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The Madness of Paul Tibbets
"Their tough luck for being there," he said of bombed civilians

How convenient, this forgetting — this respected ignorance — that the only nation to have ever used the deadliest of all weapons of mass destruction, the only nation to have terrorized a country by means of those weapons, the only nation to have nuked civilians, twice, with questionable necessity, obliterating 340,000 lives (by the time all the deaths related to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were tallied five years out), is us, the United States.

How convenient the distance — geographic, historical, but mostly willed — from the horror those bombings inflicted, the “pity and terror,” as Richard Rhodes described it in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” the men of the Manhattan Project could foresee even as they built the bomb and saw its first test in the New Mexico desert that July dawn in 1945. “Now we are all sons of bitches,” Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test, told Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project director, within moments of the blast. “We waited until the blast had passed,” Oppenheimer would later recall, “walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried.” And Oppenheimer remembered a line from Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

No amount of metaphysical anguish or contrition could approximate the suffering the bomb would unleash 21 days later, not on desert sands but on Hiroshima’s human beings, where the world ended 43 seconds after the Enola Gay, the B-29 carrying the four-ton “Little Boy,” dropped it over the courtyard of Shima Hospital. “It was all impersonal,” is how Enola Gay Commander Paul Tibbets described it.

To him, maybe. Not to those below, where birds ignited in midair and human beings left their silhouetted outlines on the side of buildings. In the words of a fifth-grade boy who survived: “I had the feeling that all the human beings on the face of the earth had been killed off.” A husband helping his wife: “While taking my severely-wounded wife out to the riverbank by the side of the hill of Nakahiro-machi, I was horrified, indeed, at the sight of a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeballs in his palm. He looked to be in great pain but there was nothing I could do for him.” A first-grade girl: “We were still in the river by evening and it got cold. No matter where you looked there was nothing but burned people all around.”

So tell me, now. Why is this Web site I’m looking at ( selling a “Little Boy Bomb Replica signed by Pilot and Navigator of the Enola Gay,” for $350 plus $15 for shipping and handling? There’s a picture of the blue bomb, “hand crafted solid mahogany replica,” 1/12 scale, “approx. 10 inches long.” Why is the Web site hawking print after print of the Enola Gay and Tibbets, of a “combo special” (autographed Tibbets book and print, “$95 + FREE SHIPPING!”)?

Because that’s what Tibbets did in his old age. He peddled WMD memorabilia, as repugnant a trade as the kind that specializes in the trinkets of Nazism or the gold teeth of Pol-Pot’s harvests. People bought in. That’s what happens when atrocity is not only overlooked but transformed into something essential and heroic. Harry Truman did it politically when he declared the dropping of the bomb “the greatest thing in history.” Tibbets did it folklorically. And a war crime became a whoop.

There’s no begrudging Tibbets for fulfilling his mission on Aug. 6, 1945. No one had the right to demand of him that he represent some kind of national atonement. But there’s a difference between a soldier honoring his service and a war lover celebrating it. Tibbets didn’t just defend his role in the bombing. He reveled in it, toured on it, profited from it, reenacted it. He used his stature to slur history and the memory of the Hiroshima victims when he joined forces with veterans groups opposing a Smithsonian exhibit featuring the Enola Gay and the victims of the bombing. The exhibit went on, the historical context and Japanese perspective summarily censored.

Tibbets died at 92 last week. It may be crude to speak ill of the dead. But it was a Tibbets specialty. He told Studs Terkel in a 2002 interview, just months after the 9/11 attacks, that nuking Arab and Islamic capitals was the best response. “If,” he said, “the newspapers would just cut out the s---: ‘You’ve killed so many civilians!’ That’s their tough luck for being there.” What a hero.

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Readers' emails (most recent first)

Thanks Pierre.  I am a veteran of Vietnam War.  I cringe and feel great shame when people say “thank you for your service.”  Thank you for killing innocent people for hegemony and greed – I don’t buy it any more. I agree that Tibbets committed a war crime for his nation, and then, in profiting from it, a war crime for himself. Thanks for your article.  I hope many read it …. And understand the immensity of OUR crimes.

Dave Antoon

Thank you for writing this column. Our nation's practices of torture, bombing of civilians, and threatening to use nuclear weapons are points along a continuum of savagery. Our angry, ignorant militarism is a sickness from which we will most likely never recover. When sympathy, empathy, and compassion are no longer encouraged in our culture, it is time to weep for the loss of our humanity.

Ed Ciaccio
Douglaston, NY

Hi Pierre:

Its been sometime since I last wrote to you, but your column today regarding General Paul Tibbets and the A-bomb so disturbed me, I felt it necessary to let you know what I think.  First off, you are writing about a subject you know nothing about;  only what the bleeding hearts say or write.  You weren't there or even around.  You weren't even a gleam in your Dads eye. Apparently your education has failed to inform you that many men and their children would not be here to raise a family or hold jobs,etc., if there had been an invasion of the islands  I, myself,  had five children and I was right there off the coast of Japan at this time.  It was known that the Japanese would fight to the last man and woman.  How many American lives would have been lost.  One would be too many.  As to the General, I had the pleasure to meet him several years ago in a private setting.  A good friend of mine has a nephew who had a business relationship with General Tibbets and for that reason he stopped at her house for lunch on his way through Daytona Beach.   I was fortunate to be invited to lunch and meet him.  I found him to be quite a gentleman, interesting and humble.  Not at all like you painted him.  I should add that I, too, was one of many who objected when the Smithsonian tried to change history.  I think there are some people, maybe many, who forget who started the war with a sneak attack, and it wasn't us.

George Hough 

Was "tough Luck being there." said for those in Pearl Harbor? How long have you served our country big mouth? I Thought a lot about you until you wrote this shit about a Pilot who did an excellent job by Killing all those slat eye bastards. I suppose I am in the same boat for enjoying killing the other slate eye bastards in Korea. Do me a favor and ,if you can afford 29 bucks , Buy the book "RAW CUTS", by Carl Sossin a POW who was released in 1953. It's also a good American to retract this garbage you printed on the 6/11/07 ., You haven't the cuts.

Sgt. Al Gigliotti
RA 11178399
51 St. Signal Bat.
82 Nd Airborne Div.
Korea '50-'51

Thank you for your courageous piece on Tibbetts. Best,

Jean Downey

Pierre, I never email anyone about what I read in the papers. But today I must tell you that I think you missed a major point in your article about the use of the A-bomb against Japan. I do not know much about Gen. Tibbets and what he has or has not done or said. He is not my concern. You start off by saying that we nuked Japan "twice with questionable necessity". What we did was unpleasant. What the leaders of Japon did was horrable. The fire bombing was horrible. War is that way. But, there were choices to be made. Had we attempted to invade Japan the death toll on both sides would have been far worse. It is hard to see the use of the A-bomb as the better of two evils, but I and most people feel it was. To say that it was of "questionable necessity" is to look at this whole matter with an eyesight better than 20/20. We cannot do that. Clearly you were born much later. I was a child at the time and remember sitting around the radio to hear the replay of the radio communication with the Enola Gay. There was debate then, but all realized the better choice had been made. That is still true today. I will look forward to reading you daily.  Thanks,

Andy Bowen
Deland [ Fla.]

Nice article. You should follow up on the WSJ article by Bret Stephens entitled  "Waterboarding and Hiroshima" where he makes the argument that awful things are ok if done for the greater good.

Regards, Andrey  

The first two sentences of your last paragraph reads as follows: "Tibbets died at 92 last week. It may be crude to speak ill of the dead." Don't flatter takes a coward!

Gerry DePoalo

You should be ashamed, slamming a dead hero. The man saved thousands of lives. How many people have made profits over wars, including REPORTERS.

[Anonymous; the link answers the]

I’m curious about Mr. Tristam’s knowledge of the events that led to the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japan to end WW2.  Although I agree with the fact that Mr. Tibbets should not have profited from his involvement in the dropping of the bomb, I do have issues with his other points.  In Mr. Tristam’s article, he mentions, “the only nation to have nuked civilization, twice, with questionable necessity,…”  With questionable necessity????  Does Mr. Tristam not understand that the use of these weapons, although extremely cruel and destructive, actually saved countless thousands of lives?  If Mr. Tristam has the educational background that he attempts to make known, he should know that the United States would have needed to continue to hop from one island to another until we finally reached the main islands of Japan.  In each of these attacks, we would have lost tens of thousands of our soldiers, and would have had to kill almost all of the Japanese soldiers due to their never surrendering strategies.  And when we finally reached the main islands, the civilians of Japan were being trained to fight against our soldiers as well.  I think it’s time for Americans to stop apologizing for ending the war, we actually saved lives!

Douglas Shott

If this were 1945 and Pierre Tristam had a son in the military preparing to participate in the invasion of the Japanese homeland - where it is estimated that up to one million will be injured or killed.... Would he really consider the dropping of the atomic bomb which may well have saved his son as a "war crime"... If Pierre Tristam has a son who was brutalized or worse during the Bataan Death March would he still feel that the dropping of the atom bomb was a "war crime". Or killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor....would he still....

Have not written you in a long time and, yes, it still seems that we are seldom in agreement. But then that is life I guess. Regards to you anyway from

Jerry Miller

Pierre-  As  a  baby boomer (born 10/4/46)  who  protested the Vietnam  "Conflict"  (War)  I  was thrilled by the  content  of  your  above subjected article.   I   would   add    my  personal opinion that  the  United   States being  the only nation  that  has  used   nuclear  weapons  (on civilian non-combatants no less)   has  no  right to tell  other  selective  nations, i.e. the   "Axis of   Evil"   that  they  have  no  right to have nuclear  weapons, and  we will  either  go  to  war over our position  (Irag) or  threaten to go  to  war (Iran)  if   they  have  ( Irag did not)  or  threaten to develop (Iran)  nuclear weapons.& nbsp; Also  I  somewhat  disagree on  your  stating  that  Tibbets was doing  his  duty by flying the plane that dropped  the bomb on  Hiroshima.   He could   have  chosen  to disagree  with  an  immoral decision  by  his superiors, and  accepted  the consequences  of  his choice as many of   my  fellow  baby boomers  did during Vietnam by going to Canada or  jail  rather  than  fight in  an  immoral war. 

Donald Glassey

I take exception with the article you wrote that was published in todays paper.   You condem a man for doing his job well and the taking credit for what he was obligated to do... You on the other hand only spew words of critism without ever being in his position. I feel that if what he did was that bad that you have to run down a hero that you should move to Japan and work to aid the people he bombed...instead of using you position for negativity. Have a good day and try living in reality as I know you have never put yourself in harms way for your fellow Americans.

William Bishop

From reading your article, I can tell that you never took the time to sit down and listen to your grandparents talk about the realities of WWII.  To sit and read your point of view on "THE BOMB" is a little disturbing, knowing that you have some knowledge of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Take the time and watch the History Channel, and pay attention to the fact that if we did not free ourselves from fighting Japan and focus more on Germany, we would be marching the "Goose Step" and speaking a different language.  If it was not for the deep snow in Russia, and the Germans getting bogged down, Germany would have quickly swept west and north, and thing would have ended much differently.  It's almost like something supernatural had a hand in it?!  The next time you write anything about WWII, add in there the torture of the Jews, who were totally innocent!  And by the way, "THE BOMB" would have been made by some one else, we, AMERICA got there first and today, we have the freedom to say what we want and think freely. 

Jason Brian 

I just finished your editorial on Tough Luck For Being There and I personally want to thank you for your gutsy and honest writing on the horror and misery that day and time in history brought to so many. I still can't believe we, the people of the free world and namely USA, are proud instead of ashamed of that day. Our military certainly has my
highest respect for their constant sacrifices and duty first regardless of their personal feelings. The military's families should never be forgotten for their constant sacrifices and the uncertainty of the faith of their loved ones face daily in serving their country. Unfortunately some don't make it back, and the rest come back dissimilar physically, mentally or both. They diserve our praise, they diserve our prayers and a lot more than our thanks. Tibbets never showed any remorse for that day, and unfortunately I am ashamed to say I personally know too many people who agree what that day represented. I feel saddened everytime the memory of that day comes up, more importantly how warped and twisted that day has been represented. I just wanted to say Thank You for having the guts to tell the truth.

Al Collins

Where to start. You went too far. How about bull ship! Or you’re a hole go craw into it. Would you be so vocal of Paul Tibbets if you were one of those on the 1st wave at Okinawa? Walked in the Batan Death march? Was a prison of war of Japan? Was at the bombing of Pearl Harbor?  Didn’t Japan drop bombs? 

Hey wake up a bomb is a bomb one is just larger then the other. It is so easy to be self righteous when you don’t have to face reality but are in a free nation and edit history. It is so easy to edit but hard when the paper is blank and you have to write. I do not disagree that you have the right to say anything you want but I do object to the manner in which you wrote it. You are no different than Tibbits you sell your words he sold what he had.

Felix Cavallari US Army (ret)

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