Tag Archives: WW II

Hiroshima’s literary legacy

By Daniel Cordle, Nottingham Trent University 
August, 2015

In the year after the atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, the events were rarely considered or discussed in the West beyond their strategic or scientific relevance. The experience of individuals on the ground and the confusion that arose at the appearance of radiation sickness were little known.

This was to change on August 31 1946, when the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to an extraordinary feature piece by John Hersey, simply titled Hiroshima. It sold out within hours and was subsequently published in book form.

Hiroshima was not the most devastating air raid of World War II, but the extreme vulnerability of cities to a single device was a new horror. As such it challenged established ways of thinking and demanded that writers find forms adequate to this new nuclear consciousness. Writing so early in the atomic age and with few precedents on which to draw, Hersey’s achievement is all the more remarkable.

Hersey was a war correspondent, but his prose is notable for its novelistic qualities. Drawing on extensive interviews, his telling of the stories of six survivors is seminal in both historical and literary terms.

Perhaps Hersey’s greatest achievement is to render the Japanese bomb victims human to his American audience. After years of war, after the brutality of the Pacific campaigns, this is an aspect of the attack that had been neglected. By revealing the experience of some of World War II’s final victims Hersey stressed the devastating personal effects of this new and horrifying weapon.

His article does this by coolly confronting us with the physical and psychological traumas of war. When Mr Tanimoto grasps a woman’s hand her skin “slips off in huge, glove-like pieces”. The grotesque results of the bomb become clear; the human body revealed as meat. When Dr Sasaki, overwhelmed in his hospital, becomes “an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding”, we see how the mind’s capacity to empathise closes down in the face of trauma.

As one of the earliest examples of nuclear writing, Hersey’s Hiroshima also pioneers several motifs that shape literary responses to the bomb and through which we still talk about and understand nuclear threat.

Miss Toshiko Sasaki, “a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works”, experiences the explosion as a “blinding flash”. This idea of the atomic flash was itself to become a staple of nuclear literature. The flash is the image with which Hersey begins Hiroshima and it is what connects his protagonists as they look up from different locations in the city and simultaneously become hibakusha, explosion-affected people. The flash is what fixes 8:15am on August 6 1945 as the instant the city turns into an atomic city.

The bomb’s capacity to transfix, to illuminate but simultaneously to blind is a preoccupation of nuclear literature. Hersey’s achievement is to find a neutral, unemotional prose that lessens the glare so we see the human stories.

That fear of sudden transformation of the world into something entirely new later came to haunt the Cold War. Douglas Coupland’s retrospective, seemingly autobiographical short story, The Wrong Sun (1994) astutely captures this acute nuclear consciousness. The narrator’s everyday life stutters in constant expectation of “The Flash”. He carries on with the mundane routines of life, but sirens or sudden noises induce traumatic moments when briefly, incongruously, he thinks nuclear war imminent.

Hersey mentions tales of blast shadows, imprints on walls or roofs thrown by the bomb’s heat in which people’s final moments are preserved. He notes that fanciful stories accumulate around them. They have continued to, becoming important nuclear motifs.

In Ray Bradbury’s short story There Will Come Soft Rains (1950), all that remains of a family are their silhouettes, thrown onto a wall in “one titanic instant”. Most poignantly, the shadow of a young boy, “hands flung into the air”, is cast upon the wall. Higher up is a tossed ball and opposite the boy is a girl, “hands raised to catch a ball which never came down”. More recently, Kamila Shamsie’s beautiful novel Burnt Shadows (2009) takes as its central image the birds, cranes, seared into the flesh of her protagonist Hiroko as her patterned kimono is incinerated by the atomic flash at Nagasaki.

The sense of time being frozen is a repeated nuclear motif. Hersey describes Father Kleinsorge returning to Hiroshima and finding “bicycles, shells of streetcars and automobiles, all halted in mid-motion”. The cusp at which the city “becomes” atomic is briefly preserved and for a few days after the bombing Father Kleinsorge can traverse both its pre-nuclear and nuclear states. Hiroshima is, in this description, the symbolic gateway through which humans enter the nuclear age.

Perhaps most interestingly Hersey also broaches the unsettling radioactive legacy of the bombing in his piece. When Miss Sasaki returns to the city just three weeks after the attack she finds an extraordinary profusion of plant life growing in the ruins. It seems so unlikely, so overly abundant, that it “gave her the creeps”. With dubious scientific legitimacy Hersey writes that the bomb “had stimulated” the roots of plants.

The unspoken implication is that some “unnatural” quality of the bomb – radiation presumably – has induced this unsettling abundance. Miss Sasaki’s uneasiness and Hersey’s ambiguous phrasing introduce an important cultural trope through which nuclear technology and materials are experienced and perhaps misunderstood. It is an example of what the anthropologist Joseph Masco calls the “nuclear uncanny”: a psychological phenomenon by which the world is experienced as unsettlingly different when thought of as “nuclear”.

In the moving additional chapter to Hiroshima, published on the 40th anniversary of the bombing in 1985, Hersey wrote that the world’s memory was getting “spotty”. Perhaps our cultural memory of atomic attack is spottier still, another 30 years on. So if you haven’t read it before, take some time to read Hiroshima this anniversary weekend. It remains one of the rawest, but most humane, accounts of this world-changing event.

By giving us a glimpse of the human consequences of atomic attack, Hiroshima warns us of our capacity for inhumanity. It remains largely silent on the military and political decisions behind the attack, but is perhaps all the more powerful for that. It asks of us only one terrible thing: that we bear witness to the event; that we remember.The Conversation

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Daniel Cordle is Reader in English and American Literature at Nottingham Trent UniversityThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related on F&O:

Japanese Remorse: Once More With Feeling, by Jonathan Manthorpe (*subscription)

Japan’s current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is having another crack on August 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, at finally drawing a line under the country’s imperial past.

 European Scientists and Yankee Managers build ‘The Bomb,’ by Jim McNiven (*subscription)

A week short of a year after America’s entry into World War II, on December 5, 1942, an enemy alien set off a nuclear reaction about five miles south of the Loop in Chicago.

Why do we pay so much attention to Hiroshima and Nagasaki? by Matthew Seligmann (*unlocked)

This may seem an odd question to ask, especially at the time of their 70th anniversaries, but it is not as flippant as it sounds

Shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a photo essay by Issei Kato of Reuters (*unlocked)

Related:  Iran, nuclear waste, and Fukushima, by Penney Kome (*unlocked)

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*Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. Some of our work is behind a paywall because we do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us, with a subscription (click here for our subscribe page) or a donation, and/or by spreading the word.

 
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Why do we pay so much attention to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima, by Hiromichi Matsuda, Public Domain via Wikipedia

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima. Photo by Hiromichi Matsuda, Public Domain via Wikipedia

By Matthew Seligmann, Brunel University London 
August, 2015

There have been countless articles, protests and commemorations in recent days on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But why is there so much focus on these events?

This may seem an odd question to ask, especially at the time of their 70th anniversaries, but it is not as flippant as it sounds. True, at least 200,000 people died – an appalling waste of human life and the source of countless personal and family tragedies. But such horrors were anything but unique at that time – the bombing of Hiroshima took place in the context of a war in which, on a reasonable estimate, some 60m people were killed.

A high proportion of these were innocent civilians, meaning that the mass murder of non-combatants was already commonplace by the time that this blight reached the unsuspecting and essentially defenceless citizens of Hiroshima.

The city, spared until that point, certainly suffered badly, but it was not the only – let alone the first – metropolis to be struck from the air. Coventry, Hamburg and Berlin, to name but three, were also scenes of aerial devastation. Admittedly, they were wrecked in different fashion. Fleets of aircraft were necessary to flatten them.

By contrast, Hiroshima was destroyed by one bomb from one warplane in one sortie – a startling demonstration of brute force and the escalating power of modern weaponry. Yet, as the US air force had demonstrated earlier in 1945, worse results were obtainable by conventional means. More people died when Tokyo was firebombed than were killed on the day from the blast and flames at Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did the same job more efficiently, but it was the same job.


Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault. May 26, 1945.

Cataclysm

Widening the context a little further, it is worth stressing that the hostilities in Asia were particularly brutal and Hiroshima was but one cataclysm among many. This was not purely because of the much commented upon hatred, racial and otherwise, that fuelled the Japanese-American contest, intense though that was. Japan had been fighting in China since at least 1937 (arguably since the Mukden Incident of 1931) and little that had taken place in that conflict had conformed to that most unsatisfactory and contradictory of phrases “civilised warfare”.

Japanese military close up on Nanking Castle.

Japanese military close up on Nanking Castle

The rape of Nanking, the capital of Nationalist China, is possibly the best known of these atrocities. However, the fate of Chungking (Chongqing), the city chosen as the replacement capital, demonstrates that it was not alone. Selected as the new seat of government in part for its inaccessibility, Chungking could not be reached by Japanese armies – so a repeat of the pillage suffered by Nanking could not occur. But it could be reached from the air. As a result, from 1938 onwards it was subjected to sustained and continuous aerial attack. In terms of frequency rather than the weight of ordnance dropped upon it, it was one of the most heavily bombed cities of World War II.

Unsurprisingly, the history of these bombing raids is replete with tragic tales of loss and the city undoubtedly suffered badly. That, however, was preferable to Japanese occupation. The miseries of this do not need to be catalogued here, although it says something about their intensity that they are still well remembered in Korea, China and elsewhere in Asia. But it is worth recording that by 1945 hundreds of thousands of people were dying each month in Japanese occupied Asia, a reminder that the evils of war extended well beyond the battlefield and were not just experienced by the bombed.

Unremarkable

None of this makes what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki any less objectionable – no tragedy is any less of a tragedy because there are other tragedies taking place at the same time – but it does make it, in the literal sense, unremarkable.

Nothing illustrates this better than the reaction of the Japanese military leadership to the news of Hiroshima’s destruction. The dominant political authority in Japan in 1945 was the Supreme War Council, a body that brought together in one institution the six main representatives of the army, navy and “civilian” government.

The three most military members of this council were utterly unmoved by the reports of Hiroshima’s fate. For them, the destruction of one more city was no reason to change their plans to fight the war to a victorious conclusion by smashing the long expected American invasion on the beaches. The “civilian” members felt otherwise, but could not carry the day. So no change in policy took place.

The resolve of these soldiers and sailors was also unaffected by news of the similar holocaust that hit Nagasaki three days later; and for the same reason: cities had been destroyed by the US air force at will for months; it was not deemed a new factor. As is well known, the intervention of the Emperor was needed to persuade the army and navy to adopt a different course. Seventy years down the line, the idea that two examples of destruction by atomic bomb would not have any affect on policy seems unbelievable, but by 1945 the banality of mass death and destruction was such that this was the case.

Given this, why should we mark this event after all this time? The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is special not because of the numbers that died nor because of the extent of the destruction, but because of their symbolism. They have come to stand for the future that we want to avoid in a way that some of the other horrors cannot.

Plenty of wars have been fought since 1945 – and many more people have been killed either fighting them or as innocent victims caught up in them. It is a sad reflection on the human condition, but this is unlikely to change. Equally, it is no less tragic that despite the vivid lesson of the Holocaust, acts of genocide still blight our world, as the “ethnic cleansing” in former Yugoslavia and the killings in Rwanda prove.

But the use of atomic weapons in anger has not occurred since those fearsome August days in 1945. Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki helps remind us of the need to keep this lesson firmly to the fore.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Matthew Seligmann is Reader in Modern History at Brunel University LondonThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related on F&O:

Japanese Remorse: Once More With Feeling, by Jonathan Manthorpe, International Affairs columnist (*subscription)

Japan’s current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is having another crack on August 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, at finally drawing a line under the country’s imperial past.

 European Scientists and Yankee Managers build ‘The Bomb,’ by Thoughtlines columnist Jim McNiven (*subscription)

A week short of a year after America’s entry into World War II, on December 5, 1942, an enemy alien set off a nuclear reaction about five miles south of the Loop in Chicago.

Shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a photo essay by Issei Kato

Hiroshima’s literary legacy, by Daniel Cordle

Related:  Iran, nuclear waste, and Fukushima, by Penney Kome

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*Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. Some of our work is behind a paywall because we do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us, with a subscription (click here for our subscribe page) or a donation, and/or by spreading the word.

 
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Auschwitz: 70 years after a death factory is liberated

The shoes of prisoners murdered in Auschwitz, liberated January 27, 1945. Public domain

The shoes of prisoners murdered in Auschwitz, liberated January 27, 1945. Public domain

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, when Soviet troops freed the survivors of the Nazi death factory. More than one million people were murdered at Auschwitz, most of them Jews. 

Read Auschwitz: ‛It took from three to 15 minutes to kill the people. The “Verbatim” feature is Facts and Opinions copy editor Michael Sasges’ report: extracts of the reasons for judgment prepared by members of the International Military Tribunal for Germany, which tried German leaders accused of war crimes. The document is one of the earliest summaries of the causes and consequences of the horrors perpetrated in the camp. 

Recommended elsewhere:

The commemoration of the liberation is live-streamed today from Miejsce Pamięci i Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau:

 

Soviet Soldier Describes What It Was Like To Liberate Auschwitz, by THIBAULT MARCHAND, AFP (On Business Insider)

It was the silence, the smell of ashes and the boundless surrounding expanse that struck Soviet soldier Ivan Martynushkin when his unit arrived in January 1945 to liberate the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

As they entered the camp for the first time, the full horror of the Nazis’ crimes there were yet to emerge.

250px-Maus“Only the highest-ranking officers of the General Staff had perhaps heard of the camp,” recalled Martynushkin of his arrival to the site where at least 1.1 million people were killed between 1940 and 1945 — nearly 90 percent of them Jews. “We knew nothing.”

But Martynushkin and his comrades soon learned.  continue reading  (you will leave Facts and Opinions)

Auschwitz message still resonates today. By Caroline Wyatt, Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

…. And as societies across Europe grapple with immigration, and seek to define themselves and their values anew, asking their religious minorities to prove their loyalty to their country, the words embossed on the monument at Birkenau, “let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity” have a chilling resonance once again. … continue reading (you will leave Facts and Opinions)

Maus, a graphic novel, by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

Maus, first serialized in the Raw anthology, was published by Pantheon Books in 1991. It won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer. In the novel, Spiegelman interviews his father about his experiences as a survivor of Nazi concentration camps.

Interview with an Auschwitz Guard: ‘I Do Not Feel Like a Criminal,’ der Spiegel. Interview Conducted by Felix Bohr, Cordula Meyer and Klaus Wiegrefe

Jakob W. was 19-years-old and in his third semester studying architecture at college when he received the letter that would, seven decades later, turn him into a suspect for complicity in murder. 

In the summer of 1942, the young man from a village near Belgrade received his draft notice. Just a few months later, he was standing on a tower hundreds of kilometers away from his home in Yugoslavia. Jakob W. was now an SS guard in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp — and thus a party in the most horrific of the crimes committed by the Third Reich. For two and a half years, he looked down at the factory of human annihilation, day in and day out. … continue reading (you will leave Facts and Opinions).

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