“Oh, I wouldn’t hesitate if I had the choice. I’d wipe em’ out. You’re gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we’ve never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn’t kill innocent people… That’s their tough luck for being there… I had no problem with it. I did what I was told, and I would do it again in the same circumstances.”
These words belong to Paul Tibbets, the pilot who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, and they came out of his mouth in 2002. Colonel Tibbets’ flick of a thumb caused the immediate extermination of 80,000 human beings, killed a total of 140,000 before that year was out and thousands more in the years that followed. Everyone knows this. I knew this. But putting myself in the space where it happened made me feel I hadn’t known it at all.
Now, to be fair, I’m heavily biased. I would make the worst soldier in the history of war. I have none of what it takes to follow orders unquestioningly – especially if they lead to the end of life – I abhor the very nature of war, and I live with emotions too close to the surface. But even if I reluctantly understand the rare need for those who do have what it takes, Tibbets’ fiery defense, after almost 60 years of reflection, runs my blood dead cold.
Hiroshima is a gorgeous town. It’s one of the youngest places in Japan. There is a palpable creative energy, the architecture is clean and sophisticated, and it’s dotted with soft, green spaces. We got there in the calm of dawn after taking an overnight bus from Fukuoka, went straight to sleep and woke in the afternoon to the buzz of the pedestrian open-air arcade. We walked up and down this loveable thoroughfare a couple of times, had lunch, watched the fashionistas strut their mini-skirts, and then walked toward the reason we had come.
My God. What a sight. There’s this point at the mouth of the shopping alley where the crowd thins in an instant and the world opens up to reveal the Atomic Bomb Dome. As though on a stage, among a cast of shiny high rises, it stands as a mass of stained, engorged stone with gaping, pulsing wounds. It releases pure awe. In 1945, this defiant structure served as the Industrial Promotional Hall. The T-shaped bridge next to it was the target used by Tibbets, and in the minutes that followed August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, it was the only building left in a 2km radius. All people inside and out, all life, all desks, all floors, all matter of any kind went to ash in a single second, but the structure held firm. There are engineering explanations for this, but I choose to believe it lived so it could tell the story.
The Japanese have gone to tremendous lengths to transform the hypocentre of the blast into as striking and memorable a space one could imagine. Laid out at the feet of the Dome is a large, beautiful park with benches for resting and a river running through it. There are sculptures and plaques perfectly spaced-out, colourful ribbons floating in the breeze, a Peace Bell that rings every morning at 8:15am, and of course, across the bridge, there’s the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
After a long, slow walk in the open air, we spent 3 hours at the museum. Admission has been kept low, people in it are more quiet and reverent than in any other museum I’ve visited, and it is devastatingly powerful. The history of the bomb, of war politics, and the future of both is tightly exhibited. There are two sections: the east wing is policy, politics and cold facts, and the west is the hard stuff. In the first, you get the films, letters, documents, re-constructions of the town as it was before August 6, and in the second section, you get a dose of earth, you get the impact on human life. The organization is smart. They start you on high-level political posturing and finish you on the human consequences. From the nerves of your brain to the churning of bile in your stomach, I guess that’s the point.
One thing in particular followed me closely as I walked into this second wing. It’s the knowledge that the Allies kept Hiroshima untouched by air raids during the war, despite its military importance, so that when they dropped the nuclear bomb (a very likely event all along), the effects of the explosion could be properly measured. Despite the fact that I see the scientific and historical value of this decision, it was a sterile, laboratory calculation that fooled these people into a sense of security and made experiments of them. And when I met the people, pieces of them displayed in the next room, I could only think that science and history should go screw themselves. But hey, they wanted effects, and they got them.
The minute that bomb exploded, thousands of whole human beings burst into thin air – and they were the lucky ones. On display in this museum are remains of those who took longer to die. There are pieces of burnt clothing, shredded school uniforms, distorted lunch boxes, wallets, medals, coins, clumps of a dead daughter’s hair, strips of charred flesh, long finger nails the consistency and shape of black rod iron that grew from survivors’ hands for decades, a shadow left behind by a woman waiting for the bank to open – and most annihilating of all, one toddler’s tricycle.
The morning of August 6, there was a father watching his little one riding in their yard. The moment the bomb dropped, that child melted before his eyes. Days later, the man buried the few remains of his son with his toy, and together, they rested there for 50 years… until, just before his death, when he excavated the tricycle and gave it to the museum. Frozen before this, quivering, I heard in an echo: “That’s their tough luck for being there… That’s their tough luck for being there.”
One of the other planes flying overhead that day was piloted by Claude Robert Eatherley, a little known figure in this story. He was the weather guy, the guy who radioed the following message to his superiors: “Clear skies over Hiroshima. Very good weather. Visibility excellent.” And with these few words, he sealed the fate of everything below him and turned tiny tricycles into ghosts. Eatherley, unlike Tibbets, was paralyzed by remorse and never recovered. He refused all accolades his government tried to lavish on him when he returned home, he repeatedly wrote letters to the people of Hiroshima begging for forgiveness, he attempted suicide in 1950, he never understood the government’s claims that he “wasn’t responsible” for this horror, he spent the rest of his life in and out of a mental hospital, and he died in 1978.
Eatherley, of course, is not responsible – at least not entirely. This horror would have happened without him. The responsibility is shared between all the characters in this story: the uranium suppliers, the scientists, the policy makers, the generals, the U.S. government, the Nazis, the Japanese government, the Soviets – the list goes on and on. The only people clearly not responsible are the ones in this museum.
The city of Hiroshima has since named itself, “The City of Peace”. Walking around it, you see the word everywhere. There’s the Peace Café, the Peace Restaurant, the Peace Culture Foundation, the Peace Bell, the Peace Museum. And ever since 1945, the mayor of Hiroshima has sent a letter of Peace to every head of state after their performance of a nuclear test demanding the abandonment of all nuclear weaponry. There’s a big wall of these at the museum – the latest, of course, being addressed to Kim Jong Il on October 10, 2006, but pinned right beside it, to its left, there’s one addressed to: “His Excellency George W. Bush”, dated a few months before and written in response to a subcritical nuclear test that country performed.
Tests. Effects. Science. History. Flesh. Shadows. Tricycles.
When we walked out of that museum, I looked up. There were clear skies, it was very good weather and the visibility was excellent.
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