Monday, May 30, 2016

Did President Obama Make a Sacrilege of Memorial Day?

It is a sobering experience to visit Hiroshima. I first visited there in the summer of 1967—and have never forgotten that first visit even though I have been there several times since.
President Obama visited Hiroshima last week. It was his first time and the first time for a sitting POTUS to do so.
In his remarks on May 27, the President stated, “We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children; thousands of Korean; a dozen Americans held prisoner.”
“We stand here, in the middle of this city, and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell,” the President went on to say. “We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war, and the wars that came before, and the wars that would follow.” 

While it was said repeatedly that the President’s remarks were not an apology, at least there was acknowledgement of the fact that many, many innocent Japanese and even many non-Japanese people were killed by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.
Earlier, on Wednesday of last week, hours after arriving in Japan for a Group of Seven summit President Obama said that he would “honor all those who were lost in World War II.”
Some people were outraged by that statement. I heard one talk-radio host say that he was incensed that the President wanted to honor all who died in WWII, for many of those were our (American) enemies, and he was glad they were killed.
And to the chagrin of U.S. ultra-nationalists, the President shared a vision of the equal worth and dignity of everyone. He even had the audacity to expand the words “All men are created equal” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence to include all people around the world.
“The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious; the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family–that is the story that we all must tell,” the President declared.
Today is Memorial Day in the U.S. This federal holiday originated as Decoration Day in 1868, soon after the Civil War. Gradually the name morphed into Memorial Day and the observance was extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military service.
But can we further extend our compassion on Memorial Day to include people from all countries who died in military service—and especially to the civilians who died in all countries because of military action?
Does such inclusion make a sacrilege of Memorial Day in the U.S.?
That, though, is the kind of emphasis I want on this Memorial Day. Certainly I want to be sympathetic toward those who lost loved ones while in military service. Just as the President did in Hiroshima, however, I also want to be sympathetic toward all who lost loved ones, especially those who were non-combatants, at the hands of enemy soldiers.
And, yes, I want to be sympathetic toward those whose loved ones died while in military service for other countries. Most of them were fighting because of being conscripted or because of being psychologically coerced (brainwashed) into thinking they were doing the right thing.
Those soldiers, too, were human beings, created and loved by God, and their deaths were tragic also.
At Hiroshima, the President emphasized that “we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.”

Isn’t this Memorial Day a good time for us to acknowledge that connection?


  1. I was happy to receive the following comments from my friend and Thinking Friend Erik Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments with which I fully agree.

    "A visit by a U S president to Hiroshima was long overdue and I have no quarrel with Obama's remarks there.

    "My wife once heard Harry Truman speak at the Truman Library in Independence. When someone asked him about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he had tears in his eyes; it clearly tore at him. Whether the bombing was necessary is still hotly contested; I don't know. Perhaps because the bombings were so horrific, no atomic bombing has occurred since then, but what a price to pay.

    "Our government should be working vigorously to ban all atomic weapons, but it will be a long, hard road to get there. It's a goal worth pursuing."

  2. Charles Kiker: Surprised, Leroy, that you haven't received negative feedback. I've seen stuff on FB bemoaning his apology, which he didn't offer. I'm glad he acknowledged our common humanity, and, indirectly, our common inhumanity.

    1. Yes, Charles, I am surprised, too, that I have yet to receive negative feedback.

      All I have received so far has been positive and affirming. Here are examples:

      "Yes, it is the human thing to do. I'm proud that our President demonstrated our best character and that you wrote about it."

      "Bravo, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Need I say more....I would just be saying something similar to what you have said."


      "Yes! The president spoke for me, too."

  3. Hi, Leroy. I only have a moment to post, today, but that's probably best, as your (yearly) reminders of the slaughter of tens of thousands of non-combatants in Japan through the introduction of two nuclear devices is so provocative and warrants so much more. And, it has carried along with it numerous unintended, unforeseen global consequences, all regrettable. I'm grateful that Mr. Obama made the trip and acknowledged the moral implications. At the same time (having just returned from listening to the Ring Cycle of Wagner, and reflecting upon the influence and implicit racism it promoted in the Nazi regime), we must acknowledge Japan's own ideology of racism that propelled it into war with "racial inferiors"(in Asia). That ideology we condemned and continue to condemn for Nazi Germany. Our memory of analogous ideology with Japan hopefully will not be dulled by the other moral issue of attacking non-combatants. Which is weightier, you are ready to ask, I'll have to leave to the casuists cleverer than I (or to the editor of the blog, who always gets the final word). Thanks for your post.

    1. Thanks, Milton, for reading this morning's blog article and for posting significant comments, as usual.

      Charles Kiker's statement above is of great import: "I'm glad he acknowledged our common humanity, and, indirectly, our common inhumanity."

      I don't think there is anything in the President's remarks that overlooks or dismisses the atrocities committed by Japanese (or German) soldiers.

      While there has long been a feeling among many Japanese people that they were the victims of a terrible atrocity, the atomic bombs of 1945, there has been a growing awareness of, and acknowledgement of, the victimizing activity of the Japanese military in the 15-year war (from 1930-1945).

      I think the President's statements, which of course were widely watched/read in Japan, will encourage the majority of Japanese people to be more open to admitting and apologizing for the immoral activities of Japanese acting in the name of the Emperor during those terrible fifteen years.

    2. You must be joking. Having resided in Japan for such a long time, you must certainly be aware that the average Japanese person has no knowledge of the immoral activities of the Japanese military during world War II. This is because World War II in Asia is basically ignored in Japan unless it portrays Japan somehow as a victim. For example, the movie about an American POW in Japan, "Undefeated ", has not been shown in movie theaters in Japan, nor is it available in DVD rental shops. On the other hand, books about how Japan liberated East Asia during WWII are plentiful in your average book store.

  4. Yes! Yes, it is! And may we regularly be reminded and remind ourselves that ‘righteous/unrighteous’, ‘good/bad’, ‘better/worse’, etc. are evaluations that cut across all sorts of lines of separation and identity; especially when we identify “one another as members of one human race.” May we learn to weep for life destroyed because “We, who intended to prepare the soil for friendliness,/Could not ourselves become friendly.” [Bertolt Brecht, “To Posterity”]

    1. Thanks, Dick, for your pertinent comments; I was touched by what you wrote.

      The Brecht poem I found with that name was translated by H.R. Hays and the words you cited are rendered as follows:

      Alas, we
      Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
      Could not ourselves be kind.

      In spite of the atrocities committed by the U.S. in Japan, though, most Japanese did find that the U.S. soldiers who were in Japan after 8/45 were, for the most part, friendly—at least in comparison to the fear of the soldiers that had been instilled in their hearts before the war's end.

    2. Leroy, the fault is mine. It was my translation (which I did not indicate) and Hays’ title. I should not have given the Hays title without attribution. It was unhelpful of me.

      Please see my email to you in which (among mistakes I probably did not catch) I misspelled Hays as Hayes (twice!). Thus: my public mea culpa.

      I am grateful that “most Japanese did find that the U.S. soldiers who were in Japan after 8/45 were, for the most part, friendly.” The next section of the Brecht poem (which I should have shared) reads in my translation (2013):
      But you, when at last it comes to be
      That humans are a help to each other,
      Remember us
      With kindness.

      So I hope and dream. Thanks, Leroy, for the evocation!

  5. I hope future U.S. presidents will be so insistent upon the preciousness of every human life and a single human family. What a Christ-like example!

    I wonder if pro-life people feel the inconsistency when they devalue the lives of our enemies.

    Which is interesting, since it’s apparently a desire for consistency that keeps many people from extending honor to the lives of enemies. Their logic is sound: How could we be honorable in our war killing unless these people deserved to die?

    We need to know these were “bad” people and be “glad they were killed” in order to justify our wars. Because if they aren’t bad people, and if we shouldn’t be glad about our killing …

    1. Thanks so much, Fred, for your excellent comments. I hope to make reference to your comments in an upcoming blog article about how even our "enemies" or people we greatly dislike (such as the KKK members, about whom I plan to write soon) do what they do because they think it is good, right, and necessary.

  6. A local Thinking Friend wrote,

    "In my hometown research, Decoration Day was at first a day in remembrance of Union soldiers. The families of Confederates had their Decoration Day at another time. Gradually it has become more inclusive. In reading that it was for honoring military, I thought my own efforts. Of fourteen plants I placed on graves this year, only one was a military veteran."

    1. Yes, Memorial Day has for many people come to mean more than honoring those who died in military service.

      There was a long tradition of remembering all those who had passed on at June's home church on the Sunday after Memorial Day. Because of that, she disagreed with me saying that Memorial was and is a holiday for remembering those who died in the service.

      She said, and I agree, that may be the "official" meaning of the day, but in practice it has a much broader meaning, as you indicated by your actions.

    2. I returned to the graveyard where many of my immediate family will be buried. Thankfully they had place a flag on my father's grave. However, I notice that no flags were placed on the grave of Confederate soldiers this year. So much for the Union... (Beyond slavery, there were many other reasons people fought - with good reason.)

  7. Here are two more very positive comments, from two men who have been pastors and denominational employees all of their adult life:

    "Great blog, Leroy. Amen and Amen!"

    "Amen and Amen! A powerful clear word. Sounds similar to words of Jesus. Thank you, Leroy."

  8. Questionable.

    I am afraid that I cannot support an open statement like that. There are/were evil people in the world, including WWII. I certainly do not remember The Fuhrer as anything but evil, although he did rally much of Europe, and partner with the Emperor to conquer the world at all costs. To call that Axis anything but evil is foolish. Thank God it ended with a total surrender of the Axis Powers.

    But then I notice from one of my more liberal friends a recent statement by Jimmy Carter that any who don’t support everything about this President are racist.
    I don’t take kindly to being called names or accused of that which I did not do. That has happened way too often. I carry grudges, unfortunately, because there is no change by the offending parties.

    However, President Obama’s statement does make one reflect on foolish and evil things one has said and done. Repentance seems insufficient to rectify those. I have done my share… I wish there could be retakes.

  9. Just happened on this by accident. I have no opinion on Obama's comments. I do have an opinion on the atom bombs being dropped. My dad (A lifelong Christian and Baptist) did not have the luxury of second guessing folks have now. He served on a B-29 on Tinian for most of 1945. He was part of many bombing missions from the same island the Enola Gay took off from. You might want to Google "Operation Meeting House" and your questions of whether the atomic bomb missions were more or less humane than continuing the war will be answered. My dad and crew and thousands of others were lived these missions. They saw the destruction first hand. Truman did the right and best thing. I also know that those who served were greatly affected by the war. The atrocities by the Japanese are rarely discussed. Racism in Asia is alive and well, far more so (according to my Chinese and Malay friends) than it is here. God bless all those who served.

  10. Find the public facebook wall of Pulitzer prize winner Isabel Wilkerson. She reminds us all that the first Memorial day was a celebration of freed Black Slaves in Charleston SC about all the sacrifice for their freedom!!!

  11. Responding to a reporter's question after the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy paraphrased a quote that goes back nearly two millennia to the Roman Tacitus, "...victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan." While Kennedy's words were a clever spin on his administration's defeat, the discussion above about Memorial Day shows some of its "100 fathers." What Obama did at Hiroshima built on that legacy. He came neither to apologize nor to gloat. He came to mourn a great loss. Mourning is a process which can eventually lead to healing. Hiroshima is a scar upon the soul of every thinking person. We all need healing. Obama took one small but important step on a long pilgrimage.

    1. Thanks, Craig. I fully agree with what you wrote about the President and the significance of what he said and did at Hiroshima. But I am appalled at the vitriolic comments made by some people (which I saw linked to on Facebook) about his words/actions on May 27. There will never be healing if the nation follows the thinking (rants) of the ultra-nationalists and the Religious Right (who seem to be consistently wrong).

    2. Thanks Craig Dempsey. "Neither to apologize nor to gloat." Charles Kiker