Unmasking the effect of war


Seventy years ago last month, one of my favourite reads, Hiroshima, by John Hersey was published in The New Yorker magazine (August 1946).

Describing what the atomic bomb did to the residents of Hiroshima, it remains one of the most moving reminders of the true horror of war.

Through the eyes of two doctors, two clergymen, a widow and her children, and an office worker – Hersey explores the bombing in the immediate minutes, days, weeks and then months after the bombing, touching on the difficult choices some had to make as they raced about amid the maimed and dying, often while bearing their own severe injuries, the survivor guilt some experienced, and finally the unsettling way in which one of the youngest protagonists viewed what was happening.

Hersey’s use of fictional conventions in his reporting – setting, character, pacing – has been revered widely for setting the standard for the new journalism wave that was to come later.

The heavy lifting he must have done to get every little detail of what his characters experienced, every little fact, to accurately recreate each person’s experience, is mind boggling, and it’s no wonder Hiroshima is considered by many to be the number one most influential work of journalism of the 20th century.

Hersey also drew attention to then U.S. President Harry Truman’s proud speech about the bomb’s power and the scientific capabilities the country had, a speech that naturalised the violence and bleached out the agony of the people of Hiroshima – from those who had been vaporised when the bomb dropped to those who, suffered immeasurably in its aftermath.

Hiroshima touched a nerve as people began to question just what it was that had occurred, and the true nature of war – the killing of children, women and men who had nothing to do with the fighting and the politics.

There have been many terrible dates on which the loss of innocent lives have occurred since then, including 9/11, today of course being the 15th anniversary of that devastation.

As we look at how decisions are made about how we approach ongoing conflict around us – new British Prime Minister Theresa May recently said she would not hesitate to use nuclear power to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents to end conflict – the need for such deep dive journalism, is more compelling than ever.

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.

I hope you’re inspired to read the rest of Hiroshima if you haven’t already; The New Yorker generously allows access to the entire 31,000 word piece.

In the meantime, thanks for stopping in and let me know what you think!



4 thoughts on “Unmasking the effect of war

  1. Thanks, Jenan. It’s inconceivable that Theresa May would consider using nuclear power for such purposes! Although I’ve read a lot about Hiroshima, I haven’t seen the John Hersey article, but I will read it now. Thank you.

    From sublime writing to the far from it, my first published piece, many, many years ago (as a teenager, in the school mag!) was an imagining of that event, from the point of view of a Japanese teenager who was there. The idea of a nuclear war terrified all of us in that post WW2 era.


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