Discover more from Imperfect notes on an imperfect world
The view from below
What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black and brown, but nothing else. Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn't believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just burned away.
Akiko Takakura, survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb
The promotion cycle is telling us it is time to be interested in nuclear weapons. That the topic is getting more attention due to the release of a film, rather than because of heightened risks posed by such weapons is a reflection of the general lack of seriousness that permeates our present condition. This is not a note about Oppenheimer, I have not seen it yet, there is no firm release date announced for Japan. The reason is presumably due to a pair of dates that are about to appear again, the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August.
The burst of content related to Oppenheimer, the Manhattan project, and the advent of the nuclear age has tended to focus on the scientific breakthrough, what was created and achieved at Los Alamos, the perspective of those doing the building and the bombing. Hiroshima is invariably mentioned, but rarely focused on, Nagasaki more likely to be noted as an afterthought.
Susan Neiman, a noted scholar on evil, considered this frame in a 2015 article: ‘Forgetting Hiroshima, remembering Auschwitz: Tales of two exhibits’. In it, she explored whether there was a tendency to displace or avoid reckoning with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In it, she contrasts how these horrors from the war are remembered:
Whatever deep-seated religious needs the story of Auschwitz may serve, it clearly serves political ones. Focus on a crime that is … in contrast to Hiroshima so truly morally unambiguous gives us a picture of absolute evil next to which any other example falls short. The repetition of images of ordinary people being herded first into boxcars and then into gas chambers makes us feel we know what real evil is, leaving everything else appearing merely unfortunate. The more we focus on simple models of evil, the less practice we have in recognizing more complicated ones.
One can find echoes of this dynamic in the momentary interest around the bomb and the Manhattan project, as it invariably focuses on the parts of the story that are most comfortable and comforting. A remarkable technical feat, an impressive scientific and managerial effort, a clear ending to a horrible global conflict. This is the view from above, one that centres our attention more on creation and less on destruction.
In a previous note I have written about ‘the luck of Kokura’, the terrible absurdity by which Nagasaki was bombed and a nearby city, Kokura, was spared. To this I would simply add, while there is ongoing debate over how ‘necessary’ it was to bomb Hiroshima, what is much more straightforward is that the second attack on Nagasaki was gratuitous. It is much more difficult to find a convincing rationale for it beyond repeating the old line that ‘war is hell’. Perhaps, but remember Dante, hell is not flat and uniform.
The tendency to emphasise Hiroshima is not without cause, as it signals a monumental transition for the world, as outlined by Günther Anders in the first of his ‘Theses for the Atomic Age’:
Hiroshima as World Condition: On August 6, 1945, the Day of Hiroshima, a New Age began: the age in which at any given moment we have the power to transform any given place on our planet, and even our planet itself, into a Hiroshima. On that day we became… omnipotent; but since, on the other hand, we can be wiped out at any given moment, we also became totally impotent.
The arrival of this new condition would come to occupy Anders’ thought. In another essay, ‘Apocalypse without Kingdom’, he observed that the advent of the nuclear age was a direct challenge to optimistic narratives of progress:
The task we are confronted with today is thinking the concept of the naked apocalypse, that is: the apocalypse that consists of mere downfall, which doesn’t represent the opening of a new, positive state of affairs.
With nuclear war there is not the possibility for renewal and redemption, but ‘mere downfall’. Yet until that moment occurs, these weapons have apparently helped generate some kind of peace: great power conflict has not occurred again, a third world war has been avoided. This reflects the other side of the world condition of Hiroshima. As Niels Bohr judged, ‘we are in a completely new situation that cannot be resolved by war.’ And so we have lived with an uneasy geopolitical version of Bohr’s principle of complementarity: the destructiveness of nuclear weapons promotes a certain form of peace.
In a prior note, I considered the strange way in which we generally fail to reckon with the enduring risk of nuclear war and all that it might entail. Being seduced by the scientific grandeur of the Manhattan project arguably contributes to this state of affairs. What Anders powerfully pointed to is the way that the existence of nuclear weapons demands thinking. A vital part of this process is foregrounding what the use of this technology ultimately means. This has been most powerfully conveyed by the hibakusha, the surviving victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While there are many accounts and testimonies, here I want to finish with a remarkable set of reflections, Hiroshima Notes (1965) by Kezaburo Oe, who passed away earlier this year. In it, Oe attempted to consider the meaning of the atomic bombing from the perspective and experience of the people of Hiroshima. He observed:
It is quite abnormal that people in one city should decide to drop an atomic bomb on people in another city. The scientists involved cannot possibly have lacked the ability to imagine the hell that would issue from the explosion. The decision, nevertheless, was made.
A central theme in the book is that the survivors became a beacon of human dignity by choosing to continue living, ‘people who go on struggling toward a miserable death’ and ‘people who do not kill themselves in spite of their misery’. In a horrible inversion, it is choosing to live that takes courage and becomes a sign of their humanity. Reflecting on what he learned from his visits, Oe wrote:
In Hiroshima, I met people who refused to surrender to the worst despair or to incurable madness. I heard the story of a gentle girl, born after the war, who devoted her life to a youth caught in an irredeemably cruel destiny. And in places where no particular hope for living could be found, I heard the voices of people, sane and steady people, who moved ahead slowly but with genuine resolve. I think it was in Hiroshima that I got my first concrete insight into human authenticity; and it was there also that I saw the most unpardonable deception. But what I was able to discern, even faintly, was altogether only a small portion of an incomparably larger abominable reality still hidden in the darkness.
With time and distance, it is not only those glimmers of hope that have become more faint and difficult to detect, we have become increasingly dull and inattentive to the darkness that remains. One way of resisting this tendency is shifting our view from above to below, and thinking on what the Manhattan project meant for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the world condition it created, one we continue to live in.