Seventy years after the city of Hiroshima was destroyed by one atomic bomb what puzzles me is this: where has the fear gone?
Like most of my generation, growing up in the fifties and sixties my thoughts and night-time dreams were haunted by the bomb. During the Cold War years, as the nuclear stockpile grew ever larger and the bombs more powerful, it often seemed we were only a human miscalculation or technical error away from annihilation. A hard rain was gonna fall, for sure.
The trauma of the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the memory when, in 1965, in a cinema in Stockport I saw the film the BBC had banned: The War Game, directed by Peter Watkins. The stark realism of the film’s portrayal of a Soviet nuclear attack on Britain, sparked by a crisis over the recently-divided city of Berlin, shocked me to the core. Scenes were burned indelibly into my memory: the father running across a sunlit field in Kent to scoop up his child as the bomb explodes, and the final moments in which a horribly burned woman holds her head and stares at the camera accusingly.
The film featured haunting lines from ‘Song for Three Soldiers’, a poem by Stephen Vincent Benét that echoed the rhythms of Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’, and yet had been written – prophetically it seemed – in 1940:
Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?
Some years before seeing The War Game, another haunting had come when I read Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach in which a group of Australians await the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them from nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. On the title page, beneath the author’s name, were lines from ‘The Hollow Men’ by T S Eliot:
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river. …
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
But, more than anything else, it was Hiroshima, the American journalist John Hersey’s intense account of the experiences of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, that haunted my imagination. In restrained, unsentimental prose Hersey meticulously unfolds the survivors’ stories from the morning that the bomb fell until a year later. The book begins with the immediacy of a film, cutting rapidly between the six whose experiences he will trace through the terrible events that follow:
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbour tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defence fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer.
Hersey began working on Hiroshima after going to Japan, interviewing survivors, and deciding to show the bombing through six pairs of eyes. Extraordinarily, his lengthy account was published in a single issue of The New Yorker magazine, comprising the entire content in August 1946. To mark the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the magazine has made all of Hiroshima available online.
In a minute-by-minute account, Heresy describes the ordeals the six survivors undergo and the horrific scenes they witness:
Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky. Mr. Tanimoto has a distinct recollection that it travelled from east to west, from the city toward the hills. It seemed a sheet of sun. Both he and Mr. Matsuo reacted in terror – and both had time to react (for they were 3,500 yards, or two miles, from the centre of the explosion). Mr. Matsuo dashed up the front steps into the house and dived among the bedrolls and buried himself there.
As Mrs. Nakamura stood watching her neighbour, everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She did not notice what happened to the man next door; the reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, from the centre of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house.
From the mound, Mr. Tanimoto saw an astonishing panorama. Not just a patch of Koi, as he had expected, but as much of Hiroshima as he could see through the clouded air was giving off a thick, dreadful miasma. Clumps of smoke, near and far, had begun to push up through the general dust. He wondered how such extensive damage could have been dealt out of a silent sky; even a few planes, far up, would have been audible. Houses nearby were burning, and when huge drops of water the size of marbles began to fall, he half thought that they must be coming from the hoses of firemen fighting the blazes. (They were actually drops of condensed moisture falling from the turbulent tower of dust, heat, and fission fragments that had already risen miles into the sky above Hiroshima.)
At first, Dr. Fujii could see only two fires, one across the river from his hospital site and one quite far to the south. But at the same time, he and his friend observed something that puzzled them, and which, as doctors, they discussed: although there were as yet very few fires, wounded people were hurrying across the bridge in an endless parade of misery, and many of them exhibited terrible burns on their faces and arms. “Why do you suppose it is?” Dr. Fujii asked.
When Mr. Tanimoto, with his basin still in his hand, reached the park, it was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open. To Father Kleinsorge, an Occidental, the silence in the grove by the river, where hundreds of gruesomely wounded suffered together, was one of the most dreadful and awesome phenomena of his whole experience. The hurt ones were quiet; no one wept, much less screamed in pain; no one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily; not even the children cried; very few people even spoke. And when Father Kleinsorge gave water to some whose faces had been almost blotted out by flash burns, they took their share and then raised themselves a little and bowed to him, in thanks.
Late in the afternoon, when he went ashore for a while, Mr. Tanimoto, upon whose energy and initiative many had come to depend, heard people begging for food. He … decided to go back into town. […] In a garden … he noticed a pumpkin roasted on the vine. He and Father Cieslik tasted it and it was good. They … gathered up several other cooked pumpkins and dug up some potatoes that were nicely baked under the ground, and started back.
Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. Then he got out into the water and, though a small man, lifted several of the men and women, who were naked, into his boat.
On his way back with the water, [Father Kleinsorge] got lost on a detour around a fallen tree, and as he looked for his way through the woods, he heard a voice ask from the underbrush, “Have you anything to drink?” He saw a uniform. Thinking there was just one soldier, he approached with the water. When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eye sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. (They must have had their faces upturned when the bomb went off; perhaps they were anti-aircraft personnel. ) Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot. So Father Kleinsorge got a large piece of grass and drew out the stem so as to make a straw, and gave them all water to drink that way. One of them said, “I can’t see anything.” Father Kleinsorge answered, as cheerfully as he could, “There’s a doctor at the entrance to the park. He’s busy now, but he’ll come soon and fix your eyes, I hope.”
Through the years of the Cold War images like these flickered at the edges of our consciousness – from the CND marches of the fifties and sixties to the resistance shown by the women of the Greenham Common Peace Camp in the 1980s. There were warnings from poets, philosophers, and troubadours and moments of brilliant satire, such as in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘dark comedy of errors‘ unleashed in 1964 – Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. And – in the year our daughter was born – Threads, the docudrama written by Barry Hines that updated Peter Watkins’ War Game, visualising the destruction of Sheffield in a nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union arising from tensions over Iran.
Shortly before our daughter was born we received our copy of Protect and Survive, a pamphlet issued by the government that offered guidance on how to protect ourselves in the event of a nuclear attack. Among the reactions to its ludicrous drivel were E P Thompson’s counter-pamphlet, Protest and Survive (or ‘Civil Defence, Whose Defence?), Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows, and a poem by Peter Porter, ‘Your Attention Please’:
The Polar DEW has just warned that
A nuclear rocket strike of
At least one thousand megatons
Has been launched by the enemy
Directly at our major cities.
This announcement will take
Two and a quarter minutes to make,
You therefore have a further
Eight and a quarter minutes
To comply with the shelter
Requirements published in the Civil
Defence Code – section Atomic Attack.
A specially shortened Mass
Will be broadcast at the end
Of this announcement-
Protestant and Jewish services
Will begin simultaneously-
Select your wavelength immediately
According to instructions
In the Defence Code. Do not
Take well-loved pets (including birds)
Into your shelter – they will consume
Fresh air. Leave the old and bed-
ridden, you can do nothing for them.
Remember to press the sealing
Switch when everyone is in
The shelter. Set the radiation
Aerial, turn on the geiger barometer.
Turn off your television now.
Turn off your radio immediately
The Services end. At the same time
Secure explosion plugs in the ears
Of each member of your family. Take
Down your plasma flasks. Give your children
The pills marked one and two
In the C.D. green container, then put
Them to bed. Do not break
The inside airlock seals until
The radiation All Clear shows
(Watch for the cuckoo in your
perspex panel), or your District
Touring Doctor rings your bell.
If before this, your air becomes
Exhausted or if any of your family
Is critically injured, administer
The capsules marked ‘Valley Forge’
(Red pocket in No. 1 Survival Kit)
For painless death. (Catholics
Will have been instructed by their priests
What to do in this eventuality.)
This announcement is ending. Our President
Has already given orders for
Massive retaliation – it will be
Decisive. Some of us may die.
It is not likely to be you.
All flags are flying fully dressed
On Government buildings – the sun is shining.
Death is the least we have to fear.
We are all in the hands of God,
Whatever happens happens by His Will.
Now go quickly to your shelters.
(DEW: Distant Early Warning)
And then – in the blink of an eye, it seemed – we forgot The Bomb, and the fear went away. The reason, of course, was the end of the Cold War that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990: we no longer have an existential fear that we will destroy ourselves in the Mutually Assured Destruction of a nuclear war.
Yet, although the huge nuclear arsenals of the Cold War have shrunk (from around 70,000 warheads) there remain nine nuclear-armed nations, collectively toting some 16,000 warheads (United States, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – a roll-call that does not inspire confidence in a future free of mishap, misstep or blind hate).
In an excellent essay in the Observer, ‘Hiroshima’s fate, 70 years ago this week, must not be forgotten‘ Andrew Anthony reviewed the impact of John Hersey’s of 1946 report, before going on to criticise our current complacency. In a wide-ranging piece, Anthony considers the question of the morality of nuclear weapons, noting that the numbers who died during and in the decades after the Hiroshima bombing were less than the 100,000 civilians were killed in the massive fire storms that raged across Tokyo following conventional bombing raids by the Americans in March 1945, and asking: were their deaths more acceptable, less abominable?
He also considers the utility argument: that the horror inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a necessary means to end the war with as few casualties – particularly those of American soldiers – as possible. It’s an argument that – in my view – simply justifies 2oth century ‘total war’: pursuing the ends of war by inflicting terror and mass casualties on civilians. The wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages is a war crime.
Anthony discusses these questions with Eric Schlosser, whose recently-published Penguin Special, Gods of Metal is a reissue of another New Yorker article – this time about major security breaches at American nuclear istallations, most notably at the Y-2 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 2012, when three religiously motivated trespassers broke into the site and painted slogans on a weapons-grade uranium storage building.
Fortunately they were Catholic pacifists (one of them a nun), making a peaceful protest against nuclear weapons. But what if the intruders’ motives had been different – that they were intending terrorists – and they had gained access to the large quantities of uranium-235, the fissile material needed to make a nuclear weapon? In an interview for GQ magazine, Eric Schlosser said:
This nun and her two friends did us an extraordinary service. I learned about the incident while in Vienna in a meeting with international officials whose specialty is nuclear weapons and security. One of them came over and told me the story and said, “this woman [Megan Rice] deserves a medal and instead we’ve put her in prison.” This person sketched out for me how serious the security breach really was, and that’s when I became fascinated with the story.
In his GQ interview, Schlosser is asked, ‘Do you think nuclear weapons are morally indefensible?’ He answers:
I think that nuclear weapons need to be abolished and that they have no military utility whatsoever. I do think that nuclear deterrence has prevented war, and I think that western Europe would have probably come under Soviet control in the absence of nuclear weapons, yet that deterrence comes at a very high risk. The risk is the death of tens of millions of people for the destruction of life on this Earth – so that’s why I support the abolition of nuclear weapons.
In another recent publication, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, Susan Southard investigates the experience of nuclear war through the eyes of five survivors of the Nagasaki bomb, all teenagers, up to the present day. On TomDispatch, his ‘regular antidote to the mainstream media’, Tom Engelhardt, introducing extracts from Susan Southard’s book, writes:
The nuclear age. Doesn’t that phrase seem like ancient history? […] Just a year younger than me, it was my age-mate, my companion all those years I was growing up. Those unshakeable fears, the “unthinkable,” turned out to be eminently translatable into the world of dreams. I still vividly recall my own world-ending nightmares from my teen years and I know I’m not alone. Thoughts of nuclear destruction were then part and parcel of our lives. Once, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it felt as if we might not even make it out of this lifetime.
The importance of Southard’s book, Engelhardt argues, is to alert us to the continuing danger presented by nuclear weapons:
Most unnerving of all, the planners in those countries simply refuse to acknowledge the most basic nuclear facts – or at least they are utterly unmoved by them and by the thought of the eradication of humanity. It evidently matters little that if those ‘modest’ nuclear powers, India (a mere 110 nuclear weapons) and Pakistan (a mere 120 of them), were to release just part of their arsenals in a South Asian nuclear exchange, the planet would enter “nuclear winter” and humanity would be decimated.
Engelhardt concludes that Southard’s book is a reminder that:
Unbelievably enough, humanity’s nuclear fate was never just prospective, never just a matter of thoughts, or plans, or dreams, or fantasies. Nuclear destruction of an almost unimaginable sort was the initial reality of the atomic age, with such weaponry actually used on two utterly defenceless cities.