Bob Schwartz

Tag: World War II

Hiroshima: The Year 70 AH and I Ching Heaven

Flag of Hiroshima City

How special is the atomic bomb? So special that many nations want one, many nations have more than one, and yet despite how crazy and desperate some nations have been in the past decades, only one nation has ever used one. A hoarded treasure so dark that it is displayed and demonstrated but not deployed.

So special that it should be the zero of a standard human calendar. Just as Jews measure time from the creation of the world, Christians from the birth of Jesus, Muslims from the hijra from Mecca to Medina, we might all measure time from August 6, 1945.

The U.S. did drop atomic bombs. Twice in three days (August 6 on Hiroshima, August 9 on Nagasaki). And divided history in half, before and after. Before, things might be brutal, tens of millions might be slaughtered, but it would take superhuman effort, and would be followed by an opportunity, however arduous, to rebuild and repopulate. After, in these times, our times, there is a theoretical prospect of erasing some, most, or all of the world and its people. Not easily, but not that hard either, leaving behind a wasteland the size of a city or country or continent.

Above is a picture of the Hiroshima municipal flag, adopted by the city in 1896, almost fifty years before the weapon that destroyed and damaged so many lives. Historians still debate the effect and necessity of the Bomb in hastening the end of the war with Japan, an argument heightened when talking about the second bomb.

On this 70th anniversary, 70 After Hiroshima, let us focus on the flag.

Brief research doesn’t reveal much about the flag’s design. But students of Asian culture might see in it one of the eight I Ching trigrams, since the Chinese oracle has been widely used across Asian nations for thousands of years.

This particular trigram, composed of three unbroken lines, is Qian. When doubled it forms Hexagram 1 of the I Ching, also known as Qian. Heaven. The Creative. Sublime success.

I Ching Hexagram 1

 
John Minford explains in his recent translation:

Heaven above Heaven. Pure Yang. This is the first of eight Hexagrams formed by doubling a Trigram of the same Name. The word chosen for the Trigram/Hexagram Name, Qian, whatever its original meaning may have been (and there are many understandings of this), came in later times to be used more and more as a shorthand for Heaven, emblem of Yang Energy and Creativity.

The classic Wilhelm/Baynes translation notes:

The first hexagram is made up of six unbroken lines. These unbroken lines stand for the primal power, which is lightgiving, active, strong, and of the spirit. The hexagram is consistently strong in character, and since it is without weakness, its essence is power or energy. Its image is heaven. Its energy is represented as unrestricted by any fixed conditions in space and is therefore conceived of as motion. Time is regarded as the basis of this motion. Thus the hexagram includes also the power of time and the power of persisting in time, that is, duration.

The power represented by the hexagram is to be interpreted in a dual sense—in terms of its action on the universe and of its action on the world of men. In relation to the universe, the hexagram expresses the strong, creative action of the Deity. In relation to the human world, it denotes the creative action of the holy man or sage, of the ruler or leader of men, who through his power awakens and develops their higher nature.

THE JUDGMENT

THE CREATIVE works sublime success,
Furthering through perseverance.

We have come a long way in 70 years, and whether or not that trajectory is to everyone’s liking, here we are. That we have managed not to drop any more nuclear bombs or fire any nuclear missiles might be a miracle, or might just be a sign of self-interest in survival coming before everything else.

That we did drop those bombs was a high price to pay for learning just how much damage the “good guys” were capable of and might feel compelled to perpetrate when dire circumstances seemed to call for it. It’s a lesson in self-awareness that we are still learning, more or less studiously. It’s a lesson that the traditions try to help us with. The devil, for example, is not an arm’s length third party who bargains and cajoles. The devil is in us, and handling it is one of our missions. The I Ching is clear on the fluid dynamics of our lives and the world, knowing that we and it flow this way and that, and heaven can be hell for a while, maybe deep and for a long while, but not forever.

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Return to the Four Freedoms

Four Freedoms

As we approach the holiday season, we might think about the big metaphorical American family gathering around the big metaphorical American table. One thing you notice, as with a lot of families and tables, is that there’s going to be a few disagreements, some pretty heated.

But at some point, in keeping with the spirit of the season, the family will be looking for common ground, those shared ideals that unite us. Unfortunately, we seem to be losing sight of those ideals because, to be honest, it isn’t always clear what they are.

In early 1941, while war was already raging in Europe, but almost a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR gave one of the most famous speeches of the era and of American history. It was the 1941 State of the Union address, but it will always be known as the Four Freedoms speech. To bolster American support for our almost inevitable involvement in the war, he enunciated the Four Freedoms we would be fighting for: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

Art turned out to play an important role in keeping these ideals front and center, especially as the prospect of American sacrifice became a reality. The most famous example may be a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell (above), who was then and maybe still the greatest American illustrator. The Library of Congress explains:

Taken from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech to Congress, the “Four Freedoms” –Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear–became a rallying point for the United States during WWII. Artist Norman Rockwell created four vignettes to illustrate the concepts. Rockwell intended to donate the paintings to the War Department, but after receiving no response, the painter offered them to the Saturday Evening Post, where they were first published on February 20, 1943. Popular reaction was overwhelming, and more than 25,000 readers requested full-color reproductions suitable for framing.

Some will say that these Four Freedoms are today “controversial” because we don’t seem to be able as a nation—as an American family—to agree on the strategies to maintain and attain those ideals. Those disagreements are undeniable, as are the related invective, disparagement, and even hatefulness that goes with them. But those disagreements can’t make us give up. On the contrary, they should send us back to the words of FDR, getting past the ideologies and labels, and really look within and at the family of Americans.

Do you really believe that these ideals are exclusive to you, and not shared by others of good will? Are your principles and affiliations so very important that you would sacrifice those ideals to be “right?” Or can we come to the table, dig deeper, and not leave until we have given up a little of our own self-importance and focused instead on getting a little closer to the country and world envisioned in the shared Four Freedoms? And maybe just a little closer to each other?

The Road of Life: A New Musical

Road of Life

Some of our greatest and most popular musicals have been set against the background of darkest history. Les Miserables. Miss Saigon. Fiddler on the Roof. Cabaret. In the context of adversity, shining stories of love and human spirit stand out starkly, movingly—and musically.

The German Siege of Leningrad, lasting 900 days between 1941 and 1944, has been relatively ignored when we think about the atrocities of that atrocious war. A million people died over the course of more than two years, and millions of others suffered attacks and depravations that brought them to the brink and marked their lives forever.

Ann Reid writes in Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II:

[T]he siege of Leningrad, the deadliest blockade of a city in human history…. Other modern sieges – those of Madrid and Sarajevo – lasted longer, but none killed even a tenth as many people. Around thirty-five times more civilians died in Leningrad than in London’s Blitz; four times more than in the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together.

Hope, wrote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers. A songbird who lifted the people of Leningrad during this cold hell was a poet named Olga Burggolts. Each day she broadcast from Leningrad’s only radio station—reporting events, reading her poems, exemplifying the imperative of survival. Just as the siege is too forgotten, so she is not very well-known or celebrated for her achievement. But as much as we may dismiss poetry as an idle pastime, maybe nowhere at no time has a poet done more to affect so many—and to help those people withstand the brutality of history.

The team of Jay Jacques and Mark Chimsky have created a bold and uplifting new musical intertwining this big history with the individual lives, loves, and losses that are its true components. It is an invitation to see this chapter of the not-so-distant past in a new light, one that demonstrates in theater and song how dreams rise from the depths. To find out more, please visit The Road of Life. Read the story, listen to the music, and be inspired.

Slaughterhouse-Five

 

Kurt Vonnegut

A friend in Israel has been corresponding with me about the current mess there. He is a proud and passionate American-Israeli. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned Dresden.

I, along with millions of others, can’t think of Dresden without thinking of Kurt Vonnegut. There is some chance, if you are of a certain age, that you don’t know Dresden or Vonnegut, so here is a summary.

In February 1945, just a few months before World War II ended, the Allies firebombed the city of Dresden, Germany. Much of the city was destroyed and tens of thousands lost their lives. At the same time, Allied prisoners of war were being held by Germany in Dresden.

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most interesting and original writers of the 20th century, and he influenced the cultural lives of readers throughout the 1960s and beyond. He was also one of those prisoners of war who was an eyewitness to the destruction in Dresden. He tried for more than twenty years to write about it, and finally in 1969 published his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, a title reference to the Dresden slaughterhouse in which he was held. It is a masterpiece, but not what anyone would expect a novel about the horrors of war to be like. It is, though, precisely what you might expect from Vonnegut.

The first chapter is his factual history of how he came to write this book. That chapter alone is worth reading, even if you think you don’t want or wouldn’t like the rest. In it, he recounts this conversation with a friend:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Please read Slaughterhouse-Five (and more Vonnegut if you are so moved). You will be glad you did.