A longer piece today, reviewing a book well worth reading.
In Peter Van Buren’s book, Hooper’s War (Luminis Books, 2017), history changes. Yet history never changes, even when it does.
What might have happened had the atomic bomb never been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? he asks. Had the Allies invaded Japan instead, taking first the southern island of Kyushu, establishing then a beachhead on the main island of Honshu? Had the ancient capital of Kyoto, until that point spared aerial attack, become the scene of a firebombing that would leave behind nothing but ash posing as February snow, to be taken up by the wind and then returned in torrents of black rain upon a teen-aged American soldier screaming, “Get it off me, get it off me. It’s people, get it off me.”?
What might have happened had a ninety-year-old American tourist, years later, stopped hearing that boy’s cries?
While visiting a Buddhist temple north of Kyoto in 2017, former Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper tells an elderly Japanese women he meets there that he had “outlived them all, and usually in a war that means I won.” She doesn’t seem to mind: she is there to talk to ghosts, after all, the spirits of her two children, while pouring water onto one of the many small Buddhas scattered throughout the garden, comforting souls that had years before thirsted until the heat had finally consumed them.
It is the image of that old American man that sticks with me: his bending down toward those small statues outside the one temple that had managed to survive not only earthquakes, but also heavenly conflagrations, the shrine having been scuffed around the edges only by some, shall we say, fateful artillery fire. His then reaching into his pocket, his pulling out a yellowed scrap.
My wife refused to return to Kyoto herself, but insisted I do something for her, after her death. Doctors say someone can’t technically die of a broken heart, but I know better. It just takes a long time. So my final obligation in Kyoto was to leave behind an old photo of two Japanese children. I’d helped take care of it for 70 years, but it was never mine. It was a treasured possession of hers, and it needed to return home, before the next change of season. They were together. It had just taken a long time.
“Words were all I had,” Hooper tells us. And so Van Buren adds words to that image, moving backwards in time as his American protagonist encounters Naoko Matsumoto, the woman with whom he shared those seventy years, and Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, the man for whom, perhaps, he did.
For in the end, whatever each man did, he did for her.
Hooper’s War is anything but a romance. It is not an action thriller, either. It’s not the ending at the beginning that matters, after all. It’s the beginning at the end.
Van Buren calls it a tale of “moral injury,” the au courant psychological term for what War does to a man’s, a woman’s soul. I’ve heard that some are trying to quantify the term these days. Data is always so helpful when it comes time for reports to the Budget Office. That means we won. I think.
Words can only qualify an image, however, not replace it. Van Buren makes no promises otherwise. Yet with his words, he delivers, such as when the American soldier and the Japanese soldier play chess, literally and figuratively, mediated by the words and the heart of the young Japanese woman, fully bilingual, fully willing to live out the values that both men would have preferred had remained hidden in the pasts of southern Japan or middle America, pasts that Van Buren slowly unfolds for the reader, until youth is rediscovered, histories that will never again be.
And it was at that moment of discovery, in the final pages of the novel, that Hooper’s War became mine.
If as a practicing psychiatrist all I do is hear the wars of others, if I do nothing to make some small part of their War my own, then really I’m just a cleaned-up version of “First Warrant Officer Rand, 20th Army Air Force, strategic bomb damage assessment branch, acting deputy chief assistant assessor”—by the way, also a high school math teacher from Nebraska.
“So, Rand, you’re saying [all this destruction] is good?” [asked Hooper.]
“No sir, not good,” Rand said. “I’d have to score it pretty close to perfect to be honest about it. Almost nothing left standing. That’s an achievement.”
“If you’re so smart, Rand, tell me, why are there so many logs blocking up the river? What caused that?” I said.
“Oh, those aren’t logs, Lieutenant.”
Yet in Van Buren’s book, it was not the Nate, Naoko, and Eichi outside Nishinomiya Station, south of Kyoto, who first claimed me.
No, first it was a Japanese housewife, whom I met briefly in the closing pages of the book.
My father told me [Eichi] that because Japan had freed Korea and China from the west, our markets were flooded with new goods from those faraway places. Mother especially loved the Korean plums, quietly insisting they were juicier than Japanese ones, even as my father would shush her for fear a neighbor might overhear her being what he said was disloyal.
Then it was some (likely) high-school track coach from, of all places, Reeve, Ohio.
I [Nate] was 14-years-old in December 1941, sitting in an overheated classroom hearing about Sherman’s Burning of Atlanta and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, asking my equally bored teacher numbing questions about why we had to learn this stuff. Every minute dragged like a week’s worth of Mondays.
The novel made War mine through these passing mentions of adults who, without much thought, were living what they were living because someone else, somewhere, had died to give them that opportunity, both soldier and civilian.
The dead aren’t that choosy, one way or the other, which side they might once have been on. Plums, classrooms, all the same to them.
I am Eichi’s mother, Nate’s teacher. I am the one who has eaten those plums in those classrooms, who even now nibbles on a sticky bun in a quiet bed and breakfast as my Twitter feed narrates more deaths in Afghanistan, acknowledges final words uttered somewhere, whether in English or in Dari.
I live in my Society. I profit from my Society. My Society has sent troops to other Societies, for reasons good or ill, depending on whose viewpoint you assume.
Either way, I have therefore sent them there as well
In his “alternative universe,” Van Buren has forced me to to realize: I too am morally injured. Even more, I have morally injured. Yes, I still can enjoy a rose garden and a Lake Michigan breeze. Yet I don’t get a pass, either.
Neither Lieutenant Hooper nor Sergeant Nakagawa indict me, their families, their Societies for the acts they themselves, as soldiers, committed or did not commit. They chose their fates as much as they were chosen by them, and they lived with those choices—and died with them.
Yet, somehow, I cannot but feel indictment, not from the young men in wartime Japan, perhaps, but rather from a boy who had his picture taken with a girl years before, when they had both enjoyed Sakuma, the fruit drops in the metal tin, made in the factory so far away from their hometown. From a boy in Ohio who “left the house in the morning always knowing [he’d] be back in time to wash up for supper.”
Those two boys–and the girl whom, at different times in different worlds, they together loved–they say to me, “You, Dr. Deaton, you helped make this story. We were merely playing our parts, understudies to much older folks like yourself, taking direction, falling on cue.”
The Buddhas, the old man, the photograph, quiet Japanese villages and rustic Ohio towns: may the images last with me, even longer than the words. Thank you, Mr. Van Buren, for having, in Hooper’s War, given both to us all.