Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Nora Gallagher on Hiroshima


Yesterday was the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Novelist Nora Gallagher has an interesting reflection about this anniversary based on her recent novel about Los Alamos and the building of the atomic bomb.

She begins by noting the "scandal of the particular"--the scandal that we believe in a creator God that cares about each individual:

While I was writing the novel, I came across a phrase from theology: the scandal of the particular. The idea is that God, this enormous creative force that “hung the stars” and created “that great leviathan just for the sport of it” would care about one of us. That the God of Creation–Aristotle's Prime Mover or Plato's Divine Source– would stoop to join us in the mundane details of every day human life, would care even if a single sparrow fell to the ground. This "Yahweh" was completely low-brow to the Greeks, a scandal: from Greek skandalon ‘snare, stumbling block.’

And yet, it is a beautiful scandal, isn’t it? That God would care about one singular, particular life. Where would we be, how would we understand our human story, without it? “The first chapter of Genesis moves gradually from a picture of the skies and earth down to the first man and woman,” writes Rabbi Richard Friedman. “The story’s focus will continue to narrow: from the universe to the earth to humankind to specific lands and peoples to a single family.” One family: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.

Writers, too, practice this scandal. Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died this year, said that journalism is “the art of noticing” and the art of noticing, the art of story-telling, is all about the human particular.



She then turns to the focus of the particular in her own novel--and in what occurred at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945:

My characters, Eleanor and Leo, fall in love. They are in their own human particular, that world created by lovers that is full of life and possibility. But a wave of history overshadows them at every turn. As I witnessed their increasing desperation, I saw more about why the human particular is so scandalous. It is because I cared about what happened to them, these two, she with her dark hair and paint on her fingers and he with his loathing of the desert and love of cities and cigars. Humanity is made up of one person at a time: one person who loves the color aureolin and another who desires scrambled eggs with matzo. Singular. Irreplaceable.

And so, to Hiroshima. Hiroshima had a population of 400,000. On Aug. 6, 1945, 100,000 were killed. By the end of 1945, 140,000 were dead. The five year death toll was 200,000. The death rate was 54%, compared to fire bombing, which was ten percent. Civilian deaths to military: 6-1. These numbers, of course, stun our minds but do not penetrate our hearts. Another way to look at Hiroshima is by visiting the two museums: The museum in Los Alamos is dedicated to the technological: models of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, photos of the labs. Very distant, detached. The museum at Hiroshima is another matter. There you will find, among the photos of destruction, the stories of those who managed to survive. Each one a human particular. Here is one, from a woman Shin Bok-Su, a Korean married to a Japanese man, age 28 at the time:

“My grandmother was going into the living room to wash the dishes. I had pulled the hose out of the bath and was using it to change the goldfish water in the yard. First there was a flash, then an ear-splitting roar. Instantly, everything was dark: I could see nothing. I heard voices calling, 'Help me! Help me!' Terrified and dumbfounded, I stood on shaking legs in the pitch black. It grew a bit lighter. Where had my house gone? The neighbors' houses too were smashed. Everywhere I looked was a plain of rubble. I hid my mother and second son in a field of millet growing in the corner of the grounds of Hiroshima City Commercial High School and hurried back to the house. I began to pull the roof tiles off the fallen house one by one to get to my two children caught underneath. I screamed their names as if I had gone mad. Rain as black as oil fell from the sky.

"Early on the morning of the 7th, our house caught on fire. I desperately shrieked 'Takeo! Akiyo!' The fire ignited a mosquito net that was near where I expected the two children to be. Then I saw Takeo's corpse burning. The three buttons on his school uniform remained properly aligned as he burned.”



Finally, she asks some tough questions about what dropping the bomb on Hiroshima did to us as a nation, and suggests that the answer is best explored not by abstrations, but by a focus on real human beings--the focus of the particular best found in novels:

Several days after the bomb was dropped, reporters asked Gandhi what he thought. He said the atom bomb “resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.” That question is what I have been turning over in my mind since completing this novel.

What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation?

What happened to us as a nation on August 6, 1945? Did the use of a weapon designed to ruthlessly annihilate whole cities contribute to where we find ourselves today? How did Hiroshima erode our sense of morality, what we permit ourselves as a nation to do? How did it affect our fragile sense of what is permissible for one human being to do to another? Finally, what is the connection between Hiroshima and Guantanamo, Hiroshima and Abu Ghraib?

These questions are not easy to think about. The novel helps us to ponder them by illuminating the particular. The novel reminds us of what it is to be human. My lone, particular human voice speaks to your lone particular voice and that is what we have in the face of the enormity of these questions.



Read it all here.

So what do you think? Were we changed as a people and as a nation by the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima? Was the change lasting?

3 comments:

Phil Snyder said...

Dropping the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrible sins. However, they were the lesser sins than the sin of invasion (with several hundred thousand, if not a million American GIs KIA and more Japanese soldiers and civilians KIA). The atomic bombs prevented a further degredation of the Japanese homelands and allowed for a rather gentle occupation and quicker forgiveness than an armed invasion and sever occupation would have.

Additionally, there is the Soviet Union to take into account. Do you remember Easter Europe? How would you like to see half of Japan being controlled by a communist regiem where we fought a police action similar to Korea in the 50s and Vietnam in the 60s and 70s.

Were the atomic bombs bad? Yes. I think, however, that they were the least bad option available. It would have been better if Japan surrendered after Okinawa or never attacked Pearl Harbor at all.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

bls said...

To answer your last question: I think basically that everything we've done ever since has been based in trying to avoid retaliation for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In fact, I think most everything that has happened since then, worldwide, is a reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Large powers can't go to war with each other any longer, for instance, so they have to fight proxy wars like the Cold War. And of course, the worry about nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands is what has driven foreign policy since 9/11.

I think as time goes on we will see more clearly that we should not have dropped the bombs on civilians, but used them as demonstrations elsewhere and forced Japan to surrender. I don't know why we had to drop the second one, either.

But of course, nobody knew any of this beforehand.

Anonymous said...

My dad was one of 76,000 Americans wounded at Okinawa, the costliest military encounter in U.S history (yes, even costlier than Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Ardennes). The battle for that island cost the lives of nearly 400,000 human beings [see: George Feifer], a toll far surmounting that of the Hiroshima's and Nagasaki's dead combined. Neither of those bombings surmount the death toll of the March 1945 Tokyo firebombings, as well. You not only know very little about why we dropped "Fat Man," you similarly know very little about why an isolated demonstration of them wouldn't have worked, nor the nature of the war we were fighting with the Japanese. Stick with what you do know, counselor--and allow the men who understand such things work them out as best they can. Read Richard Frank's "Downfall" when you've time. It'll pretty much tune you in to reality rather quickly, unless you're simply a diehard liberal who can't see the forest through the trees--and I strongly suspect that you are, judging by your proclivity for tepidly attempting to defend the sin of homosexuality. Best of luck with whatever it is that you're trying to prove to yourself.