Today is August 6, 73 years after the first use of a nuclear explosion in a war in human history.  A single bomb, with its own name, Little Boy, was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima: Monday morning, 8:15, one hour after an air-raid warning had signaled “All Clear.”  One bomb, 13 kilotons of energy,  one B-29, two minutes over target.  Within minutes tens of thousands had died [including 12 American POWs.]  Within four months between 90,000 and 166,000, out of a population of 330,000, had died. Nor was it the last.  Three days later, August 9, a second bomb, Fat Man, even bigger, 21 kilotons, was dropped on Nagasaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. Some 70,000 are thought to have died.

(The firebombing of Tokyo on the 9th and 10th of March, by contrast, killed more — an estimated 100,000 with a million made homeless.  That took some 279 B-29 bombers, dropping 1, 655 tons of bombs over the course of many hours.)

The city of Nagasaki, after the atomic bomb.

I find it useful every once in a while, and often on this date,  to meditate not upon nothingness but the somethingness of the enormous human capacity for cruelty and destruction.

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Dan Ellsberg’s latest book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, must be read by any who have lived in the nuclear era.  Those who have some notion not only of what the bomb meant to those caught in its explosion, fires and radiation, but for the world itself, will find much that is new, and will not soon be forgotten.  For those who seldom think of today’s nuclear dangers, or dismiss warnings as so much hyperbole, this book will change your mind.

One of the surprisingly obvious points Ellsberg makes, though invisible to most, is that nuclear weapons have been used much more than the two times commonly referred to; used in the same way that a loaded gun is used to force compliance.  More than a dozen times every president up to the present one, has used the threat of nuclear weapons to force compliance to U.S. goals by those reluctant to do so.  Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened the Chinese with nuclear weapons to end the Korean war, for starters.

[My review is here.]

If The Doomsday Machine seems too much to begin with, there is still no better introduction than that which set young Dan Ellsberg on the path he was later to follow — John Hersey’s Hiroshima.  Reading it so horrified Dan at age 16, he took it to his father, a structural engineer for large engineering firms.  Many years later Ellsberg  discovered that his father had later quit one of the best paying jobs he had ever had “Because they wanted me to help build the H-bomb.” Reading Hersey’s book, at his son’s insistence,  had had a profound effect on him as well.

Writing for the New Yorker as a war correspondent during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, Hersey was reporting from the Pacific Theater by 1944.  In the Spring of 1946, commissioned by New Yorker editor, William Shawn, he went to Hiroshima and immediately began to interview survivors.  He had to hand-carry them to New York, as censorship of mail going out of occupied Japan was in force. Intended to be printed in four issues of the magazine, once Shawn read it, it was decided to devote a single entire issue to the story; no cartoons.  The August 31st, 1945 issue date came with this announcement:

“TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.”

The New Yorker edition sold out within hours; a book edition was published before the end of the year. Book of the Month Club included it as a free book to their subscribers.  After opposition by Occupation Forces, a translation was published in Japan in 1949; it has never been out of print.

Hersey selected six survivors of the many he had interviewed, to report, at times minute to minute, an account of their experiences.   Unsparing in it’s detail he writes in a flat, non literary way, deliberately chosen he said later, so that style would not get in the way of the telling: let the facts speak for themselves –as these:

“Mr Tanimoto reached down [from a boat] and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge glove-like pieces…”
“The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. … Some were vomiting as they walked. ….  On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns –of  undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin,) the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.”

In the edition now available a fifth chapter was added to the original four.  Initially published in the New Yorker, as well, on July 15, 1985,  it is called “The Aftermath” and follows the original six through the 1980s, as well as adds stories about “The Hiroshima Maidens” brought to the U.S. for extensive plastic surgery.

No one over the age of fifteen should not have read this book.

The complete version is on-line at the New Yorker.

For more on the publishing of the Hersey article see here.

 

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The Japanese themselves have, in later years, not only built peace memorials and bomb-destruction displays in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but have produced films, both documentary and dramatic.

MIYAJI Tomiko Black rain started falling. Some drank water from a puddle. Others opened their mouths wide to catch the raindrops. Year of Birth: 1911 \ Age at time of blast: 34 \ Age when image created: 64 From: “Children of the Atomic Bomb”

Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain, 1988, is a very effective dramatization of a novel of the same name by Ibusi Masuji.  Available on YouTube, here, (Japanese with English sub-titles) it opens with scenes of destruction and rescue but then follows a young woman, as emblematic of many, who were thought to be unfit for marriage, not because of external deformities but because of the fear that, due to radiation, they would give birth to monsters; an aftereffect of nuclear weapons that those who suffered “mere” explosion, fire and napalm did not have to confront. [My review here.]

A much earlier film, Children of Hiroshima (Gembaku no ko,) in 1953 by Kaneto Shindo, also tells a story, this of a return to Hiroshima by a young woman five years after the bomb, finding an old friend, now blinded and unable to work.  Nobuko Otowa is a quiet, sweet “Virgil” taking us on a trip around her old neighborhood. She visits an orphanage and listens children read stories of what they remember.  A teacher friend, made sterile by the radiation is about to adopt a child whose parents cannot support it. Sweet flashbacks of children she once taught contribute to the wistful, slow telling of the story.  Although too sentimental for the Teachers’ Union which produced it (they had another done the following year, more directly political — Hiroshima, 1953, Sekigaw Hideo) it is well within common movie standards and worth American’s watching.  Available on YouTube (Japanese and English sub-titles)

White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is documentary rather than a narrative drama.  Created by Japanese-American Stephen Okazaki, in 2007 for HBO, it includes archival footage and photos as well as interviews with fourteen Japanese survivors and four American personnel who took part in the bombings.  It is available on YouTube movies for a small price.  [And my review here.]

Perhaps the best known film with such a name and theme, and one of the first to be commercially distributed, is not Japanese at all but French, by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras.
Although Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) begins with recollections and images of the bombing, it’s focus is a love affair coming to an end using the innovative (and often puzzling) cuts and jumps representing the jumps and elisions of memory  he was to develop fully in Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Although a major film of the post-war, it is not strictly a film “about” the bombing, concentrated as it is on only two, for whom it was background, disturbing and affecting to be sure, but not as for those caught in the damage radius.

The United States Air Force also compiled documentary footage for this “proud” training (?) account of the Effect Of Atomic Bomb On Hiroshima & Nagasaki, 09/21/1945-10/1945

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I am working on a more complete and annotated list of readings and films about war, of which those about the atomic bombs and those most affected will lead.

For an extensive list of films about nuclear issues, this Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

For heavier material, books not to be taken in in under two hours, Wikipedia also as a list of Books about Nuclear Issues (not yet including Ellsberg’s )

GoodReads also has a reader-sourced list of books on atomic war