70 years ago on this day the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Somehow it felt like a necessity to me to read something about this world-changing, horrific event; it was very much on my mind when by chance I stumbled upon John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”. It’s a slim volume, a piece of journalism originally published in the New Yorker in 1946. In its mere 98 pages, however, it opens our eyes to an experience we will hopefully be fortunate enough never to know ourselves.
Over the years I have heard and read various arguments about the atom bomb and its moral context. Decades after the event, we’re all familiar with the two schools of thought regarding its deployment: on the one side, the proposition that it actually saved many more lives than it ended by shortening the Second World War, and on the other the view that to kill such vast numbers of innocent people was a moral outrage that could never be justified. One of the most powerful things about John Hersey’s book, I think, is that is does not attempt to engage in either of those arguments. This is about the bare facts of what happened on that day and the weeks afterwards – the ghastly images and eyewitness testimonies are allowed to speak for themselves.
The moment of the explosion and the events that followed are described through the eyes of a handful of survivors from various walks of life – a priest, a doctor, an office worker and others – who all survived the attack through the sheer luck of where they happened to be at the moment the bomb fell. The prose is spare and all the more powerful for it, even when describing the most appalling scenes and events. As you would expect there is more horror here than can almost be imagined: mortally wounded people left to die by passing survivors because they know there is nothing that can be done for them, a mother who holds her dead baby for days afterwards, a man left so mentally damaged by what has happened that even though he survives the blast he later runs into the flames of the burning city to end his own life. Yet despite scenes like this, Hersey’s writing remains restrained throughout. There is no need to manipulate any emotions here; this book is all about saying: this is what happened, these are the facts as they were for those people on the ground during those terrible hours, days and weeks. It’s not about the politics but about the people who were there: those who died and those whose lives were changed for ever.
I don’t intend this to be a typical book recommendation or even a review as such; I think that seems a bit trite somehow considering the subject matter. But I think anything that tells us more about events such as this is worth sharing, so that’s why I’ve chosen to write about it here today. I know it’s a bit different to the things I usually talk about on my blog, so thank you for reading.