President Obama & Hiroshima: A Pathway to National Atonement

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President Obama’s speech today in Hiroshima did not contain the word “atonement.” Nevertheless, the spirit of atonement was carried throughout. It was not only the most remarkable speech of Barack Obama’s presidency, it is arguably the most remarkable speech given by any U.S. president, ever.
In concluding his speech, President Obama said:
Those who died, they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.
The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.
There are so many areas in which to critique President Obama’s tenure in office, and yet there are times, like today, that I am grateful to have a sitting president whose core intention is to seek the greater good of all humankind.  Yes, it is disappointing that he has presided over a wholly corrupt military system and has done nothing to change it: namely, a military system that lures young men and women with financial and emotional enticements to fight the nation’s wars, all while the rest of the nation, whatever their politics, goes about the charade of “supporting the troops,” as if morally tolerating the corrupt military machine that has and is devouring their lives can remotely approximate the notion of loving fraternity.  We have a long way to go as a nation, from President Obama to the men and women of Mainstreet, to atone for our toleration of this ongoing assault on the sanctity of human life.
Yet I give President Obama credit for at least endeavoring throughout his presidency, and the last two years in particular, to create the emotional space for the American people to atone for our sins as a nation.  Politicians do not succeed at their primary craft – winning elections – by creating that emotional space, and that largely holds true for Barack Obama as well.  Yet that space, that space for genuine national atonement, has been carved by this president.  It may be a small space for now, but it is something that we can, I believe must, expand upon.

For that reason, I will be setting aside the Friday before each Memorial Day, starting this day, as my own personal Atonement Friday.  For the past fifteen years, men and women of my generation, my fellow citizens, my American brothers and sisters, have died in wars while I continued to live and grow.  That is shameful, and the least I can do is set aside one day of the year to reflect upon this question:  Did I do enough, did I harness enough of my still-existing First Amendment freedoms to stop this exploitive system from devouring the lives of men and women from my generation, and now, fifteen years on, the new generation?
When an 18-year-old young man walks into an Army or Marines recruiting station today, signing over his life to be killed or maimed in war that the vast majority of American men and women want nothing to do with, as undeniably proven by their refusal to enlist, I must reflect upon the chilling reality that when these post-9/11 wars began, that young man, now eighteen, was a three-year-old.  What did I do then, when he was three, and in the ensuing years, to ensure that he would never grow up to become a man with such a low threshold for the taking of human life, his own and his fellow human beings in foreign lands?
President Obama, as leader of the nation, and inheriting a morally corrupt military system that came into existence long before he assumed office, may not be able or willing to publicly call upon the American people to atone for the war crimes of our own time: above all, the crime of using money and instant social stature to entice financially and emotionally vulnerable young adults into fighting wars in the name of the entire nation, as the rest of us play golf and download our new apps.  But today,Friday, May 27, 2016, he has created the emotional space for all of us to put down the blinders of cheap and idolatrous nationalism, and to pray for the moral enlightenment necessary to end the sin of unjust war, of which a pay-incentivized soldiery is its most basic staple.
I will continue to take time out each Memorial Day to remember all of our fellow citizens, past generations and our own, who have died in the nation’s wars.  But 2016 is not 1945.  The U.S. military system that once toppled Nazi Germany is surely not the same U.S. military system that helped midwife ISIS into existence.  The American men of 1945 – those who saw the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific along with those who did not – are not the same post-Schwarzeneggar, post-Stallone, post-violence-glorifying video game men from this generation; men whose distorted, caricatured notions of masculinity have created the very seedbed for the pointless, immoral “you die, and we’ll clap” wars in the name of our country.  It makes zero sense to abide by that vast moral grey zone between 1945 and 2016: a grey zone gladly, earnestly foisted upon us by the military-industrial-congressional complex.
The reality is that life and the stain of human sin – so easily concealed in red, white and blue – are too complex to tolerate any grey or blurred lines between just wars, built on shared risk, and unjust wars that simply exploit the most financially and emotionally vulnerable among us, built and sustained as they are by the collective cowardice and silent acquiescence of the rest of us.
Though there is much to critique in President Obama’s presidency, he is, simply as a human being, an extraordinary man.  He is a space creator – an emotional space creator, that is.  And with his speech in Hiroshima today, he has arguably created the space to henceforth designate the Friday before every Memorial Day Monday as National Atonement Day.
We need it.  And for that alone, I thank him.
Timothy Villareal, a Miami-based writer, is a privately-vowed Christian monk. His website is