Thursday, November 01, 2007

Making history

I saw this picture and it made me think.

(Yep...workin' without tools again...I know.)

As I get older, I tend to think more about where I was when something happened in history.

For example, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, I was home sick with a bout of strep throat/tonsillitis, and the news reports interrupted my afternoon soaps. Even though I understood the significance of the event, I still cared more about Erica Kane and "Luke & Laura". (As a side note, I haven't watched a soap voluntarily since 1993. I guess I just can't handle that level of commitment.)

Another example...when the Challenger space shuttle exploded, I was a junior in high school (winter of '86), I was at a jazz band competition at Coe College (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), and we watched the news reports on television in our warmup room. Some students were pretty snarky during the whole thing, but even their snarkiness died down.

As my personal life progressed, obviously, so did world events.

  • I was in college when the Berlin Wall came down, and when the first official shots of "Desert Storm" rang out.
  • I was living in Iowa City when Clinton's scandals rocked the White House, Columbine happened, and when Bush & Gore's votes were counted and recounted.
  • I was here in DC as a "neophyte" when 9/11 broke out and the snipers raged through the metro area.
But somehow...I think my life experience pales in comparison to that of Paul Tibbets.


Paul Tibbets, who died today at the age of 92, was the man who flew the Enola Gay...the plane that dropped "Little Boy"...the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima.

When I first saw that headline, I must say, I was humbled.

As much as I whine about my life and the things that I find so hard to deal with, imagine yourself having a big-ass atomic bomb in your plane, acting on orders from generals and the commander in chief to drop it on a major Japanese city.

It affected his life, needless to say. From the article, a few pieces of information:

1. It was the first use of a nuclear weapon in wartime.

2. Tibbets' historic mission in the plane named for his mother marked the beginning of the end of World War II and eliminated the need for what military planners feared would have been an extraordinarily bloody invasion of Japan.

3. Tibbets had requested no funeral and no headstone, fearing it would provide his detractors with a place to protest, Newhouse said.
So not only is he dropping something lethal on a huge Japanese city, he's flying a plane named after his mom so he can't mess that up either. Oh, and that whole "first use of a nuclear weapon" thing is also a biggie. Can you say "added pressure"?

Mr. Tibbets could, and did.

But what surprises me is this:

"I knew when I got the assignment it was going to be an emotional thing," Tibbets told The Columbus Dispatch for a story published on the 60th anniversary of the bombing. "We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background. We knew it was going to kill people right and left. But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible."

Tibbets, then a 30-year-old colonel, never expressed regret over his role. He said it was his patriotic duty and the right thing to do.

"I'm not proud that I killed 80,000 people, but I'm proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did," he said in a 1975 interview.


People from his era seem to have a totally different mindset...a totally different way of handling things.

Back then (unless I'm mistaken, since I'm not that old), there was a certain singlemindedness about things like this.

You had to employ logic and plan something so thoroughly that bones of contention were nowhere to be found. It's definitely an exercise in planning and execution.

This man had to plan a mission where the weapon had the potential to kill him, his crew AND their targets...and he had to handle this mass of radioactivity and metal as carefully as an egg or a piece of fine china. And again, he's flying a plane named after HIS MOM, so we've got that whole thing.

But as far as his feelings of compassion for his fellow human were concerned, one might ask, "Where were they?"

Some might say that this man was inhuman...a man without a conscience.

I don't.

Let me clarify my position. I don't like the aspects of war. I don't like how it always seems to be that the folks who WANT war the most are the ones whose hands are never bloodied. I wish that the current conflict wasn't happening.

But his generation had a different mindset about war and duty.

Tibbets knew what he was going into. He had seen others before him plan missions, and when it was his turn, he stepped up to the plate. No whining, no hand-wringing...he just said, "OK...let's get to work" and he and his crew GOT TO WORK.

He prioritized, and he worked to make the horrific mission as quick and clean as possible. The goverment and military strategists were quickly learning about what the troops went through in Iwo Jima and other battles with Japan. As one of the above quotes stated, the US military's fear of a regular invasion being more "bloody" was a pretty legitimate one (see Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" to confirm this).

Of course, he saw through the years after Hiroshima that the effects of the atomic bomb were long lasting. He must have seen films and learned about the long-term effects of surviving a nuclear blast, prolonging death and bringing pain to those who survived.

He knew of the anguish. I think the only way he couldn't have known of it is if he were sealed up in a cave for 60 years.

But he didn't let the pain completely overtake his life. He lived and worked after the war was over. The article covers other controversial events in his life that involve his mission, including a display of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution in 1995. He dealt with the impact of his mission (and his part in it) as best as one can, I feel.

There are things we don't know.

Was he married?

Did he have kids? What did his family think about what he did, of his place in history?

I guess I can only say this: I can't say I'd do any better, and I don't think a lot of others could either.

So I turn this question to there ANYONE out there who's been part of a historical event, either in "the thick of it" or on the periphery? I never know who's reading this blog, so I want to know who's out there and who can tell their stories.

Talk to me, folks. Tell me about it. I want to learn from you.