Around the turn of the millennium, Brian Lamb asked Molly Ivins a predictable and banal question, what was the most important book of the previous century. After about a half-minuet of thinking she said, "Hiroshima" by John Hersey, which is probably the most intelligent answer ever given to that question. It was “Hiroshima” which began the process of holding up to our eyes what dropping a “small” atomic bomb did, what it meant in terms of peoples’ bodies evaporated, burned, lives altered down to their sliced and distorted molecules. Other people nominated the book as the most important, I found out later. If there is something as presently contingent as a literary history in the future, that judgment is as secure a one as could be made.
This particular spot, he thought always would be peaceful, for it was off the beaten track, distant from any possible target of atomic war. Except for the remote possibility of some ancient and unrecorded, long forgotten minor conflict in prehistoric days, no battle ever had been fought here or ever would be fought. And yet it could not escape the common fate of poisoned soil and water if the world should suddenly, in some fateful hour of fury, unleash the might of its awesome weapons. Then the skies would be filled with atomic ash, which would come sifting down, and it would make little difference where a man might be. Soon or late, the war would come to him, if not in a flash of monstrous energy, then in the snow of death falling from the skies.
Way Station, Clifford Simak, 1963
Sometimes you are reminded just how old you are, how the world you grew up in has become alien territory for children you know. That’s what happened reading this to my nieces, 12 and 13, last week. Of all the many things I’ve ever read them, of all the dark and dangerous things in different novels, this is the only one which has really scared them. They wanted to know if it was true.
If you have never been in that situation before, of having to tell children that age that what you just read them was a real possibility, that it was possible for a nuclear war to kill everyone including everyone they knew and that the death, if not immediate, would be horrific, it is a singular feeling. Being responsible for telling them something like that, something I must have assumed they knew already. They grew up in a family of inveterate news junkies and political activists who constantly discuss what's going on.
People my age grew up knowing that we lived under the threat of nuclear death and something of what that could mean. I don’t remember what it was like to be too young to know it. Being about their age during the Cuban Missile Crisis it was something we discussed on the playground like Ralphie and his friends talked about tongues on frozen metal. Older children gave us lurid details of radiation sickness, some of it turning out to be accurate. Apparently it’s not discussed on some playgrounds today.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto and what could happen if Pakistan falls apart, what happens if Pakistan’s bombs are used, should refresh our memory to talk about this again. How did the topic of nuclear war fall from notice? The cold war was declared over but there are more nuclear powers in the world than ever before, one or two of the “minor” ones have enough bombs to kill hundreds of millions of people if not set off the end of life on the planet. It isn’t a problem that has been solved or even diminished. Policy wonks are pursuing new generations of nuclear weapons and setting things up for a new round of arms racing. You get the feeling that the issue of what it would mean in terms of the possibility of their actually being used is seen as being something from a quarter of a century ago. Like those ridiculous “duck and tuck” messages, only too unhappy to be campy. It doesn’t help to have members of the Bush regime using it as just one more lie told to justify the illegal invasion of the non-nuclear Iraq. Condi Rice has probably done more to discredit talking about nuclear dangers than anyone in the past decade. Nuclear weapons are too important for falsely crying wolf over or to be undiscussed due to their being deemed to be trite.
Today, it is only the United States that did use atomic weapons on a human population. The only possible explanation in defense of dropping them on cities was that it might not have be certain of what they would do. You wonder if Truman had known if he wouldn’t have decided to demonstrate their use in an unpopulated area, but that chance is gone never to come back. We know. Entertaining the possibility of that not being the last time they are used is criminal insanity, criminal insanity engaged in by national leaders and the most respected members of societies around the world.
In 1902 Natsume Soseki, on the death of the poet Masaoka Shiki, wrote:
See how it hovers,
In these streets of yellow fog,
A human shadow.
Forty three years later, the shadows were seen written on pavement. They need to be written indelibly on everyones mind.