November 2, 2007

Charles McCarry, Hiroshima and the Firebombing of Tokoyo

Charles McCarry is one of my favorite writers and his espionage novels are extraordinary.  If you haven't read any of them, you're in for a treat.  The Boston Globe calls him "the best writer of intelligence and political novels in the world."

Many had gone out of print until brought back and republished by the Overlook Press.  Wrote one reviewer of the Tears of Autumn in 2005
I approached this handsome new edition of Charles McCarry's masterpiece, "The Tears of Autumn," with trepidation. The novel was first published in 1974, and it has been more than 20 years since I last read it. I had only a hazy memory that (1) it was beautifully written, (2) it offered a plausible theory of the Kennedy assassination and (3) it was a classic. My concern was that, given a new reading, the novel might not hold up, but my fear was groundless. "The Tears of Autumn" is beautifully written, its conspiracy theory still intrigues and it most assuredly is a classic.

I've reread many of them several times over in the past two decades and everyone is a classic in my opinion.  I write about him today because of the death of Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.    In a talk before the New York Public Library, McCarry tells an extraordinary story about the head man of a  Japanese village who had never met an American and invited  McCarry who was hiking with his wife in the Japan Alps to have lunch with him.

The story which I've printed verbatim is below the fold, so you have to click to read it.  I found it at Jonathan Delacour's Consequences.

Robert Birnbaum interviews McCarry here.    And below are some of McCarry's books to get you started.

"Tears of Autumn" (Charles McCarry)

"The Secret Lovers: A Paul Christopher Novel (Paul Christopher Novels)" (Charles McCarry)

"The Last Supper" (Charles McCarry)

"Second Sight: A Paul Christopher Novel" (Charles McCarry)

"Old Boys" (Charles McCarry)

"Christopher's Ghosts" (Charles McCarry)

Charles McCarry in an essay called A Strip of Exposed Film (based on a talk given at the New York Public Library and published in Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel). .

Charles McCarry had been climbing in the Japan Alps when he and his wife were invited to visit the head man of a village called Nodaira.

His name was Toyomi Yamagishi. The same twenty families had been living in this very remote village since the twelfth century; the first road had been built only thirty years earlier. Before that everything that went into the village and came out of the village went in or came out on the back of a human being.

The visit took place at ten in the morning, “the usual Japanese hour for such affairs. They all sat around the kotatsu, a table with a blanket draped over it and a charcoal brazier underneath, “so that your lower body was warm enough and you warmed your upper body by drinking whiskey and sake at ten in the morning.” After they had eaten and been served green tea, Yamagishi began to speak.

He spoke in a recitative style, somewhat like the narration of a Noh play or a Bunraku puppet theater performance, except that he was speaking modern Japanese so that we could understand what he was saying.

He said he had invited us to his house because he had never met an American and had wanted to ever since World War II. We chatted a little about the history of the village and about the life that he and the other villagers had led before the war. He said it had been a life of ceaseless toil. As a child he had only rarely seen the faces of his parents because they worked every day from dark to dark, leaving the hut before he woke and returning after he was asleep. He had had no children of his own because he wanted to avoid this sadness in his own life. I remarked that I had grown up on a farm and knew how hard that life could be. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you do not know. Human beings are not beasts of burden in America.”

Yamagishi then told us about his life during the war. He had been drafted in 1944, at the age of forty, and sent to Osaka to guard the emperor’s forest. Then the Americans took Saipan and the B-29s came. “The Americans burned the forest with incendiary bombs, so it was not necessary to guard it any longer,” he said. “I became a firefighter. The Americans would drop incendiary bombs to set the city on fire, and when we went to fight the fires they would wait until we were very busy and then they would come over with other B-29s and drop antipersonnel bombs and kill the firemen. I thought, ‘The Americans are very clever.’ Then, after the whole city had been destroyed, a single B-29 flew over Osaka and dropped not bombs but hundreds of little parachutes. When these parachutes landed we saw that a gift was tied to each—a mirror, a harmonica, a fountain pen. The Japanese people had lost nearly everything in the bombing and they were very glad to have these gifts from the Americans. They ran to get them, and when they touched them they exploded in their hands, blowing off fingers and blinding people. I thought, ‘The Americans are not only clever; they are ruthless. We have lost the war.’”

Yamagishi said, “Your ships came and shelled us. The bombers kept on also, every day. I was assigned to train people to fight the Americans when they invaded. We showed women and children how to make spears from bamboo. Every Japanese was prepared to die defending the homeland. Then the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The emperor’s voice came over loudspeakers in the streets. He told us we must surrender. No one had ever heard his voice before, and to us it was the voice of God. But our commanding officer said, ‘No! We must kill the Americans! He is no true emperor if he tells the Japanese to surrender.’ Nevertheless we obeyed the emperor, and I came back to this village. All the younger sons of every family—all twenty families—had been killed in the war. Only old men and women were left to do the work. I thought we would starve to death. But as you see, we did not.

“Now,” the old Japanese said, “I will tell you why I invited you here. It is because I have something to say to you, and to all Americans.” He was out of breath and his face was full of color from the whiskey he had drunk, and I thought, “Well, here it comes.”

Yamagishi said, “Thank you. Thank you for defeating Japan. If you Americans had not done so, this village would be as it always was. The militarists would never have let us have democracy. But the Americans built the road; my nephews and nieces have cars and television sets, and they see their children every day. And because they have eaten American things like milk and vegetables and fruit, instead of the millet and pickles we had to eat, they are tall and beautiful like Americans instead of short and homely like me and my wife.” He bowed and said, “Thank you.” I realized, to my surprise, and in spite of everything I believed about the morality of bombing civilians, that the U.S. Air Force had won Yamagishi’s heart and mind by pitilessly destroying Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In one of my novels a political idealist asks Paul Christopher what he believes in. Christopher replies, “I believe in consequences.” In the novel, as in politics and in life itself, you can’t know what the consequences of any act will be until you come to the end.

Posted by Jill Fallon at November 2, 2007 2:56 PM | Permalink