Louder Than Bombs: Clashing Narratives of War Victimhood

Civilians killed in war are the subject of complex competing narratives – some promoted by parties as diverse as global superpowers and Korean boy-bands.

Killing civilians isn’t new. They have been targeted for as long as wars have been fought, even in modern times and even by liberal democracies. That they should be targeted became part of military doctrine as liberal democracies proliferated and the public occupied the political center of gravity once exclusively held by the head of state. This is why Otto von Bismarck trained Prussian guns on the civilian center of Paris rather than at its walls as the general Helmuth von Moltke wished during the Franco-Prussian War and why Italian military theorist Giulio Douhet argued that bombing population centers would break an opponent’s will to fight and force an early end to a conflict.

These ideas influenced generals on both sides during World War II and led to the Blitz, the firebombing of Dresden, the air raids on Tokyo, and more. But the predictions of the air power theorists didn’t exactly materialize as expected – far more bombs were necessary than expected and civilians were either resilient or not of critical concern to their wartime leaders, often both.

Dresden was tragic but prosaic; Hiroshima was tragic and foreboding

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were different. The fact that incinerating entire populations was not only feasible but also a possibly desirable component of strategic planning created a paradox: while the killing of civilians may be tolerable, the new technology’s scale, efficiency, and replicability changed the potential for what war could lead to, giving the anti-nuclear movement its holy icon once it gained traction in the 1950s. The consequences of these bombings created an urgency more pronounced than almost any other event in the war – Dresden was tragic but prosaic; Hiroshima was tragic and foreboding. Its victims became more than war dead, but martyrs sacrificed to illuminate the stakes of future warfare. That it happened in Japan gave the Japanese added reason to commemorate the attacks. There’s a reason that the emperor of Japan visits the annual commemoration of the atomic bombing but not the memorials to the (similarly numerous) victims of the firebombing of Tokyo (pictured).

A very different narrative was introduced to this debate recently when a member of BTS, the enormously popular Korean boy band, wore a t-shirt depicting the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki juxtaposed with an image of Koreans celebrating their liberation from Japan and the words “patriotism,” “our history,” “liberation,” and “Korea.” This version of the atomic bombing narrative, far less well known in the West, presents the atomic bombs as part of the concluding chapter in Korea’s liberation from the Japanese empire, a process that had taken decades and cost tens of thousands of lives. Though the bombs themselves played no direct role in Korean liberation, Japan surrendered a few days later on August 15, now commemorated as Korean Liberation Day and the only holiday shared by North and South Korea.

The BTS shirt is not just incongruent with these understandings; it is almost in complete conflict

The design of the shirt provoked a furious reaction because instead of mourning the victims or using the image of the bomb in its usual cautionary evocation, it presented the bombing as a point of celebration, something for which there is no parallel in either the memory of the bombings or elsewhere in World War II’s devastation. It could be because there is no analogous image as iconic as those of the mushroom clouds, or because the conclusion of the war in Europe brought not only liberation but also total devastation, lost generations, and Soviet occupation of Eastern and Central Europe. The Korean War is proof enough that the postwar period was not total elation for the Korean peninsula but the crushing of its colonial occupier and the restoration of its independence could grant a more positive gloss than many European states might muster – for many in Europe, liberation from the Nazis meant trading Hitler for Stalin, with their moment of true liberation to come a long 45 years later.

Perhaps most jarring is not just the celebration of the atomic bombs itself but how much that celebration conflicts with how the bombs are understood in both Japan and the United States. The dominant narratives of both of these former enemies treat the victims as innocents sacrificed, both to the destruction of war and as a cautionary symbol of the destruction that could result if global war broke out again in the nuclear age. It is not just that the BTS shirt is incongruent with these understandings but is almost in complete conflict – the bomb cannot be an existential warning at the same time that it is an image of liberation.

Few narratives have come closer to reconciling the loss of civilian life with the necessity of defeating the states they lived under

Commemoration of the dead civilians becomes complicated when historical narratives conflict in this way – describing them as victims implies absolving them of culpability in the crimes of their nation of allegiance and pushes the narrative closer, even slightly, to that of a moral equivalence between the Axis and Allied powers. As a result, the fascist bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War is an outrage; the legacy of the U.S. bombing of Tokyo in World War II is complicated, if not heroic. Few narratives have been able to come close to reconciling the loss of civilian life with the necessity of defeating the states they lived under. Instead, narratives demand that the civilian deaths must have meant something, that they were a step towards the conclusion of the war, an example of the destruction of a new weapon, or the price of freedom for a subjugated people.

As a consequence, narratives are often less about reflection and more about manipulation. The vicious Soviet siege and occupation of Budapest is comparable in brutality to the Nanjing Massacre but is far less known outside of Hungary and invites far less geopolitical anxiety between modern Russia and Hungary than Nanjing’s massacre does between Japan and China – a comparison which reveals more than a little about the modern bilateral relationships between the involved nations.

Memories, especially narratives, are selective and political. It is inevitable to get drawn into these narratives but this leads too often to questions of justifiability, of using the war dead to make a larger point. The stakes in the wars and conflicts in question were and are still are too fundamental to avoid attaching moral value to the dead, but the conflicting narratives over those deaths mean that the moral values are never settled but become surrogates for rearbitrating the causes that lead to the earlier violence. If Douhet’s bombers made civilian lives a target in warfighting, then modern narratives have made civilian graves a target in peacetime.

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Paul Nadeau is an adjunct assistant professor at Temple University's Japan campus, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Geoeconomics, and an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was previously a private secretary with the Japanese Diet and as a member of the foreign affairs and trade staff of Senator Olympia Snowe. He holds a B.A. from the George Washington University, an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a PhD from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. He should be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.

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