Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Narrativized Ethics and Hiroshima: Harry S. Truman, Homer, and Aeschylus1

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Narrativized Ethics and Hiroshima: Harry S. Truman, Homer, and Aeschylus1

Article excerpt

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Discussions of the atomic bomb and Hiroshima have to be deeply troubling for anyone. The natural inclination is to turn one's eyes away or to remain silent. Avoidance and silence, however, were not valid options immediately after the Second World War and are not valid options today. The decision - or decisions, for there were many - to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and later Nagasaki raises issues of profound importance for the human community. It compels us to ask who we are as individuals and as members of a society engaged in actions with such devastating consequences. We must ask ourselves as well how otherwise ordinary people come to such decisions and how they justify them - consciously or unconsciously - before or after the fact.

Thousands of pages have been devoted to the topic of the atomic bomb and Hiroshima, but relatively little attention has been paid to the role that narrative played. Yet stories shape the actions of individuals and of cultures. "Narrativized ethics" - which is my own term - may help in understanding how the "Hiroshima narrative" informed the attitudes and decisions of many involved in the Manhattan Project.

Narrativized ethics is primarily of two kinds. First, there is the story that is deliberately constructed, at the conscious level, for explanatory and justificatory purposes. The most frequent use of this kind of narrativized ethics on a national stage occurs in politics, especially during an election or in the run-up to an initiative like going to war, which requires at least the implied, if not the formal, consent of the populace. Second, there is the story that operates at a more unconscious level. This story may sometimes not look like a conventional story, for it tends to be determined by hidden motivations, somewhat like the dreams that are motivated by unconscious desires in Freudian psychoanalysis. This is the story behind the story. In general, at whatever level of awareness, narrativized ethics provides justifications for the beliefs, thoughts, and actions of an individual, a nation, or a culture.

Narrativized ethics can be a useful analytical tool in a number of areas in comparative history, especially when historical circumstances lead to and seem to require the threat of force and/or its application. Consider, for example, the drive toward the East by Alexander the Great, the Roman colonization of much of the known western world, the Muslim expansion which began in the 7th century, the Crusades, the Spanish conquest and colonization of the New World, the treatment of Indians by North Americans, the English colonization of India, the European push into Africa in the 19th century, Russian expansionism, the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and the so-called War on Terror.

The appeal to justificatory arguments favoring aggression has a long history in the West, especially with the rise of nationalism. The rationale for "Just War Theory," articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, who took the term from St. Augustine (The City of God), even made its way into 19th-century American law. Chief Justice John Marshall, in an 1823 Supreme Court decision, basing his argument on the Just War Theory used by the Spanish in the New World, delivered a judgment that he named "The Doctrine of Discovery."2 The doctrine stated that Christian nations - in this case, the United States - had the right, by virtue of their "discovery" of non-Christian nations, to appropriate property from Native Americans. The Doctrine of Discovery became part of international law in the 19th century and into the 20th. All justificatory arguments are based on narratives of one kind or another.

The names which triangulate the subtitle of this essay would seem to have little in common. Yet the events leading up to and following August 6, 1945, acquire a profoundly ethical resonance when viewed through the prism of the cultural values underlying both Homer and Aeschylus as they were refracted through the classical and biblical frames of reference of President Truman and a few other central players in this drama. …

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