Wonderful To See Babies Burning: On Howard Zinn’s “The Bomb”

by Mark Chmiel

City Lights Open Media Series has done the U.S. people a service in publishing historian Howard Zinn’s The Bomb, a two-part pamphlet that is a contribution to critical thinking about war, and about one of its modern manifestations, that of high-altitude bombing.

Part 1 is Zinn’s essay on the atomic bombings of Japan and part 2 is about his own wartime participation in and later retrieval of the history of the Allied napalm-bombing   of a French town, Royan. Both essays could be read in less than a couple of hours but it will take a lifetime to integrate their implications in our personal and collective lives.

In his first essay, Zinn reminds fellow citizens of the enormity of unnecessary damage and destruction done by the two U.S. atomic bombings of Japanese civilians.  Statistics point to some 200,000 killed immediately by the two bombs. But Zinn stresses that “we need personal testimonies, not statistics to free us from our numbness: Only with those scenes in our minds can we judge the distressingly cold arguments that go on now, sixty-five years later, about whether it was right to send those planes out those two mornings in August of 1945. That this is arguable is a devastating commentary on our moral culture” (26).

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, a Japanese man said to a filmmaker:  “I ordered the driver to stop, with the funeral pyres still burning in the city, and turned to the American soldiers: ‘Look there. That blue light is women burning. It is babies burning. Is it wonderful to see the babies burning?’”  (52).

Zinn’s second essay is based on research he did in the mid-1960s about the French town of Royan, which he had helped bomb in the spring of 1945. The official line was that it was a military necessity to bomb the German soldiers garrisoned in the vicinity of Royan, even though the end of the war was clearly in sight.  The task for Zinn and his fellow pilots:  “…to bomb pockets of German troops remaining in and around Royan, and that in our bomb bays were thirty 100-pound bombs containing “jellied gasoline,” a new substance (now known as napalm)” (66).

After the town was bombed for three days, the German soldiers surrendered.   Practically all the buildings of the town had been destroyed.  Zinn notes that “[t]he evidence seems overwhelming that factors of pride, military ambition, glory,  and honor were powerful motives in producing an unnecessary military operation” (80).

After his participation in the European theater of the war, Zinn had a leave for some weeks before he was to join the effort in the Pacific.  Reunited with his wife, he noted that one day in August they read the headlines about Hiroshima:  “I remember our reaction: we were happy.  We didn’t know what an atom bomb was, but clearly it was huge and important and it foretold an end to the war against Japan and if so I wouldn’t be going to the Pacific, and might soon be coming home for good” (19). Thus, he was like countless Americans who were jubilant or relieved that the bombs ended the war.

About the bombing of Royan, Zinn recalls, “From our great height, I remember distinctly seeing the bombs explode in the town, flaring like matches struck in fog. I was completely unaware of the human chaos below” (67).  Earlier in the book, he writes more specifically that being such a pilot means “seeing no human beings, hearing no screams, seeing no blood, totally unaware that down below there might be children dying, rendered blind, with arms or legs severed”(18).

Over the decades, Zinn went from being this thoughtless and just-war bombardier to a critical citizen and historian:  By the period of U.S. B-52 carpet bombing in Indochina in the 1960s-1970s, Zinn had become experienced in questioning authority, refusing obedience to the war machine, and facing the victims of U.S. violence.

Zinn was able to break through the nationalist propaganda that conditions us to avert our gaze from or minimize U.S. belligerence.  He offers us a simple, though demanding task: “We can reject the belief that the lives of others are worth less than the lives of Americans, that a Japanese child, or an Iraqi child, or an Afghani child is worth less than an American child” (63).

Hiroshima

This photograph of a Japanese mother and child in the wreckage of Hiroshima was taken four months after the atomic bomb landed on the city in August of 1945. The bomb, dubbed “Little Boy,” released an explosion equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT on Hiroshima. The tail gunner of the B-29 that dropped the bomb described the devastation as “like bubbling molasses down there … the mushroom is spreading out … it’s like a peep into hell.” Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt

See City Lights Books