Numbers and people
Dear John Roos,
My name is Alvin Chang. When I was 10, I had 46 books on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were all from the library, all overdue.
The absolute power of the atomic bomb enamored me. I imagined President Truman sitting in the Oval Office in 1945 and pushing a flat red button with an All-America smile on his face. Of course, the history books say it didn’t happen that way — it was a lot more complicated, a lot more ambiguous. But I romanticized the notion.
Then my Korean grandpa found out about this obsession and he was pissed. He said, in 1945, many Koreans were forced laborers in Hiroshima. He said, that day, 10,000 of them died instantly. He made me think about the victims. It wasn’t so romantic anymore.
I imagined a family of four, like mine, sitting down to eat breakfast at 8 a.m. on that clear August day. And maybe, around 8:10 a.m. they were finishing up the meal because they had to go to work or school. They didn’t want to be late because it was Monday — a new week, a fresh start. Maybe around 8:15 a.m., they were putting their bowls in the sink and preparing to leave the house. Maybe, in the next 42 seconds, they thought about what they would do that day and what they would have for dinner. Then, a second later, they were gone. The history books always use the word “incinerated.” About 80,000 people died instantly.
So I wanted to be an ambassador to Japan and, one day, apologize to them. Because, officially, the U.S. has never said sorry.
Of course, it’s debatable whether it was necessary — whether it prevented more death. But I always wondered why someone couldn’t just say sorry, if even to the sky, where perhaps thousands of innocent souls are stuck in the firmament.
That’s why I’m writing: You can do it for me.
In two weeks, on the 65th anniversary of the bombing, you will be the first ever representative of the U.S. to attend the annual memorial service.
Frankly, though, I don’t expect you to say sorry. Because the U.S. is sending you to support a nuclear-free world — nothing more. We don’t like saying we made a mistake. We have trouble saying sorry.
But if you do apologize, I have some ideas of what you should say. I’ve thought about it since I was 10:
You should say that humans are flawed — that we make mistakes and compound them. We often hate each other and say it’s because we were hated first — a childish notion veiled by academic words.
You should say that this isn’t about politics or national security or public relation. It’s about every-day people, because most of those 80,000 were civilians. They were born into that world and, for many, it was the only world they could know. We “incinerated” it.
You should say that, no matter what President Truman’s intent was, he couldn’t have known the full consequences of the bomb. He couldn’t have known about the teenager leaning in for his first kiss; he couldn’t have known about the pregnant woman giving birth to a child. He couldn’t have known because his human mind could not possibly process the importance of 80,000 individual people. In his mind, these people could be nothing more than an abstract number.
You should say that, in the bombing, we viewed those humans as symbols for a nation. But we should’ve viewed the nation as an imperfect symbol for those humans.
Lastly, you should say that, whether we can justify it or not, whether it was necessary or not, it was wrong — and we’re sorry. Then, maybe, just maybe, you can stand there during that ceremony and genuinely represent what you’re there for.