Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Seventieth Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima

I was four years old in 1945 when the United States of America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even at that age I was aware that something out of the ordinary had happened, but my questions to my mother were brushed aside (my father was in Burma, in charge of the convoys traveling over the Burma Road).

There were ways around my mother’s reticence about the war. When she wasn’t looking, I went into the study and saw the photographs in Life magazine. The pictures of the emaciated scraps of human beings, the piles of corpses and the gas ovens of the concentration camps horrified me beyond words. My childhood ended on that day. But I learned nothing more about Hiroshima. When the first pictures appeared, I simply couldn't take on board what had happened. The invention of the nuclear bomb was touted as a major success for America; to me it was the stuff of which nightmares are made.

A year later, John Hersey published his report about the bombing, called simply Hiroshima. It was only a year or so after that, at the age of six or seven, that I picked it up off my father’s bookshelf and read.

To read this book while still haunted by the photos of the concentration camps marked me forever. The veils of childhood were ripped away. There was no place to run, and no place to hide. My sheltered existence was a sham. In the face of such evil, my own unhappiness in a family where I was a misfit receded into insignificance.

When I grew older, another layer of horror was added as I began to understand the cynicism that surround the entire Manhattan Project, the cynicism that pervaded Washington, D.C. where we were then living. That the first nuclear test was called ‘Trinity’ was only slightly less obscene than the fact that Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima on the Feast of the Transfiguration, and Fat Man on Nagasaki during the Octave.

I find myself wondering if we shouldn’t have a penitential day in the national calendar, ‘The Remembrance of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’

Whether or not the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to shorten the ending of the war or not is a debate that will never be resolved. But the USA bears the moral opprobrium of being the only country that has ever used nuclear devices in anger, and for opening the door to annihilation of life on the planet as we know it. Some day the sun will become a gas giant and devour the earth; we are in grave danger of anticipating that event by several billion years with our artificial suns.

There are now seven nations that have nuclear weapons. The world is as bloody, violent, and amoral now as at any time during the Second World War. What would happen, say, if the so-called Islamic State, which has vowed to obliterate the entire cultural heritage of Iraq, got hold of nuclear weapons? If you wept on seeing the destruction of the millennia-old winged guardians of Babylon by jihadists, then you have a glimmer, perhaps, of the unimaginable destruction we try to ignore.

John Hersey’s book was reissued today by Penguin for only £1.99. Buy it. Read it. Read it not once but once a month, even once a week. Read it in church. Read it in book clubs. As hearts in South Africa were changed one by one to abolish apartheid, so hearts must be changed one by one to rid ourselves of the scourge of nuclear weapons before we blow ourselves and everything we love to radioactive dust.

‘Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return’ takes on a whole new meaning in the blinding flash of nuclear fusion. Will it be the dust from which creation arises, or the dust by which we immolate the last vestige of creation?


Anonymous Matthew said...

Thanks for that Maggie. Thanks also for the book recommendation.

8:53 pm, August 06, 2015  
Anonymous BR said...

Thank you for this, Maggie.

I also recommend Nobel-winner Kenzaburo Oe's book of essays & reportage from 20 years after the attacks, "Hiroshima Notes," both for the depth of his reporting and his moral conviction.

I recall living in Japan about ten years ago, when I visited Hiroshima and the peace park. To my American eyes the dioramas we saw on entering, of mannequins with melting skin, were almost kitsch. But the artifacts of the victims, melted bottles and burnt clothes, so many of them there for us to touch and feel, render the unthinkable in the hand. There too one can see a pile of hair, one of Yoshio Hamada's black fingernails, and a block of stone into which the silhouette of a human being has been blasted, a material ghost.

Nagasaki, too, has long been the home of Japanese Christianity. It's never surprised me we bombed it.


3:24 am, August 09, 2015  

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