Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After–continued yet again

Day Zero, the Day that dawned when the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was not just another Day.  Rather, it was the Day that ended all Days, the point at which the Day as such vanished without trace, as I tried to articulate in my pervious post.  As Günther Anders saw so clearly, what was truly unique about Day Zero—what made it the Day to end all Days–was not the devastation of an entire city and the killing of two-hundred-thousand of its inhabitants in a single flash, as shockingly horrendous as such sudden devastation and death may be.  Unfortunately, even such awful destruction has all too many precedents, and the speed of destruction remains a difference of degree, not kind.  No, what was truly unique about Day Zero, what made it the very null point of the Day as such, was that it marked the onset of the devastation of the very devastation, the masking of the devastation under a façade that almost immediately began to take the form of rapid reconstruction.  What was truly horrible was, so to speak, not the demolition of the city, but the demolition of its ruins.

Worth noting is that another important author who, like Anders, survived the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe—though he survived it differently, going through Auschwitz itself, whereas Anders survived by going into exile in France and eventually the United States—is concerned to make the same point.  I mean Jean Améry.  In Lefeu oder Der Abbruch (Lefeu or The Demolition), his final novel, Améry’s title character (whose name, “Lefeu,” is French for fire) resists all orders to leave the run-down, condemned, decaying apartment building in which he lives in Paris, so that the old, no longer functional dump can be demolished to permit brand new construction.  Through Lefeu Améry stages his own protest, a protest against the destruction of ruins as such.  Lefeu asserts our need to live among the ruins of our life, as opposed to our desire to bury those ruins beneath the frenetic busy-ness of everyday contemporary activity.  Lefeu himself, in Améry’s hands, becomes a call to remember the ruins, rather than to try to move “beyond them,” to build something “new” over them, burying them beneath our re-constructions.

To return to Anders, the third, final, and by far shortest (only about 30 pages total) of his three works that make up Anders’s 1982 publication, Hiroshima Is Everywhere, is The Dead:  Speech on the Three World Wars, first delivered in 1964 and first published the following year.  In it, Anders himself discusses what is required of those of us who are survivors, those who have been left behind by the dead.  Specifically, he means those who, like himself, were left behind by the millions of those who died fighting on the German side during the first two World Wars.  His concern, that is, is with the survivors of those whom Germany enlisted into its forces and sent into battle to die on the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and North Africa from 1914-1945.  Anders strongly insists that what makes the deaths of all those millions so hard to bear for their families and compatriots left behind is that they all died (page 364) “for nothing,” that they died, as he poignantly puts it, “not for their country, but to its shame.”  He goes on to insist just as vehemently that it is only when the survivors, such as himself, left behind in such cases “hold fast to that knowledge”—the knowledge that their dead died for nothing–that they can “truly honor the dead.”  Only then, in turn, can their survivors make it true that those who died did not die in vain! “Whether they died in vain or not,” he writes, “depends on us, who have been left behind.  On our incorruptibility”—on such survivors not being open to any sort of bribery to cover over the fact that their dead did indeed die for nothing.   “Only so do we pay them their due.”*

The specific millions of dead at issue in Andres’s remarks—namely, the millions of Germans and their allies who were sent to die in battle during the first two World Wars—have the distinctive status of what Anders calls “die schuldlos Schuldigen,” which literally translates as “the guiltlessly guilty,” but which we might more usefully render as “innocent perpetrators.”  At least many if not most such innocent perpetrators were also what Anders calls “victim-perpetrators” (Opfer-Täter), those whose acts inflicted suffering on others, but who themselves also suffered from their own acts as well (albeit they may well have suffered differently:  for example, from feelings of guilt, quite possibly even overwhelming ones, for what they did).

At any rate, whether “only” innocent perpetrators, or “also” victim-perpetrators, in all such cases what is at issue are those who, perhaps with what ordinarily count as the best of motives, such as love of their country, carry out acts that help accomplish or at least enable such deeds of horror as the extermination of the Jews of Europe—or, to use another example, the one for which Anders first employs the term at issue, the bombing of Hiroshima.  Anders’s uses the expression “schuldlos Schuldigen” to describe the American pilot Claude Eatherly, who piloted one of the planes flying reconnaissance and providing accompaniment to the Enola Gay as it went to drop the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, and who subsequently suffered guilt for what he had helped perpetrate against the people of Hiroshima, and the world.  The second and longest part of Anders’s book on the ubiquity of Hiroshima consists of a long exchange of letters between him and Eatherly.

The six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II may not themselves have shared any guilt for those murders–though the extermination-camp system of inmate capos and “special commands” (Sondercommandos) constitutes a moral “gray zone,” as Primo Levi famously called it.  That is, they may not have been “innocent perpetrators” in the sense that Anders applies to Eatherly, or to the German war dead from the first two World Wars.  The distinctions involved in these various cases are well worth careful reflection, and I may return to them in some later posts.  However, what I am concerned with here is one important thing these different cases all have in common, which is that in every case, from the most purely innocent victims to the most guiltily compromised ones, those who died from their victimization all died for nothing, to use Anders way of putting it.  If they were “innocent perpetrators” who died in the process of committing their deeds of perpetration, then they may have died not only for nothing, but also “to the shame of” that in whose name they went to their deaths (e.g., their country).  In contrast, of course, the millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis died to no shame of Judaism.  However, be that as it may, they still died for nothing—died for no good reason whatever, died without any justification for their dying.  That is what I want to address.  Specifically, I want to address the same question Anders addressed in his remarks about all the dead innocent perpetrators of German aggression during the first half of the twentieth century.  That is the question of how we can properly honor such dead, who died for nothing.

Anders not only raises that question for us, but also gives us the best answer to it, an answer I’ve already cited:  We honor such dead only by holding fast to this, that their death was “for nothing,” that they were wasted, their lives and the lives of their loved ones shattered, reduced to ruin, for nogood reason whatever.   Thus, we pay the dead who died for nothing their due only by refusing to bury the fact that their lives were squandered for nothing.  That is what it means, genuinely to honor them.  In means, in effect, to preserve the ruins of all their lives—to preserve them as ruins, and not as convenient means for marshalling resources for new accomplishments, or just as museum pieces to provide opportunities for education and entertainment for the living.

Never to forget, always to remember, all those millions upon millions who died for nothing—died for nothing in Auschwitz, in Hiroshima, or even at the fronts as German soldiers in battle–is to reject all endeavors to demolish the ruins, and replace them with glittering new fabrications.  It is to refuse to call out “peace, peace” where there is no peace, but instead to keep exposed the face of war that everywhere reigns, consigning all things to obliteration, even and especially the evidence of the very obliteration itself.  It is to remember the ruins and to preserve them as such, defying the demolition of the ruins, protesting alongside Lefeu, Améry, and Anders.

Viewed from the sort of perspective Günther Anders adopts in the final part of his three-part book on Hiroshima, what he identifies as “the three World Wars”—the first two “hot,” the third one “cold”—show themselves to be but the revelation of three faces of a single nihilistic Anti-Trinity, the Counter-Divinity of Demolition that imploded so gaudily over Hiroshima in August 1945.  Dying in 1992, Anders lived long enough to see the end of the Third World War, the “cold” one, and therewith the end of the whole process:  the finalization of the disappearance of the devastation cast up everywhere by triumphant, ceaseless war, the burial of all the ruins beneath the mask of the global market.  Anders, with his philosophical background, might have recognized that the world thereby entered into the end stage of despair, by Kierkegaard’s lights—the despair which does not even know it is in despair, but thinks it is, or at least ought to be, just pleased as punch.  From such a black hole of despair, no light of hope can any longer escape:  All genuine hope has vanished along with all the ruins.

Fundamentally, August 6, 1945, was Day Zero not because on that day such horrendous ruins appeared, the ruins of an entire city, reduced to rubble in less than the blink of an eye.  Rather, that day was Day Zero–the nullification of the Day itself, the multiplication of zero days to infinity—because on that day the ruins themselves began to be dis-appeared, like Argentines under the Junta.  It was Day Zero because that day  “the Demolition”—the Abbruch to protest against which Lefeu/Améry give their very lives–began.  Day Zero was Demolition Day, the Day the ruins went away.

But then, beyond all possible expectation, suddenly, on September 11, 2001, the impossible happened.  On that day, the ruins returned.  In the vast void of endless accumulation of zero days, all the countless string of days during which the global wasteland just stretched on and on, history itself having come to its end, or rather the end of its end—suddenly the whole façade began to shimmer, and then to break apart, and to collapse, revealing beneath its gaudy, fun-house veil the nullity it had till then concealed.  The ruins reappeared.  A Day again dawned, even “after” Day Zero, the day all days were reduced to zeros, another Day “after” the Day the Day itself died.

September 11, 2001:  The Day After.

*     *     *     *     *     *

There is more to explain about that.  So I will need to continue this series on “Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After” for yet one more post.


* In The Open Wound:  Trauma, Identity, and Community, which I have just published (available through amazon.com), I try to make the same point in a different way, without using the same verbal distinction Anders does between dying “for nothing” and dying “in vain.”  I am in full agreement with what I understand him to be saying through such locutions, however.  The difference is solely one of formulation.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

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