Saturday, August 06, 2005

Nuclear Bombs Aren't Cool.

Most of my friends know that I was an exchange student in Hiroshima as a junior in high school. My host parents and extended family there were survivors of the nuclear holocaust of August 6, 1945. My grandmother with her lilting Hiroshima-ben (dialect) told me in detail the most vivid pictures of her experience as a young nurse searching for her family members after the bomb struck. Living there and having the opportunity to keep hearing and taking in all the stories of friends, family exhibits, the Peace Park without my knowing at the time dramatically shifted my worldview. I've managed to collect a lot of books, videos and other materials - not as my life's work, but as a human deeply touched by the searing tragedy of one decision that cut a path of change through generations and inspired people I know to put the issue to the front of their lives. This is the 60th anniversary, and although my blog is really themed for looking for the 'cool' and new, something very uncool has its place in remembrance here too.

A dear friend just sent me a link to the Truthout site's collection of pieces today, which I post here.

No more Hiroshimas please.


The Myths of Hiroshima
By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
The Los Angeles Times

Friday 05 August 2005

Sixty years ago tomorrow, an atomic bomb was dropped without warning on the center of the Japanese city of Hiroshima. One hundred and forty thousand people were killed, more than 95% of them women and children and other noncombatants. At least half of the victims died of radiation poisoning over the next few months. Three days after Hiroshima was obliterated, the city of Nagasaki suffered a similar fate.

The magnitude of death was enormous, but on Aug. 14, 1945 - just five days after the Nagasaki bombing - Radio Tokyo announced that the Japanese emperor had accepted the US terms for surrender. To many Americans at the time, and still for many today, it seemed clear that the bomb had ended the war, even "saving" a million lives that might have been lost if the US had been required to invade mainland Japan.

This powerful narrative took root quickly and is now deeply embedded in our historical sense of who we are as a nation. A decade ago, on the 50th anniversary, this narrative was reinforced in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first bomb. The exhibit, which had been the subject of a bruising political battle, presented nearly 4 million Americans with an officially sanctioned view of the atomic bombings that again portrayed them as a necessary act in a just war.

But although patriotically correct, the exhibit and the narrative on which it was based were historically inaccurate. For one thing, the Smithsonian downplayed the casualties, saying only that the bombs "caused many tens of thousands of deaths" and that Hiroshima was "a definite military target."

Americans were also told that use of the bombs "led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands." But it's not that straightforward. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has shown definitively in his new book, "Racing the Enemy" - and many other historians have long argued - it was the Soviet Union's entry into the Pacific war on Aug. 8, two days after the Hiroshima bombing, that provided the final "shock" that led to Japan's capitulation.

The Enola Gay exhibit also repeated such outright lies as the assertion that "special leaflets were dropped on Japanese cities" warning civilians to evacuate. The fact is that atomic bomb warning leaflets were dropped on Japanese cities, but only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed.

The hard truth is that the atomic bombings were unnecessary. A million lives were not saved. Indeed, McGeorge Bundy, the man who first popularized this figure, later confessed that he had pulled it out of thin air in order to justify the bombings in a 1947 Harper's magazine essay he had ghostwritten for Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

The bomb was dropped, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, said in November 1945, on "an essentially defeated enemy." President Truman and his closest advisor, Secretary of State James Byrnes, quite plainly used it primarily to prevent the Soviets from sharing in the occupation of Japan. And they used it on Aug. 6 even though they had agreed among themselves as they returned home from the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 3 that the Japanese were looking for peace.

These unpleasant historical facts were censored from the 1995 Smithsonian exhibit, an action that should trouble every American. When a government substitutes an officially sanctioned view for publicly debated history, democracy is diminished.

Today, in the post-9/11 era, it is critically important that the US face the truth about the atomic bomb. For one thing, the myths surrounding Hiroshima have made it possible for our defense establishment to argue that atomic bombs are legitimate weapons that belong in a democracy's arsenal. But if, as Oppenheimer said, "they are weapons of aggression, of surprise and of terror," how can a democracy rely on such weapons?

Oppenheimer understood very soon after Hiroshima that these weapons would ultimately threaten our very survival.

Presciently, he even warned us against what is now our worst national nightmare - and Osama bin Laden's frequently voiced dream - an atomic suitcase bomb smuggled into an American city: "Of course it could be done," Oppenheimer told a Senate committee, "and people could destroy New York."

Ironically, Hiroshima's myths are now motivating our enemies to attack us with the very weapon we invented. Bin Laden repeatedly refers to Hiroshima in his rambling speeches. It was, he believes, the atomic bombings that shocked the Japanese imperial government into an early surrender - and, he says, he is planning an atomic attack on the US that will similarly shock us into retreating from the Mideast.

Finally, Hiroshima's myths have gradually given rise to an American unilateralism born of atomic arrogance.

Oppenheimer warned against this "sleazy sense of omnipotence." He observed that "if you approach the problem and say, 'We know what is right and we would like to use the atomic bomb to persuade you to agree with us,' then you are in a very weak position and you will not succeed.... You will find yourselves attempting by force of arms to prevent a disaster."

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin are coauthors of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, published earlier this year by Knopf.

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Witness to the Ghosts of Hiroshima
By Matt Condon
The Age, Australia

Saturday 06 August 2005

Left:Radiation burns on the back of Kiyoshi Kitsukawa, a Hiroshima tram conductor who was standing with his back to the blast about 1000 yards from the centre of the explosion.

He was a small old man and he sat alone in the tram. It was late July and very warm and the tram was making its way through the southern suburbs of Hiroshima to the ferry terminal for the sacred island of Miyajima. The old man wore a large, floppy-brimmed canvas hat and a beige safari suit. He cradled in his lap a small bag. He had been watching me since I boarded near the A-Bomb Dome and sat on a bench opposite him.

As the tram emptied stop by stop along route two, he continued staring through his pair of enormous, thick-lensed spectacles. On occasion, I glanced at his kind, worn face and realized there was something not quite right with it - his features were curiously out of alignment. His left eye was smaller than his right, the difference exacerbated by the thick spectacle lenses. The cheekbone below the pinched eye was flat, in defiance of the other, which was round and full. It looked, to me, like a face that had suffered an accident a long time ago, and the imperfections were far away, on the horizon of a long life. At one point, it was just me and the old man in the tram, and this was when he rose slowly and sat beside me. "Where are you from?" he asked. His voice was thin and his English heavily accented but clear. "Australia," I said, turning to him.

He stared down at the carry bag in his hands. "Are you a soldier?" he asked.

I laughed at the unusual question. "No," I said.

"I remember the Australian soldiers in 1945," he said, "with the hats." He folded up one side of his canvas brim, making an impromptu slouch hat. "Very nice," he said, smiling.

Australian soldiers had taught him to speak English at a school in Hiroshima after the war. He had been born in 1928 and had been a "ship man" when he was younger. He gripped an imaginary ship's wheel with his old hands and motioned to steer from left to right. Then he said, unexpectedly: "I am of the atom bomb."

He rummaged in his carry bag and I noticed that the texture of the skin on his left hand was very smooth, an oddity consistent with his eye and his cheekbone. He was an old man divided into two sides. Eventually he produced a thick blue booklet the size of a passport. I had read of these books carried by A-bomb survivors. They were medical record books. "I am going to the hospital," he said, holding up the book. "Every week I go to the hospital." He tapped his knee with the book before returning it to his bag.

"I was visiting Hiroshima on that day," he said, recalling August 6, 1945. "The atom bomb. Wooosh." He raised a bunched fist and flicked his hand open to indicate the explosion. He looked at me with that crooked face and smiled again.

"I am of the atom bomb," he said.

I had come to Japan to retrace the steps of legendary Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. As a young reporter, and in that early grappling for mentors and models, I had known of Burchett for a singular achievement - he was the first Western journalist into Hiroshima after the dropping of the atom bomb. In the 60 years since Burchett filed his report, "The Atomic Plague", for London's Daily Express, it has probably remained the greatest individual newspaper "scoop" of the 20th century and into the millennium. It's impossible to know now to what degree Burchett was writing for history, but you get the feeling, from the opening line, that the young Victorian reporter had an eye to posterity: "I write this as a warning to the world."

Burchett was almost 34 years old when he made his solo journey from Tokyo to Hiroshima to bring the facts of the bomb's devastation to the world, as he put it. At tremendous risk to his safety, he took the long train journey south, traveling in that delicate period between the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan's official surrender. It struck me, as a journalist and a novelist, that one day I would write a novel about this chapter in Burchett's life. The story had everything - war, flight, danger, heroism and, at the centre of it all, one of the defining moments in human history. I made some cursory notes.

Years later, I was browsing through a book stall at a Gold Coast flea market when I came across an extremely battered copy of one of the prolific Burchett's polemic books, This Monstrous War. The book dealt with the Korean conflict. By now I knew more about his life, his evolution into a "radical" journalist and his ability to polarize readers, colleagues, even governments. He was accused of being a communist spy, a traitor, a fabricator. His own country, for a time, refused to grant him a passport and re-entry into Australia. Since Hiroshima, his reputation had wobbled and stumbled.

I developed a theory, too, that the impact of what Burchett saw in Hiroshima, and the scoop itself, changed something inside him: that the dropping of the A-bomb was a schismatic moment for mankind, and also for Burchett's psychology. The theory had no basis in fact. It was the fancy of the novelist, trying to find a way into the head of an undeveloped character. I was already knitting a person called Burchett with the grand, subterranean themes of an unwritten novel. The A-bomb divided the 20th century. So, too, would atoms split in the mind of my Mr. Burchett, altering his view of the world, perhaps sending a hairline fracture through his soul.

When the Iraq conflict broke out in the wake of September 11, 2001, and the world witnessed the manipulation of the media by America, and truth, as they say, became a casualty itself, I kept thinking of Burchett and Hiroshima. In that instance, his purpose was the pursuit of truth. That purpose may have been tangled up with notions of future fame and accolades, of promotion and financial reward, of changing the world.

It is the dichotomy of reporting: at some points in your career you write for the public, but you also write for other journalists. "This is what I got," you're saying, "and you didn't." It was a dangerous, renegade act (often the prerequisite for defining moments) for which Burchett was later vilified by US government officials, who claimed he had fallen victim to Japanese propaganda. In some ways, it went to the very definition of reporting.

In the context of the contemporary world, with television and print journalists "embedded" with US troops invading Iraq (the word itself, embedded, so quickly redefined and attached to the media), I thought of Burchett and that warm September in 1945 when he walked through the ruins of Hiroshima with his notebook. I felt that something had been lost. That we had mislaid something very important about, or within, ourselves. That in modern times the media was like sediment, layer after layer of it, rolled out over feeling and empathy and rage and all those human responses to things that happen in the world. That everything would set like sandstone, and one day, beneath the many strata, a little fossilized truth would be found, embedded, fragile as a mosquito.

I'd bought Burchett's book This Monstrous War for $1, but didn't realize until I got home that it had been inscribed by the author. His best wishes and signature were scratched onto the title page in blue ink some time in the 1950s. When you begin a writing project you accept, beyond logic or reason, all manner of superstitions, totems, coincidences and signs. You believe they will help guide the arrow.

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Surviving Hiroshima: Keiko Ogura
BBC News

Friday 05 August 2005

Keiko Ogura was eight years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. She still lives in the city.

I wanted to go to school, but my father said 'I have a very strange feeling today - you shouldn't go to school, stay with us'.

That morning I was on the road near the house and all of a sudden I saw a flash of bluish white light - a magnesium-like flash and soon after a big sound with dust, and I was blown away and fell on the ground.

I found myself lying on the ground near the house. I thought the house was just in front of me but I couldn't see it because everything had become so dark and many pieces of wood and roof tiles and rubbish were falling on my head.

There was black rain falling... It smelled bad and there were many spots on my white blouse
And in the darkness there was a strong, strong wind like a typhoon. I couldn't open my eyes but tried to get back to my house and in the darkness I heard somebody was crying - my brother and sister.

I was 2.4km from the hypocenter but houses nearer the hypocenter had caught fire and were burning.

I saw long lines of refugees, just quiet, I don't know why they were so quiet. There were long lines, like ghosts.

Most of them were stretching out their arms because the skin was peeling off from the tips of their fingers. I could clearly see the hanging skin, peeling skin, and the wet red flesh and their hair was burned and smelled, the burnt hair smelled a lot.

And many people, just slowly passed by the front of my house.


All of a sudden a hand squeezed my ankle. I was so scared but they said 'get me water'. Almost all the people were just asking 'water', and 'help me'.

I rushed into my home where there was a well and brought them water. They thanked me but some of them were drinking water and vomiting blood and [then] died, stopped moving. They died in front of me. I felt regret and so scared. Maybe I killed them? Did I kill them?

And that night, 6 August, my father was so busy looking after the neighbors, but when he came back he said: 'Listen children - you shouldn't give water, some of the refugees died after drinking water. Please remember that.'

As a little girl I was so curious. I climbed up the hill, near our house... I was so astonished - all the city was flattened and demolished

Then I felt so guilty, and I saw them many times in my nightmares. I thought I was a very bad girl - I didn't do what my father said - so I kept it a secret. I didn't tell anybody this story until my father died.

There was black rain falling, black rain mingling with ashes and rubbish and oil, something like that. It smelled bad and there were many spots on my white blouse - sticky, dirty rain.

In the morning people were moving, brushing away flies from their skin. My house was full of injured people.

But as a little girl I was so curious. I wanted to see what the city looked like. My house was at the bottom of a hill - I climbed up the hill, near our house, and then I saw the whole city. I was so astonished - all the city was flattened and demolished. I counted just a couple of concrete buildings.

In Denial

The next day some of the buildings were still burning, and the next day, and the next day, and for three or four days I climbed the hill to see what the city was like.

I have a brother-in-law. He was living almost at the centre of the city - his family was very close to the hypocenter. Until now his family members were missing and he didn't want to recognize they were all gone, so he refused to say and report the family's names to the officials and he didn't want to visit Hiroshima.

Right now, he is living far away in Tokyo, and only last year he decided to report to Hiroshima city that his family members - his mother and sister - had passed away.

And there were so many people [who saw] so many dead or dying, but actually, most of them made up their mind not to tell anyone about what they saw.

This interview is from the series 'August 1945', from 3-14 August on BBC Radio 4, at 8.55 BST Mondays-Saturday, and at 9.55 BST on Sunday.

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