Originally published as a 30,000 word essay in The New Yorker, James Hersey’s Hiroshima had a powerful impact despite the brevity of the work.
The first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan in August 1945, decimating the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and killing 100,000 men, woman and children and leaving countless others suffering the after effects of radiation poisoning. Written just one year after this dark moment in history, Hersey’s work is a searing piece of journalism, which, rather than looking at the wider events of that terrible day, tells the personal intertwined stories of six ordinary people in the hours, days and weeks following the attack.
These narratives capture not only the horror of what happened, but they explore the very personal cost to very normal lives by transporting the reader right into the heart of the awful consequences of the bombing.
In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand, nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt. At least ten thousand of the wounded made their way to the best hospital in town, which was altogether unequal to such a trampling since it had only six hundred beds, and they had all been occupied.
The six characters are the Reverend Mr Kiyoshi Tanimoto, of the Hiroshima Methodist church, who suffers radiation sickness; Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a personnel clerk whose leg was badly broken when she was trapped under a bookcase; Mrs Hatsuyo Nakamura, a poor widow who survived along with her three children; one European, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit priest who was exposed to radiation; and lastly, two doctors – Masakazu Fujii and Terufumi Sasaki, whose attempts to treat the sick and wounded following the blast make for some of the more harrowing testimony in the book. Their cumulative accounts of the initial confusion, the horror of seeing burned and mutilated dead bodies and their attempts to help other survivors make for a powerful testimony.
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.
Despite the vivid and devastating events that Hersey is describing, he keeps the tone of Hiroshima calm and restrained. It is a risk that pays off and allows the facts of that day to speak for themselves, without additional or unnecessary hyperbole. This unmediated style is devastating in its immediacy and brutal honesty.
This short book is filled with some very traumatic incidents that I will be thinking about for some time to come. Women’s bodies had the pattern of their kimonos burned on to their skin; a woman cradles her dead baby, waiting for her missing husband to come back and see her one last time; human beings crying out for help from under piles of rubble from which no one could free them. It is far from an easy read. Yet it is filled with the best and worst examples of humanity – moments of small kindnesses, instances of great bravery and times where the need for self-preservation outweighed the wish to help. We cannot know how we would react in the same situation and Hersey displays all the ways that trauma can manifest.
Hersey also shies away from any sense of resolution, probably because, as he notes, the Japanese themselves often remained conflicted about what had happened. Some were angry but others philosophical.
The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences, which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?
It’s impossible to read this slim work and not be moved by the unnerving scale of what was lost that day, not just for the people of Hiroshima, but for the world. What makes this an enduring and powerful piece of journalism is that it doesn’t come across like a history lesson. Rather it is a measured but raw, calm yet overwhelming account of the very human cost of war and it is an account that cannot be ignored.
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