Every year we made a day trip to visit my great-uncle Denny. He lived with his wife in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, in a house older than the United States with wine-dark rafters and a cellar like a cave. The water cycle ran from pitcher pump to outhouse. The old house stood on a rambling property, all deep green, crossed by an abandoned and overgrown railroad.
Denny was an old man, a veteran of Iwo Jima with a steel plate in his head. If I understood his stories correctly he was one of those who raised the first flag there, the little one. Of the second flag, he said “If we’d known, we all would have gone up.”
He had no interest in children. Perhaps I was oblivious; perhaps I was annoyed at being ignored; but when the subject of WWII came up, somehow, I parroted what I had been taught in school, where we had social studies instead of history: that the bombing of Hiroshima was a needless atrocity, only compounded by the spiteful destruction of Nagasaki—all typically American brutality.
That got his attention. He informed me that the only reason he was alive was because of the bomb. Had the war continued he would have been among the first on the beaches of Japan. He would surely have died. He thanked God for Truman and his bomb.
Of course I shut up, but I was more confused than enlightened. We can number the dead and number the saved, but these numbers are not like other numbers. We can count them, but we cannot calculate with them.
Ask: who, exactly, died to save whom? If this were a question of math there would be proportions to work out. “You, lover, your man died to save ten lives. You, father, your daughter died to save three and a half lives. You, mother, your baby died to save half a life. You, child, your dog died to save one twentieth of a life.”
And there would be responsibility to assign, givers to match with receivers. “You, survivor, see the face, read the name, of the man who lost his life to save your life and five other lives. Now you must remember him.”
But there are no such calculations. These numbers only look like numbers. They are lives. They are incommensurable.
It is true but trivial that I cannot put myself in Truman’s place; if I were Truman himself, I would have done as Truman did, and if Truman were someone else, he would have faced someone else’s choice, not Truman’s. But looking at the numbers we must remember that this is not an equation; there are no factors. These numbers only look like numbers. Nothing cancels out. There is no algebra of forgiveness, no solution for innocence.