Seventy years on from Hiroshima devastation

The devastated city of Hiroshima.  Around 140,000 people, or more than half of Hiroshima's population at the time, died in the first atomic bombing. Picture: Getty

The devastated city of Hiroshima. Around 140,000 people, or more than half of Hiroshima's population at the time, died in the first atomic bombing. Picture: Getty

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SEVENTY years after the first attack with a nuclear weapon, we still struggle to agree upon, or even comprehend, what happened at Hiroshima, writes Hannah McGill

THE long-sought deal finalised last month with Iran over its nuclear capability falls just ahead of a date that merits the attention of all concerned: the 70th anniversary, on 6 August, of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the Allies.

Children are still wearing masks by 1948 to protect themselves from radiation. Picture: Getty

Children are still wearing masks by 1948 to protect themselves from radiation. Picture: Getty

On 9 August, a second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. Nazi Germany had surrendered to the Allies on 8 May, but the Pacific War continued, with Japan having refused to make an unconditional surrender. A land invasion of Japan was planned, but following the recent successful testing of an American atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, another option existed – one that was significantly less costly to the Allies than a land war, but that promised to have a more devastating physical and psychological effect on Japan.

Hiroshima was selected as a target because it was a major industrial centre and the site of military headquarters and weapons stockpiles. “Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic,” wrote President Harry S Truman in his diary, “we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]… The target will be a purely military one.” Nagasaki was selected for similar reasons. Needless to say, however, nuclear bombs – even ones with cute anthropomorphic nicknames like Little Boy and Fat Man – have a way of not distinguishing between military and non-military flesh.

Casualty figures, like most other aspects of the bombings, remain a matter of debate; but over the two cities, between 129,000 and 246,000 people were killed, and many of them were civilians. Though warning leaflets had been dropped advising Japanese civilians of previous bombing raids, no warning was given that an atomic bomb was to be deployed.

This anniversary will be exploited by both activists for disarmament and believers in the necessity of a nuclear deterrent. To the former, the carnage caused by the Hiroshima bomb and its follow-up provide the only argument required against anyone having a nuclear capability at all. To the latter, the maintenance of some sort of peace requires the existence of a truly terrifying deterrent – only the nuclear capacity of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China prevents wayward nations from invading those countries at will. (Those are the nuclear-capable Nato signatories. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea also have much-debated levels of nuclear capability, and Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey have US weapons on their soil.)

Was it ultimately necessary for the world to witness the scale of the destruction simply so that the consequences of nuclear engagement would be taken seriously thereafter?

While the moral and practical issues surrounding the possession of nuclear weapons come up for frequent debate – not least during the Scottish independence referendum, when the presence of Trident in Scotland became a major campaigning point – the realities of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain distant, little-discussed and little-represented compared to other extremes of 20th century warfare. For those of us who grew up through the 1980s, particularly in politically active households of one stripe or another, nuclear war had a visceral charge of relevance. As a kid, I wore my CND badge, read Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows and went on Hiroshima Day protests at which the outlines of bodies were painted on to the pavement; it seemed a proximate peril, a matter worth being informed about.

These days, just as the CND symbol has been repurposed as a decorative frippery with only the vaguest connotations of “peace and love”, so Hiroshima and Nagasaki have seemed to drift away from our collective narrative. In an online discussion realm in which people habitually wave around casual references to Nazi atrocities, conspiracy theories about 9/11 and half-baked interpretations of the entire history of the Middle East, America’s history as a nuclear aggressor remains a relatively infrequent reference point.

Though the names of the two Japanese cities destroyed are famous for their tragic connotations, and the mushroom clouds remain symbols of mass destruction, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem cloaked in mystique. Considering their significance, they’re not even referenced in that many works of art or literature.

THE lack of openness in the discourse surrounding the bombings may have its origins in their immediate aftermath, when the Allied occupying forces controlled the narrative about what had happened and limited the information available to the Japanese public. Casualty statistics, information on the effects of radiation, film footage of the bombings and even works of the imagination that referenced them were suppressed. Information was far more freely available in America, with the strange consequence that those whose rulers had perpetrated the attack learned more of its impact and after-effects than those whose people had suffered it.

American pilot Paul Tibbets (centre) stands with the ground crew of the bomber Enola Gay. Picture: Getty

American pilot Paul Tibbets (centre) stands with the ground crew of the bomber Enola Gay. Picture: Getty

A book-length account of the Hiroshima bombing by journalist John Hersey, which occupied a full issue of The New Yorker magazine in August 1946, humanised the event by focusing upon its impact on the lives of six individual residents of the city.

Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima Mon Amour, scripted by Marguerite Duras and released in 1959, also put a personal slant on the story, by setting a faltering relationship between a Japanese man and an American woman against her investigations into the effects of the bombings, which are illustrated through archive footage of their impact and scenes of the detritus that remained thereafter. The film was excluded from the official selection of that year’s Cannes film festival to avoid offence to America.

Other accounts do exist, including Shohei Imamura’s 1989 film Black Rain; Akira Kurosawa’s Rhapsody In August, from 1991; and the 2007 documentary White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction Of Hiroshima And Nagasaki. But these are not necessarily widely seen or discussed.

What factors contribute to the relative lack of current awareness surrounding these definitive events in human history? Shame plays in, on both sides, as does simple ignorance of or disagreement about context. In Japan, survivors of the bombings, known as hibakusha, have historically faced discrimination, which can extend to their descendants..

A few stone buildings are left standing in the midst of the obliterated city. Picture: Getty

A few stone buildings are left standing in the midst of the obliterated city. Picture: Getty

A full understanding of the context of the bombings, meanwhile, can be lacking in public discourse. A friend who has taught in Japan says he has observed “a tendency among younger people to separate the bombing from broader context of the war. Some people honestly seem to think that it was a basically unprovoked atrocity, in large part because it’s been taught and remembered that way. Certainly you won’t learn anything about Japanese imperial expansion or aggression at the bomb museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which may or may not be fair enough.”

For the West, meanwhile, the civilian cost of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a moral sticking point whatever your position on the military expediency of some kind of decisive Allied attack on Japan in 1945. The sheer indiscriminate destruction effected by the nuclear strikes – the slaughter of so many noncombatants, both on the days themselves and via the prolonged horrors of radiation sickness thereafter – remains hard to reconcile with America’s self-image as a civilising influence on the wider world.

The odd outright hawk, such as right-wing radio provocateur Rush Limbaugh argue for open acknowledgment that civilians were targeted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as they should be in any American military engagement, because “you can take a look at every major conflict the world has ever seen, and you can easily discern the victors and the losers by virtue of casualties… In no instance does it happen with the Red Cross going in, with doctors and nurses and clean water and Doctors Without Borders and all of this other feel-good leftist claptrap”). For occupants of most other points on the political spectrum, however, the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a troubling blot on the dominant goodies-defeat-baddies narrative of the Second World War. Can the Limbaugh position – that war, now as then, necessitates the abandonment of contracts of behaviour in the pursuit of victory at all costs – coexist with the claim to any sort of moral values whatsoever? Was the suffering of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a necessary sacrifice to prevent many more civilian casualties down the line? And was it ultimately necessary for the world to witness the scale of the destruction simply so that the consequences of nuclear engagement would be recognised and taken seriously thereafter?

The fact that Japan is still widely regarded in the West as the most “other” of other cultures – inscrutable; alien; socially and sexually “weird” – doubtless contributes to the sense of distance we have from the long-term impact of the bombings. It perhaps it suits the West to keep Japan in a box marked “peculiar, incomprehensible”, because it helps to dispel the trauma of having killed such a large number of people. Further theories, of course, have it that the two Japanese cities were mere showcases for America’s nuclear might, and the real intention the intimidation and provocation of the Soviet Union.

EARLIER this year, in a speech to the American Congress, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologised for American deaths during the Second World War. (“I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people who were lost during World War Two.”) The mere suggestion, however, that an American president might contemplate an apology to Japan for Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompts ripples of affront in the right-wing press. Last year saw the circulation of a rumour – based on papers published by WikiLeaks – that President Barack Obama had contemplated issuing an apology to the Japanese for the use of the atomic bomb, and that Japan had dissuaded him. The content of the papers was misrepresented (they record that any expectation among the Japanese public of an apology during a coming presidential visit was “premature” and a “non-starter”, with no indication that Obama suggested this and was rebuffed), but anti-Obama zealots were quick to interpret the message from Japan in simplistic terms: “America has nothing to apologise for, your peacenik president is the enemy within, and even Japan agrees.”

J Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist whose work with the Manhattan Project brought the atomic bomb into being, famously struggled with his own legacy. “I feel I have blood on my hands,” he reportedly told Truman after the bombings (the president is variously said to have handed him a handkerchief to wipe it off, or to have declared that he should stop ”bellyaching about it”). Truman’s own chief of staff, Admiral William D Leahy, wrote in his autobiography that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”

Those whose job it was to physically drop the bombs, however, have tended to hold fast to the belief that they did the right thing. Plane navigator Theodore Van Kirk said before his death last year, “I have never apologised for what we did to Hiroshima and I never will… If we had not dropped that bomb, there is no way the Japanese would have surrendered. We would have had to invade the country and the death toll would have been truly unimaginable.” The pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets – who named the plane Enola Gay after his own mother – was unrepentant up to his death in 2007, and indeed considered accounts of the events that placed emphasis on Japanese suffering a “damn big insult”.

WHETHER notions such as insult, apology or individual accountability really carry much weight in such a dire context is a moot point. In an era when warfare is euphemistically called “defence”, ­however, and “British values” are ­supposed to supersede any common humanity towards overseas civilians, taking the anniversary seriously and learning about what was done in the name of future generations’ safety seems the least we can offer to the dead and the damaged. «

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill

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