Reading challenge book 4 – a book with one-word title

Hiroshima, by John Hersey

Amazon link here.

In my last review, I wrote that Gods of Metal was published to commemorate the 70-year anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. This book was similarly published by Penguin. Hiroshima was originally published by the New Yorker in August 1946 as an extended article which comprised the full content of that edition. It describes the experiences of 6 Japanese citizens who lived in Hiroshima, both immediately after the bombing and in later days and months. There is no explicit social commentary; the description of their experiences is enough.

There can be a risk that narratives of atrocities edge into tragiporn territory, but for me, this wasn’t an issue with Hiroshima. I remember discussing the bombings in GCSE History and blithely noting that fewer people were killed in the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki than in certain other battles at the time. Taking a numbers point of view (my speciality), the reduction in loss of life appeared to justify the bombs’ use.

Now, I’m not sure that I would entirely discard that conclusion. I can however at least recognise it as being simplistic.

What horrified me about these recollections?

The people’s ignorance of what was happening. The Japanese people didn’t know what a nuclear bomb was, didn’t understand what had happened (although the USA subsequently broadcast their use of nuclear weapons, the Japanese government attempted to cover this up), didn’t know about radiation sickness. Survivors revisited the city centre because they didn’t know not to.

From having done a little reading into this, my understanding is that individual scientists at Los Alamos knew that radiation sickness was a likely consequence of the bomb – they took protective measures for personnel observing the first test of the plutonium bomb. But no one took the leap that this could be either a strategic application or an undesirable outcome of using the bomb, and therefore this was probably not raised with more senior personnel (e.g. Truman). This is possibly understandable in the context of the extreme secrecy and compartmentalisation at Los Alamos, but remains horrifying.

The destruction of medical facilities and death of medical personnel. Ground zero for the Hiroshima bombing was a hospital (I don’t think this was deliberate, bombers’ ability to strike a pinpointed target at the time was limited), 65 of 150 doctors in the city were killed in the initial detonation and most of the rest were wounded, and there are similar statistics for nurses. The horror of the wounds suffered by the people – skin sloughing off to the touch, etc. – is heightened by the lack of available medical assistance.

I would recommend this book to anyone. We live in a nuclear age, and I would argue that the use of nuclear weapons is glamorised through countless portrayals of nuclear threats and detonations in books and movies. I think it’s worth remembering what hundreds of thousands of Japanese people suffered in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. This is probably a pretty mawkish point of view, but in the UK we regularly celebrate the end of World War II; I think it’s important to take a clear-eyed look at the cost of the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific region.


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