The Japanese surrender delegation aboard U.S.S. Missouri
64 years ago today, the world awoke to the first day of the Post-War period. The day before, on August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito broadcast Japan's surrender to Allied Forces and World War II came to an end. This date should not be a footnote, but it should be something that is etched in our memory. With the passing of the years since this date, and the ageing and slow retreat from this world of the generation that fought this war we lose the sense of magnitude that this conflict represents.
Let’s recap: Although the full death toll will never be certain, the best estimates are that 35 to 46 million civilians were killed, and 25 million in the various militaries which fought each other. A separate number is necessary for victims of the Holocaust: 6 million. The scale of death defies imagination. 26 million of those combined casualties alone were suffered by the Soviet Union. 5 million of the military casualties were prisoners of war who died in captivity. These figures are in a state of constant revision as new records are collated. Casualties especially for the Pacific and Asian spheres of the war are unreliable because quite simply, we killed so many of each other and lost count between the Rape of Nanking, the Burma Railway and the Marianas Turkey Shoot.
But these are numbers. The human brain ultimately is a tool of reduction. Numbers which get so large as to be unrelatable to our sensory experience are tagged with the convenient mathematical invention, the "zero." So instead let us employ a relativistic, material yardstick to the number of people dead. Let’s use the civilian casualty count for the entire war. The most recent data suggests a death toll between 35 to 46 million. The margin of error is self-evidently ridiculous. We just can’t be sure how many bodies remain buried in unmarked graves, how many were incinerated, and how many were vaporized.
California has a population of 36 million. That’s by the latest census. This means, that a conservative estimate of civilian fatalities would scour California clean of human beings. Not a single person would remain. The length and breadth of California is silent. Every beach, valley, basin, farm community and high desert town has had a metaphorical brillo pad taken to it and wiped away every single child, woman and man. And they all have died suddenly, untimely, and incredibly violently. They have been bombed, shot, raped to death, hung, bayoneted, buried alive, and burned. Not a single one of these deaths has been peaceful.
Walking on the planked, wooden deck of the quiet U.S.S. Missouri in Pearl Harbor, it’s easy to forget that on September 2, the formal surrender declaration was signed, ending an epic and catastrophic war. It was an act of ink, a receipt of accounting for an appalling butcher’s bill. We must wrap our heads around it. It is too easy for the human brain to categorize large numbers with zeroes into abstractions. If we have done it so easily with human beings, why should we be so appalled when bankers and stockbrokers do it with our financial systems? Perhaps our empathy begins when we acknowledge that any number with a lot of zeroes is really, really, big.