Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 18 News List

'Shockwave' will unsettle you with the truth of nuclear devastation

John Murray gives a straight account of one of humanity's defining moments, the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Shockwave: The Countdown to Hiroshima
By Stephen Walker
352 pages
John Murray

The 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atom-bomb on Hiroshima occurs next month, on Aug. 6. This new book, a day-by-day account of the run-up to that day in laboratories, on airfields and in the corridors of power, as well as in the streets and parks of Hiroshima itself, appears to have been commissioned in order to meet that deadline.

It's not only painful but also intellectually unsettling to have to write about Hiroshima at all. The horrors themselves, with the temptation to linger over them in some sort of voyeuristic fascination, are only the worst part of it. But the old, weary argument about whether the bombing was justified -- in order to end the war quickly, or as a lesson to the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1945 poised to invade Japan from the north -- is also troublingly compromising.

One of the worst parts of the argument for and against is the tacit agreement by both sides not to include consideration of the pure Buddhist precept that to take life at all is simply wrong. In the tough world of real politics, we can forget that one, people seem to assume.

Nevertheless, it was a revulsion at the whole grim, mega-death calculations of the ensuing Cold War that led to the peace movement of the 1960s, together with the alienation from "conventional" society pioneered by the Beats in the 1950s, something that led Allen Ginsberg to tell America, in a deliberately shocking early poem, just what it could do with its atom bomb.

And nowadays, when probably nine nations possess nuclear weapons, the atomic one of 1945 can even appear of limited size and power. If you go to the Peace Park in Hiroshima and look at the twis-ted bicycle that's one of the exhibits, your reaction as a modern visitor can very easily be. "How extraordinary that it survived at all!"

Also curious, but numbing in its number-crunching, is the absolute distinction made between the two bombs of August 1945 and the massive carpet bombing that had gone before. Over 100,000 civilians had been burnt alive in Tokyo on one night alone in May 1945 from incendiary bombs, not to mention the earlier wholesale destruction of Hamburg and Dresden by the UK's Royal Air Force. Such deliberate killing of civilians, which both sides claim the other began, was a huge step in the evolution of the horror of modern war. In the 18th century, right down to the Napoleonic Wars, citizens paid to be taken to convenient hilltops to watch an important battle. By the end of World War II they were being obliterated (if they were lucky) in their beds.

Nor is it enjoyable to rehearse once again such things as what Franklin Roosevelt might have done if he hadn't died in April 1945, or consider the public relations implications of Truman's given name "Harry," with its suggestion that he was at heart an easy-going, decent fellow who couldn't possibly have been responsible for anything approaching a war-crime.

All this and more was gone over at the previous major Hiroshima anniversary, the 50th in 1995. Then the planned exhibition at Washington's Smithsonian Institute, aimed at airing both sides of a permanently vexed question, was curtailed following patriotic protests from the American Legion and the Air Force Association. In the end only the aircraft, the Enola Gay, stood as a mute and ambiguous tribute to what visitors could interpret for themselves as either the US' success or humanity's disgrace.

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