Hiroshima, by John Hersey

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The messenger Father Kleinsorge had sent—the theological student who had been living at the mission house—had arrived at the Novitiate, in the hills about three miles out, at half past four. The sixteen priests there had been doing rescue work in the outskirts; they had worried about their colleagues in the city but had not known how or where to look for them. Now they hastily made two litters out of poles and boards, and the student led half a dozen of them back into the devastated area. They worked their way along the Ota above the city; twice the heat of the fire forced them into the river. At Misasa Bridge, they encountered a long line of soldiers making a bizarre forced march away from the Chugoku Regional Army Headquarters in the center of the town. All were grotesquely burned, and they supported themselves with staves or leaned on one another. Sick, burned horses, hanging their heads, stood on the bridge. When the rescue party reached the park, it was after dark, and progress was made extremely difficult by the tangle of fallen trees of all sizes that had been knocked down by the whirlwind that afternoon. At last—not long after Mrs. Murata asked her question—they reached their friends, and gave them wine and strong tea.

This is a searing and vivid piece of journalism, in which the stories of six victims of the Hiroshima bomb are told in detail. Five are Japanese, and the sixth is a German Jesuit priest. One of the Japanese is a Methodist minister, two are doctors and two are women, one a widow, one a young factory worker. You immediately notice of course that these are chosen to appeal to an American readership – for instance, two Christians out of six is probably somewhat higher than the general ratio within the population of Hiroshima, then or now.

And yet it’s excusable; the point of the writing is to make the reader think about what nuclear war would mean for people like them (i.e. New Yorker readers), and it works very well – the instant agony of the explosion, followed by the horrible deaths of many of the survivors over the following days in a city whose infrastructure has been pulverised and poisoned. There were of course other terrible bomb raids in the Second World War and before and after, but I don’t think it is wrong to look at Hiroshima in particular. It was the first atomic bombing, and it was worse hit than Nagasaki both proportionally and absolutely. It matters.

Hersey concentrates on the six core characters of his narrative, but it’s not difficult to find other details of tragedy from that day. For instance, Hiroshima’s mayor, a Christian who had resisted Japanese military excesses against their own civilian population in the 1930s, was eating breakfast outdoors that sunny morning with his son and granddaughter, and they were instantly fried by the blast; his wife, who was inside the residence, survived for a month before dying, and their daughter who came to Hiroshima to nurse her also later died of secondary radiation. And there are two hundred thousand more stories like that from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of which will never be told.

There’s no explicit judgement here about nuclear weapons, or indeed about war as a whole. But there doesn’t need to be. Anyone making policy decisions (or even just aspirations) about war needs to be aware of the consequences, and here those consequences are described by some of the people directly affected. You can’t really do more than that.

Hersey’s Hiroshima was published as a single edition of The New Yorker in 1946, and I had read a hardback copy as a teenager. I suspect that the version I read did not have the update in the current edition which follows the protagonists in the four decades after 1946, but the edition you can get from Amazon now does have those stories; or you can read the original on the New Yorker website.

On one of my visits to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, maybe in 1997, there was a large exhibit about the reconstruction for display of the Enola Gay, with no reflection of what it had been used for, and I was frankly nauseated. Hiroshima is mentioned in its current resting place at the Udvar-Hazy Centre near Dulles Airport, but only briefly.