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Throughout history

Throughout history, as scientific knowledge has accumulated, technologies have made it possible for wars to become increasingly ugly. On August 6, 1945, the United States became the first country to use a technology that required only an instant to turn Hiroshima into a wasteland of burned human corpses, barely living others covered with blood, pus dripping from sockets that once were eyes, others who would remained crippled, grotesquely scarred, or with an illness, varying in severity, that occurs when radiation ravages the cells of one’s body.

In 1946, at the time Hersey’s book was published, the death toll had reached at least 100,000, with tens of thousands more who would suffer the remainder of their shortened life-spans. Based on extensive interviews with six individuals, Hersey’s book tells of their memories of their own experiences and the experiences of others after the atomic bomb had been dropped. The people of Hiroshima were prepared for attacks using conventional bombs, but never imagined it possible that there would be an attack even approaching the magnitude a nuclear bomb made possible.

They spoke of their initial numbness, the pain they experienced, the horrors they witnessed, and frantic efforts to help. They described intermittent symptoms, such as high fevers, exhaustion, wounds that were slow to heal, that they didn’t know at the time were of an illness caused by radiation. III. Knowing that the atomic bomb was dropped and knowing the numbers of people killed and injured are facts about anonymous people. The theme of the book was that real people were victims of an atrocity. Hersey gave names and faces and voices to human individuals who were in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing. IV.

Before the bombing, Hiroshima, the largest island in Japan, had been a city, with stores, banks, hospitals, and schools. The people of the city ranged the spectrum of incomes. There were those who were wealthy, such as Dr. Masakazu Fujii, who owned one of Japan’s single-doctor hospitals, as well as those who were poor, such as Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, who struggled as a seamstress to support her three children after her husband, a not very prosperous tailor, was killed in the war. After the bombing, much of the city was demolished, with print remnants of buildings – and people – in the area closest to where the bomb was dropped.

Many of the experiences Hersey described occurred outdoors in the woods of a park near a river, which had been made into an evacuation area. V. Early morning of August 6, the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto left his home in Hiroshima, where he was pastor of the Methodist Church, to help a friend move belongings to a home in a suburb thought to be a safer place than the city. He was in the driveway when he saw the sky light up and he dashed for protection between two rocks. Although the house collapsed, the two men were not hurt and the Reverend was shocked when he saw the devastation in the direction of Hiroshima.

As he made his way around the fires, rushing home in fear for the safety of his wife and baby, mobs of badly injured people were rushing in the opposite direction. He became “overwhelmed by the shame of not being hurt” (p. 30), although eventually he was found to suffer a mild form of radiation sickness. After finding his wife and baby were unhurt, he passionately tended to the injured and ill virtually non-stop for five days at the park that had been made into an evacuation area. Why were some people spared and others not? What sorrow could be more profound than the death of one’s child?

Why did the Reverend’s baby live after his wife was able to get herself and the baby out from where they were buried, while his neighbor’s baby daughter died after they too emerged from beneath the dirt? The young mother held her dead baby in her arms for four days. Like the Reverend, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German missionary priest, felt shame, “as if he were guilty of something awful” (p. 57). In the days following the bombing, the priest already was suffering from weakness that would be followed by the high fevers and pain that were symptoms of radiation illness.

He gave the strength he had to helping at the evacuation park where the Reverend was working. A man who previously would feel faint at the sight of a small amount of blood, he went back and forth to bring water to those who were injured or ill, helping soldiers with lips covered with pus drink through a straw, passing the burned corpses that so recently had been living people, and, like the Reverend, witnessing the profound pain that follows the death of those you love most. A doctor could not help when asked to dress another priest’s cuts because after seeing his dead wife and child, he was incapable of even lifting his head.

Immediately after the bombing, Hatsuyo Nakamura, the already struggling widow with three children, freed herself from the timbers burying her and rushed to her children. She heard her youngest child, five-year-old Myeko, crying but safe since she was buried only up to her neck, and then dug out her other two children. Fortunately, they suffered no injuries, but Mrs. Nakamura put her children before everything else, as her neighbor did, when covered with blood herself, she wanted bandages for her bleeding baby. Mrs. Nakamura and her children were already at the evacuation park when the pastor and priest came to help.

Like others, she and her children drank water from a river that was not spared the radiation of the bomb and immediately vomited. Too poor to visit a doctor, she and her children nonetheless seemed to recover over time, but after it was safe to return to Hiroshima, the family remained impoverished a year after the bombing. VI. The character I found most interesting was John Hersey, precisely because he wrote not a single word that revealed anything about himself – his emotions, his thoughts, indeed his personality. Nor did he “sensationalize” an event that lesser writers would not have been able to resist.

His style was sparse, using the information based on his interviews in a way that seemed to be allowing the six main characters to speak for themselves. Hersey allowed readers into the lives of real humans who had experiences that were inhumane in a civilized society, but which were presented factually and without a trace of hysteria. Although there probably were at least some people interviewed by Hersey in Hiroshima who were strongly anti-American, the fact that the book was so well-received in America is a testament that it is not an anti-American book.

Aside from the issue of readership at the time of publication, when post-victory patriotism was at high levels, Hersey was describing the consequences of the development of nuclear weapons, not about a phenomenon that was embedded in the character of a particular country. In any case, he made it clear that the people of Hiroshima did not speak with a single voice. At one point, Father Kleinsorge seemed to be blaming the bombing on human sin: “. . . man is not now in the condition God intended. He has fallen from grace through sin” (p. 83).

Reverend Tanimoto believed that many in Hiroshima, after hearing the Japanese Emperor speak, thought they were “making whole-hearted sacrifice for the everlasting peace of the world” (p. 65). Perhaps what Mrs. Nakamura meant when she said “It was war and we had to expect it” (p. 89) was that if one country had the capacity to devastate another without fear of retaliation during a time of war, that country would do so. Hersey’s book provoked questions he did not address. Would the United States have dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and soon after on Nagasaki if Japan also had access to the bomb?

Indeed, would the United States have used the later and more deadly hydrogen bomb if the Soviet Union, followed by other countries, hadn’t also developed nuclear weapons? Wasn’t it inevitable that other countries would want the same toys that we had? VII. More than sixty years have passed without one country using nuclear weapons against another and despite George Bush’s imagination, the intense fear of nuclear attack in the decades since World War II seems to have faded. We know now that there are so many ways to wreak havoc that what we fear most seems to change with the times.

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