Thoughts on American Warfare

For a week, every morning, just as I was waking up, washing up, putting the coffee in the microwave, these notes, these fragments of music were running around, unidentified, in my head. Then bit-by-bit, some words started to come through, but idiot words…

“… where the menfolk chew tobaccy… ”

… Then. another day, some further words…

“… and the women wicky wacky… ”

And then one fine morning a day or two later still, I suddenly heard Benny Goodman’s clarinet riding high over the whole thing, soaring up into the wild blue yonder, and I had it. Had it well enough to go to Google, at this computer, in this building straight across the avenue from the Hotel Pennsylvania, and dredge up Harry Warren and Mort Dixon’s—the words are Dixon’s—surreal 76-year-old hit song:

Hot ginger and dynamite

There’s nothing but that at night.

Back in Nagasaki where the fellers chew tobaccy

And the women wicky wacky woo.

And now I know why that tune, those fragments of words, were chasing around my still half-asleep brain for a week or so of early mornings. It was because of the obituary I’d read in the New York Times on July 19, about a man named Charles Sweeney.

That song, “Nagasaki,” which was brought forth by Warren and Dixon in 1928, and received its most famous recording in November 1937 by the Benny Goodman Quartet, in the Manhattan Room of the Hotel Pennsylvania, is as much as any American—except perhaps a missionary or two—could possibly have told you at that time about the city on the other side of the world that Maj. Charles W. Sweeney and his B-29 crew would visit from 17,000 feet above sea level on a Thursday morning in August not many years later.

On that morning, as it happens, August 9,1945, a somewhat smaller and considerably slower aircraft, a B-24, or “flying boxcar,” was also on a bombing mission over Japan, flying up the coast toward a target somewhat south of Tokyo, but 135 miles north of Nagasaki. A B-24 could not attain the altitude of a B-29; this particular B-24, with an undressed lady and “Pacific Passion” painted on its nose, was at 10,000 feet just then, when Max, the tail gunner, gave a scream over the intercom and, as Capt. Arthur George briefly banked the aircraft, one could see in the clear blue sky—as clear and blue as the second Tuesday morning in September in the year 2001—all the way back those 135 miles to the mushroom cloud boiling up to at least the 10,000 feet the B-24 was at, and something more.

The bomb had been released over Nagasaki at 11:01 a.m. on August 9, 1945, 59 years ago this week. Some 40,000 people died in that instant or soon thereafter; some 25,000 were, as the word goes, injured. A great many more than that had died—or might have wished to have died—in another Japanese city three days earlier.

It can be argued and has been argued that Hiroshima was necessary; that, on net, the Hiroshima atom bomb saved thousands if not millions of lives, ours and theirs. It can also be argued and has been argued that, however, Nagasaki was a war crime—a bomb that could have been dropped next to but not on Nagasaki, to make the same point and, hopefully, achieve the same result—an end to the war.

There was a radio/radar man on the B-24 that glimpsed Nagasaki from 135 miles away, and he didn’t like it then and doesn’t like it now. Once, a few years later, when the New Yorker came out with its issue wholly devoted to John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” that former crew member was reading it as he walked downtown toward Times Square. When he came to the sentence: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books,” he shuddered, fought back tears, looked up—and found himself smack in the middle of the street at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, with cars ripping by on all sides.

Thirty years after Nagasaki, the same onetime “Pacific Passion” crewmember wrote a short editorial in a New York daily newspaper recalling that moment in the B-24 as “looking into the face of original sin.” The owner of the newspaper made him append his initials, but she printed it.

So here we are, going on another 30 years and a whole world later still. Nicholas D. Kristof had a column in The Times last week about a Sgt. Donald Wallace of Salem, Oregon, who was perhaps the real hero of the Jessica Lynch shootout. When he ran out of ammunition he was, the Army believes, captured by the Fedayeen, stripped naked, handcuffed and killed.

Journalist Kristof paid a call on Norman and Arlene Walters, the sergeant’s parents. “Red, white, and blue are everywhere in Mr. and Mrs. Walters’s house,” Kristof wrote, “and Mr. Walters says that if he were president, he would threaten to nuke Baghdad unless the insurgency stopped, although in his next breath he backs out.”

Let’s put aside the third-person mask. I know exactly how Mr. Walters feels, and every time there’s now a beheading—or a beheading threatened, promised, take your choice—in that illustrious country, I feel that way too. Islamic fundamentalism has opened the great stone gates to thinking the unthinkable.

In his memoir, “War’s End,” published in 1997, former B-29 pilot Charles Sweeney declared that, upon a visit to Nagasaki a few years after VJ Day, he “took no pride or pleasure then, nor do I take any now, in the brutality of war…. Every life is precious… But I felt no remorse or guilt that I had bombed the city where I stood.”

On July 16, 2004, Maj. Gen. Charles W. Sweeney (ret.), a native of Lowell, Mass., died, at 84, in Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. Nobody remembers the song “Nagasaki” any more.

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