Wars: In Memoriam


It was a week of battle fatigue.  President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, the Franco-German commemoration of the Battle of Verdun, and America’s Memorial Day weekend.

Inevitably, the three events have sent conflicted messages to the world.

At Hiroshima, America’s atomic bomb (with the cute moniker Little Boy) murdered an estimated 146,000 people — half of them on the first day, the rest two to four months later from the effects of radiation.  The second bomb (named Fat Man) was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, and killed an estimated 80,000 people.  Neither city was a military target — these were ordinary civilians who were blasted with an experimental attack.

I’ve wondered, all these years, why a warning wasn’t given?  Dropping the first bomb, for example, in the Bay of Japan, and saying, “Look, this is what we’ve got.  If you don’t surrender, the next one will be dropped on a city.”  And why, after the horror of Hiroshima was perceived, America proceeded to slaughter a second city, while the Japanese were still reeling from the horror of the first.

Historians note that weeks before those hateful attacks, the Soviet Union had agreed to join in the war in the Pacific.  And in view of that, Japan was on the point of surrendering.  What, or who, persuaded President Truman to drop the bombs?

America must bear the stigma of being the only nation in the world to have unleashed an atomic holocaust….and has never apologized.  So when President Obama visited Hiroshima last week, his speech was expectedly feeble.  It was also duplicitous, for only a few days before, he had signed on to a nationwide program of nuclear “revitalization” that will cost up to one trillion dollars over the next three decades, developing a new generation of nuclear weapons.  This comes under the aegis of a president who campaigned for “a nuclear-free world” and who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his apparent pacifism.

Going back one hundred years, France and Germany commemorated the Battle of Verdun this past weekend — one of the most murderous battles of the First World War.  For 300 days — exactly ten months from February to December 1916 — enemy troops fought each other in the trenches, with poison gas, with canons, with air attacks from newly-built airplanes.  When it was over, the dead and missing numbered 300,000; the wounded numbered 400,000.

The ceremonies in Verdun this past Saturday included a solemn meeting between French president François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  A military band, commemorative wreaths, ceremonies in the town hall, and a performance by French and German youth — two thousand from each country — blended into the stark acres and acres of graves, both French and German.  A grey sky and a constant drizzle of rain seemed all too appropriate.

For the French, this was a devastating battle, which still evokes horror.  For the Germans, interestingly, it is less dramatic, because Germany was also fighting a deadly battle against Russia, to the east.  But for both nations, Verdun is a tragic symbol of war’s ultimate futility and waste.

On Monday, Americans celebrated Memorial Day with barbecues and picnics and bargain-shopping.  President Obama called for “a day of prayer for permanent peace”, but specifically he suggested only one hour beginning at 11 a.m.  That’s hardly enough time to remember lost loved ones, to light a candle, and to tell our children that war — whatever the excuse — is loathsome and terrible.


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Joan Z. Shore was born in New York City, graduated from Vassar College, and has lived most of her life in Europe. Following several years with RTB Belgian radio and The Brussels Bulletin, she became Paris correspondent for CBS News (10 years) and Voice of America. She has contributed to The International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, Le Figaro, and numerous magazines. She co-founded Women Overseas for Equality (Belgium) and ViVart!, an art curatorial service. Currently, she lectures on her book, Saging: How to Grow Older and Wiser (Bloch Publishing, Jacksonville, FL). Her new novel, Red Burgundy, is available from Amazon.