President Obama's Trip to Hiroshima: Empathy Without Apology
The Tragedy of War
Not surprisingly, President Obama has received some criticism for his recent visit to Hiroshima. Those on the right of the political spectrum have called it another stop on the President's apology tour. This criticism, like many that have come before, is a thinly veiled claim that Obama hates America. The fact that the President never actually apologized for the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan has done little to quell the accusation. In a country where Donald Trump is now the Republican nominee, it's clear that many Americans do not believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a real American. A real American would know that Japan attacked the United States first and that a full-scale invasion of Japan would have been far worse (on both sides) than dropping two atomic bombs.
The criticism of Obama, as is often the case, has also come from those on the left. Some find it offensive that President Obama, like his predecessors, did not apologize for this war crime. The established narrative, the claim that the dropping of the atomic bombs was necessary in order to save lives and hasten the end of the war, has been challenged by many historians. This therefore represents one of many injustices carried out by the United States for which the government has refused to apologize. By refusing to acknowledge its mistakes of the past, American claims to be a force for democracy, freedom, and justice ring hollow to many around the world.
But if the President was not there to express any spoken or unspoken message of apology to Japan, then why did he decide to be the first president to visit the Hiroshima memorial? If you believe what he said in his speech, it was simply to honor those who died there and to remind the world of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and by war in general. Acknowledging that a tragedy occurred, and expressing the desire that people will never have to experience something like this again, is not the same thing as making an apology. Whether the killing of others during a war was justified or not, the deaths are still a tragedy. War, by definition, is a tragedy.
War also seems to bring out patriotism like nothing else, and there is something heartwarming about seeing people waving flags, singing patriotic songs, and honoring the sacrifices made by their countrymen. The trouble with patriotism, however, is that it often taps into our tribal instincts. In order to rally together to protect our interests and to justify the violent actions that may sometimes be necessary, we inevitably dehumanize to some degree the foreigners who threaten or fight us. But what makes us humans unique is our capacity to overcome animalistic instincts and empathize with other humans. Without continually developing and enhancing this capacity for empathy, we humans can easily fall into the conflicts so common in our species' past.
So when President Obama or any other leader honors those who have suffered and died in a tragic place, these ceremonies at their best are recognitions of our common humanity. And while it is important to study the past - I am a history teacher after all - it is equally important to not get stuck in the past. Harboring grudges or seeking revenge is not going to do anything to bring back the dead or undo decisions that were made. Most people, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or religion, have no desire to fight wars. And one of the best ways to avoid future conflicts is to recognize this simple fact and to try and put ourselves into other people's shoes. You don't have to apologize for the past to sit down with your former enemies and work to avoid the tragedies of the past.