What Does World War II Mean To You?

[Warning: graphic images]

Imagine if the whole Singapore population of 5 million died. Multiply that by 12 and you get the death toll of World War II.

How do the post-war generations from various countries view World War II? What lessons do we need to remember from the deaths of 60 million people?

World War II to a young Singaporean

My generation grew up learning about the Japanese occupation as the dark years of Singapore and Malaya, where our grandparents and great-grandparents suffered at the hands of the Japanese invaders.

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My grandma told us how she had to quit school at 7 years of age to work as a child labourer to feed the family, running around plantations looking for odd jobs. Tapioca and sweet potato became the common food staple.

The British couldn’t protect our grandparents, so they surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. Then in 1945 after the atomic bombs killed hundreds of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the British came back to claim the lands of their previous empire, but things weren’t the same anymore.

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People were angry at how the British gave up the fight in 1942 and left, leaving the locals to suffer under the Japanese. So it wasn’t surprising that pro-communist sentiments took a stronger hold, which hastened a merger between Singapore and Malaya as a hedge against the communist ‘threat’ in South-East Asia.

Some say World War II was the catalyst that led to Singapore’s independence by weakening the British empire.

When I grew up, we learnt how the atomic bombs liberated us from the Japanese occupation, and although there was great loss of life in Japan, we owe our freedom to the US which had dropped the atomic bombs.

World War II was a bloody chapter where our country was a victim, the grass trampled on when elephants fight.

World War II to a young German

In one of my classes at NTU, a German classmate did a presentation on Germany and somehow the discussion veered towards World War II.

She said Germans, including those born after World War II, are very conscious of the role their nation played in the war and the Jewish Holocaust.

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It is a source of national shame and remorse that one of their own kind could be the driving force of one of the most atrocious mass killings in the last century.

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Germans are working hard to make amends by playing more than their part in the EU and making themselves useful by coming out with good quality, innovative products and services.

Questions arise how much moral responsibility should a German today continue to hold for the crimes of the past. Jews are still treated differently, more carefully in fact.

World War II to a young Japanese

I also had a Japanese classmate in NTU, and one day we happened to be chatting about WWII. I asked her, as a Japanese, how does she feel about the war?

My Japanese classmate had a different response from the German one. She said her people suffered horribly from the effects of the atomic bombs that US dropped on them (read some survivors’ stories here).

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I replied that dropping the atomic bombs was a last resort as many areas in China and South-East Asia were under Japanese occupation, which also killed many people.

Her reply still focused back to US’ “cowardly act” that affected many innocent Japanese, and US should have fought with honor, meeting face-to-face with the Japanese soldiers and not resorting to bombing Japanese civilians while staying in the safety of their own country half a world away.

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It was only after I watched The Last Samurai movie that I understood a little better what my Japanese friend was referring to as a “cowardly act”, but I still wonder what she was taught in school that made her reaction vastly different from my German classmate, besides the fact that Germany didn’t have atomic bombs dropped on them.

Obama’s landmark visit to Hiroshima

Obama recently visited Hiroshima. He is the first sitting US president to do so. The following is a transcript of his speech there where he called for “a world without nuclear weapons”.

60 million died in World War II. The majority of deaths (62%) were civilians, who lived in the wrong time in the wrong place and died as a result of the decisions of a few leaders who wanted more power.

War, and any form of violence, does not benefit anyone, except those sitting in the back row pulling the strings for their own gain.

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World War II Deaths

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Transcript of Obama’s speech at Hiroshima

Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.

Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.

It is not the fact of war that sets Hiroshima apart. Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man. Our early ancestors having learned to make blades from flint and spears from wood used these tools not just for hunting but against their own kind. On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold, compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal. Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.

The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.

In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death. There are many sites around the world that chronicle this war, memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism, graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity.

Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.

Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill.

Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

That is why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.

Some day, the voices of the hibakusha will no longer be with us to bear witness. But the memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.

And since that fateful day, we have made choices that give us hope. The United States and Japan have forged not only an alliance but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war. The nations of Europe built a union that replaced battlefields with bonds of commerce and democracy. Oppressed people and nations won liberation. An international community established institutions and treaties that work to avoid war and aspire to restrict and roll back and ultimately eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons.

Still, every act of aggression between nations, every act of terror and corruption and cruelty and oppression that we see around the world shows our work is never done. We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.

We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics.

And yet that is not enough. For we see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale. We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.

For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.

We see these stories in the hibakusha. The woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself. The man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own.

My own nation’s story began with simple words: All men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Realizing that ideal has never been easy, even within our own borders, even among our own citizens. But staying true to that story is worth the effort. It is an ideal to be strived for, an ideal that extends across continents and across oceans. The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family — that is the story that we all must tell.

That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love. The first smile from our children in the morning. The gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table. The comforting embrace of a parent. We can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here, 71 years ago.

Those who died, they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.

The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.

This post was first published on Jules of Singapore.

Image Credits: Yosuke Yamahata.

About the author

Jules Of Singapore

I’m Jules, from Singapore. I live and work here, and although it’s a great place to be, I feel there are many issues swept under the carpet. I’m also hoping to meet other women (and men) who actively want to discuss and further the interests of women who make up half our population, but whose voices are not amplified enough.

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