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Wednesday, 22 May 2024
easynomics
By Vivek Kaul

Charlie Munger, Salman Rushdie and the Second World War bombing of Nagasaki

How do I define history? It’s just one f*$@ing thing after another.
-- Alan Bennett, The History Boys, 2004.

Main hi main hoon main hoon, doosra koi nahi.
(I am the only one, the only one, and there is no one else.)
-- Amir Qazalbash, Ravindra Jain, Suresh Wadkar and Raj Kapoor, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, 1985.

On 30 October 1926, Henry Lewis Stimson and his wife Mabel arrived in Kyoto, Japan. Six days later they left the city having really enjoyed their stay, visiting its pristine gardens and its historical temples.

     

Cut to 10 May 1945, nearly 19 years later. The Nazis in Germany had surrendered and one part of the multiple wars that got termed as the Second World War had come to an end. But the war in the Pacific was still on. Japan hadn’t surrendered. In this scenario, a new weapon that could cause great destruction, which was simply referred to as the Gadget, was being seen as a potential saviour.

So a few American scientists and soldiers were meeting in the American state of New Mexico. A target committee was set up. The mandate of this committee was to figure out how to introduce this Gadget to the world at large. Or, in simple terms, they needed to choose which Japanese city to bomb in order to demonstrate the full potential of this new weapon.

The committee agreed that the first bomb should be dropped on Kyoto given that a good chunk of the Japanese war machinery was based out of the city. Besides, the city had been a former capital of Japan. Hiroshima, Yokohama and Kokura were the backup targets.

With this decided, all that was needed was the Gadget, or the atomic bomb, to be ready. A successful test was carried out on 16 July 1945 in New Mexico. A few weeks later, on 6 August 1945, a bomb codenamed Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, on 9 August, another bomb codenamed Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki.

Why was Kyoto spared? Brian Klass tells one of the great untold stories of the world in Fluke—Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters. It so turned out that in 1945, Henry Lewis Stimson—the man who had visited Kyoto with his wife in 1926 and had fallen in love with the city—happened to be America’s Secretary of War—and he didn’t want the city bombed. And that’s what he told the generals, who couldn’t figure out why Stimson was so adamant about protecting the city that was the nerve centre of Japan’s war machinery.

Stimson met the American President Harry Truman and convinced him not to bomb Kyoto.

And so the city wasn’t bombed, and Little Boy, the first atomic bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima instead. Of course, that leads us to the question: How did Nagasaki come into the picture?

Kyoto was out of the picture, and the first bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. The Fat Man, the second atomic bomb, was supposed to be dropped on Kokura. Nonetheless, as the B-29 bomber approached the city, it encountered a cloud cover, making it difficult to see the ground below. As Klaas writes: “The crew decided to attack a secondary target rather than risking a botched drop.” And that’s how the Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, even though the city had a cloud cover as the B-29 bomber approached the city. But the clouds parted, and the bomb was dropped.

 

It’s 1931. In Omaha, Nebraska, a girl and a boy, both aged seven, are playing on a swing set. A stray dog appears out of a sudden and bites the girl. She gets rabies and dies. The boy is left unscathed. The boy grows up to be Charlie Munger and lives up to nearly the age of 100.

 

It’s May 2017. By then, the writer Salman Rushdie has married and divorced four times. He hasn’t been seeing anyone for more than a year and a half. Rushdie is meeting writers Marlon James and Colum McCann for a drink and then thinking of going home. These writers convince him to go to a party happening in the same hotel where he is meeting them for a drink. With some persuasion Rushdie agrees.

At the party the first person he sees is the American poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths. As he recounts in Knife—Meditations After an Attempted Murder: “When I got up to the party the first person I saw was Eliza… We fell into an easy conversation that was just a little bit flirtatious.”

A little later in the party, Rushdie, believing that he was stepping through an open space, bangs hard into a glass door and falls on the floor, breaking his glasses. The broken glasses cut into the bridge of his nose and there is blood streaming down his face. As he writes: “Eliza ran to my side and began mopping the blood off my nose… I got to my feet with a little help, and, feeling shaken, said that I thought I’d better get myself a taxi and go home. Eliza came down the elevator with me. There was a taxi. I got in. And then Eliza got in as well.” In 2021, Rushdie got married for the fifth time. To Eliza.

 

What do these stories tell us? Luck or fluke, or how things happen one after another, plays a very important role in where and how individuals, societies and countries end up. Or as Rushdie puts it in much more poetic terms: “On such coin-toss moments a life can turn. Chances determines our fates at least as profoundly as choice, or those nonexistent notions karma, qismat, “destiny”.”

Dear reader, if you are the kind who is looking for something slight less philosophical, here is what Klaas has to say about the bombing of Nagasaki: “More peculiar still, that mass death can only be explained through the combination of a near-infinite array of arbitrary factors that had to connect together in just the right way to lead to the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the rise of Emperor Hirohito, Einstein being born rather than somebody else, uranium being forged by geological forces millions of years earlier, countless soldiers on foreign battlefields, brilliant scientists… on and on, until finally the devastation hinged on one pivotal vacation and one pivotal cloud.”

Or if you are the investing kind who likes to quote Munger and his investing partner Warren Buffett for everything and anything, here is what Munger had to say to Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal about the dog biting the girl and not him: “That damn dog wasn’t 3 inches from me… All my life I’ve wondered: Why did it bite her instead of me? It was sheer luck that I lived and she died.”

 

Luck, randomness, fluke, or the way things happens one after another, play a very important role in where individuals end up in their lives, and the direction in which the society at large moves. Nonetheless, as Klaas puts it: “When we try to explain the world—to explain who we are, how we got here, and why the world works the way it does—we ignore the flukes. The squished bugs, the missed buses, all of it we dismiss as meaningless.” We suffer from the delusion of individualism.

The use of “I’ is particularly high among individuals who are disproportionately successful in life, and, if not that, at least among those who try to project that image (no, no, I don’t mean tech bros here). This includes everyone from political leaders to corporate bosses to social media influencers to career coaching centre gurus to writers of very successful self-help books. It’s also something that the society expects from them.

People are looking for clear, concise, confident and linear explanations of success. And given that luck or randomness or flukes or being at the right place at the right time, cannot be a detailed part of such explanations, because they don’t fit into the entire narrative of I did this and I did that—the message that sells is that I am the controller of the path that I take in my life.

One impact of this can be clearly seen among those who are privileged. In many cases they are the last ones who are able to see the privilege they have, and appreciate it. A good example of this in very general terms—and I am going to get a lot flack for saying this—is how, many rich people who now live in gated communities tend to think that the poor are poor because they don’t put in an adequate amount of hard work that the rich had done in order to become rich. To be specific here, many of those who have benefitted from the ovarian lottery rarely tend to appreciate it. Of course, in many cases this stems from the fact that that’s how they have been brought up by their parents.

In fact, this delusion of individualism explains the search of voters in many countries across the world for strongman leaders who can set the system right, helping them live happily ever after. Political leaders understand this and try and project this image.

The trouble is that setting any system right is about getting into the messy details and sorting it one step at a time, something that strongman leaders, who are busy projecting their strongman image, through media management and publishing reels and posts on the social media, neither have the time nor the inclination for. Nonetheless, such messaging is popular “because most of us view our lives through an individualist prism”.

In the end, it is worth remembering something that Munger said: “The records of people and companies that are outliers are always a mix of a reasonable amount of intelligence, hard work and a lot of luck.” Of course, this sounds nowhere as sexy as ‘I did this’ or ‘I guarantee this’, something that we see in communication all around us.

Ultimately, whether it’s a strongman politician promising guarantees or influencers selling simplistic solutions to complex problems in life or coaching gurus sharing their mantras of success without taking the survivorship bias into account—and irrespective of whether we get it or not—the joke is on us.

     

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Written by Vivek Kaul. Edited by James Mathew. Produced by Nirmalya Dutta. Send in your feedback to newsletters@livemint.com.

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