Monday, August 31, 2015

Surviving Hiroshima: 6 Stories, A Year Later (1946)

Surviving The Atomic Bomb: Hersey of The New Yorker writes: “A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb. Survivors wonder why they lived when so many others died.”
Photo Credit: Rolls Press; Popper Foto via Getty.
Source: The New Yorker

In a series, “Perspectives on War,” in The New Yorker, there is a fine piece of reportage by John Hersey, published on August 31, 1946, a year after the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It chiefly looks at the lives of six survivors.

In “Hiroshima” (August 31, 1946), Hersey writes:
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 neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense 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. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.
We know more today.  It is seventy years later, and we know the effects that atomic bombs have on people, on civilization itself. The larger problem—and it still looms large—centres on war itself, which is impersonal and has become more so with weapons that are guided from afar; the classic example are drones. The difference between a video-game and war is that one is a virtual-reality game, the other a plague on civilization.

We ought to question the necessity of war. If Hiroshima taught us anything, it is that the purposes of war differ for the leaders who declare them than for the men (it is still mainly men) who fight and who battle—the soldiers themselves are caught in the trap of their leaders’ decisions. All that some have left afterward are “honour” alongside missing limbs and bad memories. There is a valid reason why post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) are so common, and why its numbers are rising. War might be common among humans, but it is not normal. To be sure, it is never good for one’s mental health.

The story of the civilians, which this article gives from six different perspectives, is another one altogether. No enlistments here; no one signed up to fight. Common to the individual stories of six survivors is how each of their lives changed, without warning, in a flash on that morning in early August. Reading their stories might change your view on war and whether it should be given the honour it is often accorded.

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For more, go to [NewYorker]

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