Hiroshima 70 years on: A city of peace and grace
Today marks 70 years since Hiroshima suffered the most devastating attack in human history. Tens of thousands of people killed in seconds, incinerated by the world’s first atomic bomb. Then-US President Harold Truman believed this represented “the greatest achievement of organised science in history”. The achievement, he claimed, was ending of World War II.
President Truman termed the merciless bombing of Japan “repayment” for its surprise attack on his naval base at Pearl Harbour in 1941, an attack that drew the United States into a conflict it had hoped to avoid. To put that repayment into some perspective, around 2500 people were killed in that attack. In Hiroshima, more than 70,000 people died within seconds. Eight out of every 10 of those people were civilians.
For the record, it doesn’t matter if you think that that is a fair trade or not. The United States would drop a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki just days later, killing thousands more, and ultimately accepted the surrender of the Imperial Japanese Empire on 2 September 1945.
When President Truman reported the Hiroshima bombing to the American people, he did so coldly. He made no mention of the killings, nor the horrifying nature of those deaths. He simply thanked science for creating one the deadliest payloads ever to have been dropped from an aircraft.
It was at 8:15am on 6 August 1945 – a pristine blue-sky day – that US Air Force Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay flew overhead, dropping the atomic bomb that changed the course of history. Nagasaki’s similar fate followed days later. In the weeks, months and years to follow, many more would perish as the aftermath of both attacks lingered.
Estimates claim the US bombing of Japan throughout 1945 may have claimed between 300,000 and 900,000 lives. Neither figure is acceptable.
For the survivors of Hiroshima, today is not a day to be celebrated. Today, is a day for sombre reflection. For me, it’s a day when I feel it important to remember the victims, many of them innocent, and the time I spent in Hiroshima myself in 2010. It’s also a day to think about the fact that we are still very far from lasting peace in many parts of the world, and while the United States might have claimed “victory” in 1945, it appears to have learned little from its actions. It has remained compelled to participate wars everywhere, even when those wars were pointless, like Vietnam, Iraq, and others. It has enraged millions and, to a degree, made the world a much more dangerous place. More dangerous, perhaps, than it was before the end of World War II.
When I visited Hiroshima, I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to find out more, to understand what the city felt like today, how it managed in the wake of such unimaginable pain. What I experienced after spending several days there was remarkable – an overwhelming sense of peace and calm. It is a city like no other I’ve visited in that sense. It’s hard to explain the mood of the place, but I felt a million miles away from the wall of fire that swept through it seven decades ago.
Those who live in Hiroshima today, particularly those with family roots dating back to 1945 and before, can never forget what role that day played on their lives, the lives of those before them and, indeed, the lives that will follow. Relatives of survivors, it is said, still keep their connection to the disaster a secret, women especially. They’re fearful that prospective husbands might think a healthy child is not possible because of the affects of radiation and other associated post-atomic conditions.
Thankfully, peace remains a central focus for Hiroshima today, but it probably wasn’t much different before the bombing. It was not a primary military target, after all.
It was chosen to be obliterated because it hadn’t yet been bombed, and offered the best opportunity to assess the destructive power of an atomic weapon.
Today, Hiroshima’s outstanding Peace Museum tells the stories of the bombing from many different perspectives, and in a commendably impartial fashion. It allows you to make up your own mind about whether such an act of violence is ever justified.
The Museum and its surrounds is a place of remembrance as much as it is learning. I spent hours in there, poring over the detailed accounts of those who lived through the experience, the incomprehensible photographs of vaporised human beings burned into buildings as shadows, the ghoulish images of survivors, everyday items pulled from the rubble, melted into deformed and abstract shapes by temperatures that were as hot as the surface of the the sun, baffling statistics on casualties and deaths. More than 90 per cent of the buildings in Hiroshima were either destroyed or damaged irrecoverably. Around 60 per cent of those were wiped from the earth immediately, by one gargantuan explosion that had “harnessed the power of the universe”, in President Truman’s words. By the end of the year, almost 150,000 residents were either dead or missing. Today, it is believed close to a quarter of a million men, women and children died as a result of the bombing.
I cried several times that day. I felt hollow, helpless, and deeply saddened that we, as a species, could ever imagine something so cruel, let alone see it through. While I fully understand that Japan inflicted a multitude horrors of its own during not only that war, but many prior, I still can’t help but wonder why anyone could think that inflicting a worse horror could be of any benefit to humankind. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “and eye for and eye makes the whole world blind”.
Granted, I wasn’t alive to know truly what confusion, anger, hate and frustration haunted the planet at that time. After years of global conflict, it can only have been unbearable, whatever side of the fence you were on.
Yesterday, I read a piece on the BBC that quoted a young American man, Jamal Maddox, carrying similar sentiment.
“I think we as a society need to revisit this point in history and ask ourselves how America came to a point where it was okay to destroy entire cities, to firebomb entire cities.”
Tokyo had, of course, been ruthlessly fire-bombed before Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered their fates. The United States was desperate to end the war by any means necessary, even if it meant unfathomable cruelty.
Today I will reflect fondly on my days in Hiroshima, my conversations with locals over dinner at Okonomi-mura, my trips on the trams, my shock at the paving stones that detail the radius of the atomic blast, my pain upon learning so much more than the west had taught me about the day, my laughs with the schoolchildren at the Museum, who wanted to know everything about me, and told me they all hoped for a peaceful life ahead.
And today, I’ll also reflect on my continuing disbelief that, 70 years on, we still think destroying each other will bring an end to our problems and resolve our differences.
To close, here is a video shot in 1946 by US Air Force cameramen sent to document the aftermath in Hiroshima. It’s the best available footage of the devastation. It was locked up until 1980, hidden from view by the US Government so it could tell the patriotic and heroic story of how it ended the war for the good of mankind, cementing an enduring global peace. But what happened on that day has left so many with no peace, and memories that no human being should ever be left to bear.
The video is hard to watch, but it should be. Only by understanding the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki better can we move forward towards nurturing a world in which us, as this planet’s inhabitants, never accept such atrocious destruction ever again.