Two ways of looking at the world

The perspectives of two elderly men crossed my desk recently. Both are men of the World War II era.

One I learned of only after his death. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was among the few who survived both atomic bombings of Japan. On a business trip in Hiroshima the day the historic bomb was dropped on that city, he was temporarily blinded and burned. Days later, recovering in his home city of Nagasaki, he had a second encounter with nuclear weapons.

He died recently at 93, a remarkably advanced year for someone afflicted by lifelong ill health from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A survivor in the truest sense, only later in life did Yamaguchi take upon himself the mission of speaking out against nuclear weapons, visiting the United Nations in 2006.

Last fall, he wrote to Barack Obama: "I was so moved by your speech in Prague. I devote the rest of my life to insisting that our world should abandon nuclear arms." During his final weeks, he met with "Avatar" director James Cameron, said to be researching a film on nuclear war.

The same day Yamaguchi's death made the news, a letter reached me from a man with the wobbly penmanship of someone who has also endured much in his 85 years.

He is a former soldier, the victor of the same war that left Yamaguchi's hometown a ruin. Both were ordinary men caught up in world events they had no control over. They lived continents apart, had careers, raised families, but ultimately drew conclusions equally distant.

My Connecticut letter writer is just as certain the world is doomed as Yamaguchi was sure it could be redeemed from the threat of nuclear annihilation.

My senior pen pal, a widower, believes that Iran is fast developing nuclear weapons, and that its first nuclear strike will be against Israel. The second target will be New York, the third Washington. We'll all be nuked.

He sarcastically predicts that Barack Obama will be on the phone trying to appease Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the strikes occur.

A lifelong Democrat, he was incensed by Obama bowing to Japanese royalty.

"I put four years in the Army and my wife three years as a WAC, and when he did that in Japan, that was an insult to all of us who served in the Pacific," he wrote.

Some would dismiss my correspondent, but I don't. Deference to elders was ingrained in me as kid, and so I value what he has to say. He fought in a war. I never have.

Reports are that Iran's Holocaust-denying president is overseeing tunneling into mountains, presumably to hide its nuclear efforts. I share my letter writer's anxiety over the intentions of the Iranian regime. But I'm a bit troubled by his sense of hopelessness.

I can't help but think of the surprising difference of perspective between my correspondent and the deceased Yamaguchi. Both suffered through war and strife; one tasted victory, the other defeat. One found a reason to hope — and therefore to act, trying to use his experiences to turn hearts and minds to the better. The other feels that all he fought to defend is on the verge of being lost.

Being a child of parents who lived through the Depression, I grew up hearing many a tale of how hard times can strengthen people, and also break them. Poverty, a family calamity and the war nearly always played a role in my parents' stories. Suffice it to say, not everyone in these stories came away emboldened by greatness. Some gained purpose and strength from their plight. But others had their spirits weakened.

I will not compare our times to theirs. But the world remains a dangerous place. And our nation remains vulnerable to serious economic setbacks. And what worries me is how we will respond to the challenges ahead: with fear and hopelessness, or with the somber recognition that there is hard work to be done — and the determination to do it.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413 or

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