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The Strategic Value of Remembering

August 6, 2009

HerseyCoverI visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the first time some 40 years after reading John Hersey’s account of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima as a teenager growing up on Long Island during the early years of the Cold War. Thinking about what I might write this morning—the 64th anniversary of the world’s horrifying introduction to nuclear weapons—I opened my fragile old copy of Hersey’s book at random and came upon this description:

Mr. Tanimoto, fearful for his family and church, at first ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. 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. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression whatever.” *

ABombDomeOn a sweltering August day in 2005, the only physical evidence of the Hiroshima bombing was the A-bomb Dome—the twisted and bizarre wreckage of the former Industrial Promotion Hall, which had sustained overpressures of 35 tons per square meter, about 100 meters from the hypocenter of the explosion. Seeing the dome for the first time is a shock for which photos and film clips cannot prepare one. It’s grotesque, but strangely beautiful, like the mushroom cloud itself.

I’d heard that a kind of identity fatigue was starting to set in among younger people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—they understood the unique place of their cities in history, but no longer wanted to be defined by events so distant from their experience and their hopes. I saw a small example of this during a visit to the Nagasaki Peace Museum a few days later. Two teenage girls, looking at a diorama of injured people fleeing from the fires ignited by the Nagasaki bomb, pointed at a model of a man whose flesh was dripping from his arm and started to giggle. They had undoubtedly seen more “realistic” images in video games. But they kept looking, and the meaning of what they were seeing began to register on their faces. By the time they moved on, mockery had been replaced by something a lot more thoughtful. These images, as far removed in time as they are from most of our personal memories, still have the power to move us.

We need such reminders. Some of us may need them more than others at this moment in time, especially political leaders who have embraced the goal of a world without nuclear weapons only to be criticized and even ridiculed by those who cling to the bomb as something of value. Nuclear deterrence as a foundation for security and stability—the “value” that President Obama, for example, is being urged to consider before doing something rash, such as negotiating an agreement that would rid the world of nuclear weapons—has always required a sanitized language. Does anyone really want to look at that diorama too closely as the human, rather than the strategic, meaning of deterrence? Doesn’t it ask us a little too insistently whether we value our humanity more than strategic advantage?

The abhorrent nature of nuclear weapons emerges from words as well as pictures.  These words are from Hiroshima survivor Masako Otake, transcribed as a prose poem by her daughter, Kikuko:

Fallout sticks to my bone marrow, and keeps on releasing radiation,

Radiation that will continue to eat away at me,

Even after my death.”

We can never say for certain how human beings will respond to the harm inflicted upon them. Some of us may seek vengeance or justice (and sometimes the distinction is less than clear). Others may internalize their trauma and revisit it upon themselves or upon others—a cycle of violence familiar to abusers and their victims.  Violence against entire populations can provoke wars, revolutions, or acts of terror.

Sometimes—not often enough—those who have suffered terribly at the hands of others look for higher ground. Gold Star Mothers and some veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam before them) have marched to insist that no one else’s sons and daughters be killed in pointless wars. Some of the families of those who died in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 in the US have renounced wars of retaliation that have killed members of other families thousands of miles away. Relatives of murder victims have, on occasion, spoken out passionately and eloquently against the death penalty. While they may forgive, they do not wish to forget, and make it part of their life’s work to ensure that the meaning of their loss is not forgotten or misappropriated by the larger community.

Perhaps in no place and at no other time in history has this desire been more manifest than among the hibakusha—the survivors of those terrible mornings in August 1945 when the lives of more than 100,000 people were snuffed out instantly in two fireballs brighter than the sun. The hibakusha have told their personal stories and have shared the pictures of their burned and broken bodies, not to evoke pity or to extract apologies, but to move the rest of us to a determination that no one else will ever suffer in this way.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, knowing from their own experience that nuclear weapons must never be used again, have appealed for their abolition. Mayors for Peace, led by Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, have demanded the commencement and successful conclusion of negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention, with the goal of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons by 2020, to ensure that some hibakusha will live to witness the realization of their dream. The mayors have been joined in this call by doctors, scientists, educators, lawyers, parliamentarians…even by some military leaders and former cold warriors who have come to realize that such omnicidal weapons—regardless of any strategic value that may be claimed for them—are unconscionable.

* John Hersey. Hiroshima. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1946. Kiyoshi Tanimoto was the pastor of Hiroshima Methodist Church. He was one of six Hiroshima survivors whose stories during the hours immediately after the bombing were recounted by Hersey.

One Comment
  1. August 11, 2009 1:38 pm

    Thanks for remembering John Hersey’s exquisite descriptions of the results of atomic detonations, John — and for tying them directly to the nuclear challenges of the 21st Century. Did you know that I am actually a proud graduate of John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois?


    Tad Daley, JD, PhD, Writing Fellow
    International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
    (Nobel Peace Laureate Organization),

    Author: APOCALYPSE NEVER: Forging The Path To A Nuclear Weapon-Free World
    Forthcoming from Rutgers University Press January 2010.

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