An apology fatally devalued by the passage of 65 years

Robert Fisk reports on the day America and Britain united with Japan to remember victims of the world’s first atomic bomb

At last we’ve apologised for Hiroshima – well, sort of. We’ve recognised the suffering our atom bombs caused –well, kind of. President Obama was showing off his anti-nuclear credentials in the killing grounds of Hiroshima, but this was not to be confused with saying sorry.

The presence of John Roos, the US ambassador to Japan, and the British deputy ambassador, David Fitton, at the site of the world's first atomic bombing was an odd appearance.

We are looking at the survivors' ceremony and recognising their suffering – how very Blairite of us – and even the British embassy's words were of Blairite insincerity. "This is the right move at the right time," it said. But the right 'move' for what? After all, we are really not apologising for the 220,000 dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hell, didn't we win the Second World War?

What it really comes down to is this. If you apologise for slaughtering civilians – or, at the minimum, causing their deaths – you have to do it quickly and for humanitarian reasons. Wait too long and do it for political reasons, and it will lose its effect. Germany was quick to start admitting responsibility for the Jewish Holocaust and now calls itself Israel's best friend in Europe. Turkey has never apologised for committing the Armenian Holocaust in 1915. But if it ever does, will anyone except the Armenians care?

On the surface, it's all very simple. Most of us seem to believe the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime. I certainly do. The Japanese were already talking of surrender. That Caesar of British historians, AJP Taylor, quoted a senior US official. "The bomb simply had to be used – so much money had been expended on it. Had it failed, how would we have explained the huge expenditure? Think of the public outcry there would have been ... The relief to everyone concerned when the bomb was finished and dropped was enormous."

Taking his cue from the idea that Hiroshima and Nagasaki spared the Allies a bloody invasion of mainland Japan – a thesis which now appears to be completely untrue – Lord Louis Mountbatten remarked that "if the bomb kills Japanese and saves casualties on our side I am naturally not going to favour the killing of our people unnecessarily ... I am responsible for trying to kill as many Japanese as I can. War is crazy ... But it would be even more crazy if we were to have more casualties on our side to save the Japanese."

This, of course, carefully avoids the fact that Japanese soldiers – brutal and sadistic though they were – were largely murdering soldiers, while Mountbatten's men were slaughtering mostly Japanese civilians. And when will the Japanese apologise for Pearl Harbour?

Much more seriously – since most of the victims were civilians and it was a war crime of almost Holocaust-scale magnitude, so terrible that even a latter-day historian of the bloodbath committed suicide – why hasn't Japan apologised for the murder and rape of perhaps a million Chinese in the attack on Nanking, then the capital of nationalist China, before "our" Second World War broke out? Why should "we" apologise before the Japs do?

When I visited the Japanese war criminals' Shinto shrine in Tokyo – the darker the crimes of those honoured, I noticed, the fewer were captions to their portraits provided in English – there was even a restored steam locomotive in the shrine, the engine that hauled the first train along the Burma railway. It was carrying the ashes of Japanese soldiers who had died in battle. But building that railway line was Royal Marine Jim Feather. He had been rescued from HMS Repulse when it was sunk by Japanese aircraft in December 1941 but was subsequently taken prisoner when Singapore fell. Mistreated and sick, he was forced to work on the railway. He was six feet tall but in his last days his mates could lift him on their shoulders like a child, like a feather I suppose. He died sometime in 1942. Jim was the son of my Dad's sister Freda. So don't the Fisk family deserve an apology, too?

But what good would it do? Tony Blair could, in 1997, "recognise" the suffering of the Irish famine victims, he could say that the British Government did not look after their "own" Irish citizens. No apologies, mind you. Even though the famine had taken place almost 150 years earlier. Then the Brits waited almost 30 years to say sorry for the massacre by British paratroopers of 14 Irishmen on Bloody Sunday. Had they told the truth at the time – that they were shooting innocent civilians – Northern Ireland's civil war would have been far less bloody and men and women and children would be alive today who are, in fact, long dead. But no, we had to lie at the time and thus we helped the IRA's "recruiting sergeant".

But then there's the other argument about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our Axis enemies had bombed Pearl Harbour and Coventry and Belgrade and killed the Jews of Europe and murdered our POWs in Asia and – this is a bit of a hypocritical one – if the Germans and the Japanese had the atom bomb, would they have hesitated to use it on "us"? Besides, didn't we kill more Germans in Cologne by fire-bombing than in Hiroshima by nuclear bombing? Do we have to apologise for Cologne, too? And the RAF's mass carnage in Hamburg? And Dresden? Well, we did sort of apologise for the fire-bombing of the medieval city in February 1945 – the new cross on top of the restored cathedral was actually made by the son of one of the Lancaster pilots who bombed Dresden – but so long after the event that thousands of modern-day neo-Nazis were gathering at the mass graves to prove that the RAF were the war criminals.

Even now, we have no intention of apologising to the Iraqis for our illegal 2003 invasion. Ed Miliband announced only a few days ago in typical anthropological claptrap that it was "time to move on"; and we shall not mention Blair's arrogant performance in front of the Chilcot inquiry.

Yet it's intriguing to go back to what people said about Hiroshima at the time. Today, we might share these words. "This outrage against humanity ... is not war, not even murder. It is pure nihilism." And we might be appalled by a newspaper that found it possible to legitimise the use of the atom bomb because it was impossible to judge the morality of the bombing by the size of the bomb that was used. So for the paper, the slaughter was "entirely legitimate". But the first quotation comes from the venomous Imperial Japanese radio station in occupied Singapore. The second comes from a 1945 edition of what was then called the Manchester Guardian. And we might do well to note how the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West reacted to Hiroshima. Her husband, Harold Nicolson, wrote in his diary that "Vita is thrilled by the atomic bomb. She thinks ... that it means a whole new era."

Well, yes, I suppose it did. But ever since the American journalist John Hersey revealed the terrible suffering of the people of Hiroshima – unlike Wikileaks, he didn't suck the stuff out of computers, he set off there, on his own, to find out the truth – the name of the city has become a symbol of the guilt of humanity. And rightly so.

But it raises another question. When do our war "crimes" have an expiry date. Blair gave his half-hearted apology to the Irish a century and a half after the Brits exported Ireland's food instead of using it to save Irish men and women who were found dead in ditches after trying to eat stinging nettles. The Americans and the Australians have said sorry to their native peoples. But what about Cromwell and Drogheda? Or the Thirty Years' War, or the Hundred Years' War? Or the sack of Rome – a Goth war crime (poor Mrs Merkel)? – or the Roman destruction of Carthage? Or the death of Jesus – I guess Rome's imperial history means Berlusconi has to apologise, though an awful lot of Catholics have spent centuries living in their anti-semitic world by blaming the Jews. Poor Benjamin Netanyahu!

All in all, then, the apology business is a pretty sticky wicket. And yesterday's theatre was played to boost the image of an increasingly self-regarding president, not out of any real concern for suffering – by which I mean physical pain – or humanitarian sorrow. A step in the right direction, you may say. Sure. But if you want to to believe in it, alas, it all came far too late.

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