The firestorm chronicles

We are haunted by the innocence of the late Dave Brubeck’s remark (mentioned in last post) about soldiering in the last World War, & seeing things that were “against the Ten Commandments.” By the usual chain of coincidence, we were brought back in conversation tonight to Tokyo again, too.

On the night of March 9th & 10th, 1945, an air attack was launched upon that city, called Operation Meetinghouse. Incendiary bombs were dropped from B-29s, on a massive scale.  In the resulting firestorm, an area of around 15 square miles was burnt out. The desert that remained, after the storm had subsided, corresponded to a territory among the most densely populated on the planet: at least 100 inhabitants per acre throughout, exceeding twice that in many poorer neighbourhoods. Altogether, towards two million souls.

It is in the physical nature of a firestorm to throw up a wall of flame, driven by very high winds around the perimeter, through which no living creature may pass. Even towards the centre, temperatures rise above 1500 degrees Fahrenheit for prolonged periods. “Official” death tolls have long been cited around 100,000 souls. Yet even this estimate, low-balled from several clear political motives by both sides, exceeds the initial toll for Hiroshima & Nagasaki, combined.

We spoke once with an elderly Japanese lady who witnessed this raid from a considerable distance: high ground over on Tokyo’s extreme west side. From so many miles away, she thought she would melt from the heat, & fires were catching here & there in the old traditional houses, made of wood with windows often of oiled paper. We were speaking through a translator (her daughter), & much nuance was lost; yet we noticed that her face appeared entranced when speaking of the event. We could discern in her voice no blame, no anger.

Many other events could be cited, from the history of that time; & while this was the worst of the firestorms in Japan, there were several dozen others. Still, one such event is enough to contemplate.

To say “No more war!” in the presence of such facts is fatuous. Of course there will be more war; there has always been more war. Even to mumble against “total war” as we do, against “technology” & “modernity,” is in such a context trifling. (As the BBC reminds us, Tamburlaine, with nothing like modern technology, had the skulls of the conquered piled up in mounds to extraordinary heights.) The numbers become meaningless — one cannot multiply from the death of one’s beloved — & not even speechlessness will do.

More & more we are convinced, that while every prudent action must be taken to prevent such “misadventures,” by those with transient power; or failing, to limit the worst that could occur — no political strategy could possibly anticipate the moment at which prudent action passes beyond human command. (One thinks of the pathetic efforts made by Tokyo firemen to put out that great blaze; yet God bless the men who died trying.)

The firestorm is itself worth considering, for the analogy it offers. It was the aggregate & then compounding effect of many small incendiary bombs, each in itself of little consequence. In a similar way, small yet indisputably sinful human acts aggregate & compound into firestorms of evil, that will continue until they have burnt out. Conversely, small acts of kindness & faith may aggregate & compound to results unforeseeable.

This seemingly naive reflection of Brubeck’s, descrying what was “against the Ten Commandments,” becomes in the grand scheme most astute. There can be no way forward that does not immediately involve doing good, & refusing evil. More than this is actually out of our power.