Joy’s topic is reconciliation and forgiveness. She contrasts two attitudes toward the bombing of Hiroshima: self-justification and remorse. Most Americans took – probably still take – the view that the bombing was justifiable, reasoning that it ended the war rapidly and spared many American soldiers. I remember feeling elated when I read about the bombing. It was only much later that I was ashamed. Is there any such thing as a “just war”? While it goes on, the fighters always can justify what they are doing. However, the only moral clarity comes from acknowledging that it is also — or perhaps never anything except — evil.
Joy doesn’t take sides. She describes the horror of the American bombings, but also the horror of Japan’s atrocities, especially the “rape” of Nanking. She speaks of the Nazis and the Turks as well: two societies that perpetrated genocide, but then took different stances toward their own actions.
The Germans made it a crime to deny the holocaust. The Japanese, on the other hand, continue to deny what they did. So do the Turks, who refuse to let the Armenians apply the term “genocide” to the slaughter of their kin, and the Americans, who officially claim that Hiroshima and even Nagasaki were justifiable responses toward their enemies.
I have forgiven Germans because they have acknowledged their own wrong-doing. But when I deal with Turks, Japanese, and even many of my own American kin, I sense that reconciliation is incomplete. I cannot restore trust by an act of will. Forgiveness is impossible in the absence of their apology.
That is my own shortcoming. I should be able to forgive Hitler himself by saying, as Christ did on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” But my spirituality is under-developed. It’s still a work-in-progress, and I don’t think I’ll ever attain such magnanimity.
I know that relationships with friends are constrained. Issues remain unforgiven or unacknowledged. There may be a superficial politeness but no trust or affection.
These days I am particularly aware of my damaged friendships with a Sri Lankan family of five who came to Canada as refugees 26 ago. They became “my” family, for they came to live in my home and stayed, in various combinations, for six years. It became clear that the father of the family had brought the war with him and was fighting it from Canada, probably even using resources of mine. My own motivation had been to protect the vulnerable and give victims a new start in a new land. People who had become dear to me were continuing participants in a war that would claim 70,000 lives, and I did not know what to do about it.
I came to understand how denial works. The wife and children in my Tamil family refrained from confronting their father, refrained even from admitting to themselves what consequences resulted from his activities as a Tiger leader.
I even managed to repress the awareness myself for several years. I knew but did not mention what he was doing. Only ten years or so ago did I pull myself up morally and invite the whole family to dinner to discuss this terrible reality. The husband, wife, and one son came. The other two children declined. The father proudly stated that he would appreciate it if both his grown sons would go to fight for the Tigers in Sri Lanka.
The wife/mother, on the other hand, insisted that her husband and I were on the same side somehow. It was impossible for her to believe otherwise, for she respected my commitment to peace, while also trying to hold her family together. Only once did her denial crumble; it happened when she saw her sister-in-law on TV, a victim of the suicide bombing of the central bank in Colombo. For a day she stayed in her room, angry, but then she resumed her pretense that there was no conflict in her family.
My attempt to work through the dispute failed and the cool politeness between us hardened. I rarely saw the children, who had grown up and moved away. The mother and I grew distant. She no longer phoned, nor did we invite each other to social functions. They all knew that I despised the warrior-father. As a fervent spokesman for the Tigers in Canada, he always justified what he did as “serving my people.”
Only once did he show any insight into his motives. A couple of years ago he brought a friend of his to see me — a spiritually-oriented man who had written a book about Gandhi and other pacifist religious leaders. My Tiger friend mentioned an article I had published in Peace Magazine — an interview with a Christian war correspondent, Chris Hedges.
The impressive thing about Hedges was that he acknowledged his own craving for the excitement of warfare. He had been in every ongoing war during the 13 years of his work for the New York Times, and he titled his remarkable book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. People fighting in a war cannot doubt the significance of what is going on around them, he said. Life seems full and intense; even the colors seem brighter because you know that you may die at any instant. Private life as a civilian may be hum-drum and ambivalent, but in a war everyone has to take sides. Even the journalists take one side or the other and slant their reporting to make “their” side look better than the enemy. It is inevitable. You cannot talk people out of that mind-set while they are actually in a war. People on both sides feel the same aliveness, and both sides feel sure that they are morally justified in whatever horrors they perpetrate. Honestly admitting his motives, Hedges had to promise himself that he would stop going to war. Yet he was missing it.
My Tiger friend reminded me of this interview and said that it had described himself perfectly. He too was a Chris Hedges.
I barely replied. His confession was apparently not an apology. Of course he owed me an apology for having made me, a full-time peace activist, complicit in his war. But he owed huge apologies to the victims of his war — the people blown up by suicide bombers, the children abducted and forced to become soldiers, even the Tamils in Canada who were forced to pay “taxes” to buy the weapons that kept the war going.
But his acknowledgment was no apology, and I had no absolution to offer. He was like a brother to me, but a brother whom I despised for the immense harm he was doing. Despising him was not a spiritual accomplishment on my part; I wish I could forgive without his apology but that is a state of mind that I cannot summon up, even in my imagination. What would it be like for a peace activist to love Hitler? For Christ to love the people who crucified him? How would I behave if I could do that? I am only partly a Christian and certainly am not Christ-like, but I try to be like Gandhi, and I cannot even imagine what his inner experience was like. But I know he always confronted evil instead of acquiescing to it, as I had eventually done.
So now the war is over. The newspapers say it is time for reconciliation. They call upon the government of Sri Lanka to be generous toward the Tamils, and insofar as the president does so, it is by distinguishing sharply between Tamils and Tigers. In reality, almost all Tamils went along with the Tigers, whether they believed in the cause or not, just as the mother and children in my own Tamil family went along with their Tiger. Perhaps they came to believe in him — they never said.
Reconciliation now? Why not earlier? I am writing this after the war. While it was going on, I kept quiet. A producer for the CBC phoned a few weeks ago, asking me to go on The Current and talk about the Tigers. I refused. Yet I am writing this self-revelation now. Why so? During a war, people consider it futile to attempt to stop the animosity. They are right. Wars, once underway, are not terminable by soft words that would “turn away wrath” in other circumstances. Wars underway, not being terminable, have to be fought to the end, until one side is crushed. I just wanted them to hurry the crushing up, bringing the whole thing to a close. But I did not like to say so on the radio.
Now there is a potential for reconciliation that did not exist a month ago, but according to journalists in Sri Lanka, the mutual hatred is more intense than ever before. I don’t think they want reconciliation. Peace is not what they want, but victory – and the hope for victory is not easily abandoned. Usually it subsides gradually, leaving behind a permanent soreness, a hardness of soul.
Or there may be genuine reconciliation. In a world where no one is Christ-like, the only reconciliation that is possible begins, as the Germans did, with the full acknowledgment of their own evil actions. And some of the Germans’ enemies also apologized. (I remember Giff Gifford, for example — the Canadian peace activist who founded Veterans Against Nuclear Arms — who wept publicly when acknowledging having flown in a plane that fire-bombed Dresden.) Reconciliation involves abandoning the proof that your side was right and the other side was wrong -- even if they were.
What I heard this week was a great outpouring of pity for the displaced Tamils being held in tent cities. They are certainly the Sri Lankans suffering most at the moment, but this is not a balancing exercise, where the harm done to either side can “compensate“ for – and hence justify — the evil they have done to the other. Both sides have perpetrated atrocities. The Tigers can never collect enough instances of their own suffering to exculpate their violence. Sorry, but no one who portrays them simply as victims is being truthful. Now is the time to come clean.
I was wrong — terribly wrong — to rejoice when I heard, at age thirteen, that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Forty-odd years later I encountered one of the scarred victims of that bombing at a million-person march in New York City, and we both embraced and wept.
Forty years is too long. Reconciliation begins with forgiveness, and forgiveness must be sought. I want to forgive my Tamil friends. But all I can do is wait.