense that very few people want to identify with the evil oppressors (and I certainly don’t want to meet the people who do).
But at this point, the situation is getting absurd.
Everyone is persecuted. The rich are burdened by taxes. The geniuses are discriminated against in public schools. The well-fed are cramped into narrow seats. White men are insulted. White women are harassed. Young white males are cheated by affirmative action.
People suffer because they’ve had insensitive parents, working mothers, inattentive fathers, dysfunctional families, low self-esteem, learning deficiencies, unjust teachers, and unfair coaches.
Moreover, suffering is apparently inheritable. Even those with excellent jobs, superb educations, glorious credentials, and gorgeous homes can count themselves among the abused if their ancestors were enslaved, or their grandfathers died in concentration camps, if their forebears were mistreated, or their grandmothers were denied the vote.
Many historians, rightly I think, believe that recorded history has honored the leaders, explorers and inventors, and neglected the ordinary people. Thus, revisionist historians have tried to right the text by putting the common folk back into the story.
But a curious thing happened. If once upon a time, our recorded history glorified old, white guys — now we mine our past to castigate the villains, and exalt the victims.
Actually, this isn’t all that different, since the primary purpose, in either case, is to pass judgment on those who lived before us. But now, we tend to see history in black and white terms; there were villains and victims. And almost inevitably we identify with the victims.
Where once we emulated heroes and fancied ourselves noble, now we know we’re oppressed, and we rail against our oppressors. We demand our rights. We have the right to be taken seriously, to be spared inconvenience, and to live freely, without anxiety.
In a small town, our growing sense of injustice is readily apparent. Just a few years ago, Salida was beleaguered by unemployment, poverty, falling reality prices, and failing businesses. Now, times are better, but Salidans have to employ more police officers to answer the volume of complaints.
Though our streets are safe, and few people feel compelled to lock their homes or cars, more officers are required to deal with barking dogs, stray cats, illegal watering, pernicious parking, undue noise, loitering adolescents, and unruly children.
In a post-war era that began, in spite of our fears, with visions of understanding, integration, inclusion, brotherhood and peace, we’ve now reached the point of zero tolerance. And it was easy — because victimhood is darn seductive, and I don’t mean for them, I mean for everyone, for us, for me.
After all, most men really are whiny when they’re sick, they rarely do their fair share of housework, they seldom listen, and they expect women to pick up after them. Too many men confuse rude propositions with romantic overtures, and a lot of them couldn’t find a broom in a broom closet.
Maybe it’s time for men to admit that they haven’t done such a terrific job at governing nations, leading industry, and ruling the world. Considering all the rape, mayhem, war, and violence men have been responsible for, perhaps, they should feel guilty.
Unfortunately, however, guilt has a very limited life — especially when it’s guilt by association.
As a mother, I can attest to that. There are just so many times you can arouse remorse in a child for leaving roller skates, skateboards, and boots in the doorway — where they could conceivably trip and permanently maim you as they have snared and crippled so many parents in the past — before you have to lock up the stray footwear to make your point.
And so it has proven in the public sector; guilt dissipates.
I for one, am not sure I ever felt all that guilty because my great-great-great grandfather may have enslaved someone else’s great-great-great grandfather, especially in light of the fact that I don’t think I would feel particularly guilty if my own father had been a serial killer.
In the beginning, I suspect guilt inspired understanding and compassion. But that was real guilt aroused by the horrendous conditions in war-torn Germany and Japan, and by the pervasive poverty and wretched living conditions of black sharecroppers. That was guilt fueled by accounts of holocaust victims, radiation burns, death, anguish, misery, and starving children.
Now, with so many victims clamoring for our attention, it’s gotten hard to feel guilty.
But even worse, most of us feel like victims, at least sometimes, when it occurs to us that our taxes are too high, our incomes are too low, our credentials are deficient, and our children don’t appreciate us.
And it hurts to feel like a victim — since, once you believe people are out to get you, you wonder why. Then you blame yourself, and you get madder, because you are really not so bad. Except sometimes, you can’t help but wonder if maybe you are that bad.
Besides, victims are never equal, and they are seldom in a position to improve their lot.
Personally, I’m sick of feeling downtrodden. But it’s hard to give up — especially when our media, popular culture, and leaders routinely depict all of the wrongs that have been done to us.
On the other hand, as an American citizen, I’ll gladly forgo an apology from Japan.
Actually, I think it would be inappropriate for my generation, which includes both President Clinton and Newt Gingrich, to apologize for the actions of a past president who only did what he believed was right.
Furthermore, I think it’s extremely ungracious of us to expect an apology from modern Japan for the aggression of a dead Emperor who guided his people into suffering and defeat.
But mostly, I think we all need to let go of some of our resentment. To do that, however, I suspect we’ve got to quit seeing ourselves as victims.
Or, if that proves impossible, perhaps we should go back to building bomb shelters.
— Martha Quillen