My father’s father flew free from the depths of the Russian Empire as an infant, for sticks and stones and angry Christians drove his family out. It was in 1916 or maybe 1917. Europe was blocked off, rent by the burning gashes of Verdun. So the family wound its way through the grassy icy body of Russia, a silk road feeding on the bread of affliction from Vladivostok to the immigration center at Angel Island, California, where it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Chinese or Japanese family to enter the United States of America. The new arrivals were stripped down, palpated, checked for disease and vermin. I have only seen old photographs of Angel Island, of small rooms full of rows of Asian men with sinewy arms and bare chests, thin, reedy, solemn, staring. Somewhere among them was a pale Jewish family, panting in the blooming foreign heat. The men filling out forms could not understand my future grandfather’s name, Mechel, and they decided he would be Max.
Max migrated further and further East. His family settled in the gray brewery town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But as a young man he traveled back westward, back across the ocean. It was 1941 or ’42. War between America and the Axis was imminent, so Max enlisted in the Navy and chose to be shipped off to the Philippines so that he wouldn’t later be drafted to fight in Europe. Max’s family had evaded the Great War by crossing the Pacific, and he intended to skip its sequel by crossing the other way.
Have you heard of the merchant’s servant from Baghdad who saw Death glare at him in the marketplace? He borrowed a horse from his master and fled to Damascus. The merchant went down to the market and saw that Death was indeed there, and asked her about the threatening look she had given his servant. She replied: I was not threatening him. I was only surprised to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him in Damascus tonight.
On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese air force bombed Pearl Harbor and the whole Pacific became my grandfather’s Damascus. I know very little of the rest. My father has told me that his father survived the eighty miles of the Bataan Death March and was loaded in a box train to a prisoner of war camp. He ate whale blubber and rice full of maggots and sometimes grass, which humans cannot digest. When he was released in 1945, he weighed seventy-five pounds.
He was freed when the war was ended by two atom bombs that killed 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Upon his return, his country awarded him three bits of metal hanging off brightly colored strips of cloth to thank him for enduring two years of absurd suffering. For the rest of his life he hated Japanese people—though I’m not sure what he thought of the people his government interned in camps across the West simply because they were Japanese or Japanese-American.
I have no right to say the bombing of Hiroshima was wrong, my father says. It seems as though he thinks I am betraying something I have a duty to believe. He explains to me all the horrible things the Japanese army did, which to him justifies the bombing—to which I reply that the bombs were aimed at civilian targets. He claims that the Japanese were going to kill all the prisoners of war. In the voice of a father entreating a toddler to come back inside the house, as though I am persisting in some foolishness, he tells me that the bomb ended a war that would have otherwise gone on longer, killed many more people, and kept his father in the camp until he died. His voice hardening, he insists that Max Lever would never have come back from the prison camp, moved to New York, married a woman from Tunisia named Arlette Tayeb, and had a son who would become the father of Emily Lever and Max Lever.
To be rigorous about it, this is purely speculative, but I do not contradict him because his voice by now is stone. He is one generation closer to the events; he grew up in the shadow of his father’s imprisonment and this must have affected him in ways I cannot understand. But as for me, I viscerally react against saying the nuclear bombing was the right choice, though it may have enabled me and many others to exist. To accept this event as righteous would be to support the idea that the lives that were saved were worth more than the lives that were ended—that an American soldier’s life is worth more than a Japanese civilian’s. Weighing my life against the murder of even one person is horrifically insensitive. I cannot feel grateful for something immoral just because it helped me out.
Let’s say it is certain that the bomb saved my grandfather and enabled my existence (it isn’t). It also killed many people like my grandfather, people exactly as important as he—regular people important only in the sense that a human being is important because it is born with human dignity—and prevented the subsequent existence of many people just like me. I can’t stand the idea that family loyalty is supposed to compel me to think it was worth it.
When the bombings happened, Albert Camus was one of the few critics of the United States’ actions. He wrote on August 8th, 1945, “mechanical civilization has just attained its ultimate level of savagery.” If the ultimate act of modern savagery saves my life, I don’t think I am obligated to consider it justified. To me, it means I have inherited some portion of the guilt for the act—that I have ashes on my hands, not merely as a citizen of the nation that did the deed but as a direct beneficiary of the deed.
A vast number of minute or horrific historical events, from the First World War to my parents’ decision to move to Virginia in the early 90s, have contributed to me being born where and when I was born and to me becoming who I am now. It would be absurd to say that the bomb was morally necessary without also saying that it was morally necessary to move to Virginia. It would in any case be absurd to say the bomb was morally necessary at all. Just because something happened doesn’t mean I must justify or make sense of it. The only lesson some events give me is that the world makes no sense, that it is just one big surface, divided by invisible lines, uniformly, evenly shrouded in thousands of layers of ashes.