Paul Ham, Hiroshima Nagasaki (HaperCollins 2011)
Before the Group meeting: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book at Gleebooks early last year. He described it as narrative history, aiming to tell the story of what happened in the lead-up to dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the aftermath, paying attention to what the various players knew and understood as events unfolded, as opposed to their later accounts. He focused on the phrase ‘the least abhorrent alternative’ used by the US leadership after the fact. It encapsulates the official version of events that is not borne out by the records: in fact, he said, no other alternative was ever seriously considered. And, he said at that Gleebooks event, the record puts the lie to received wisdom that the atomic bombs saved as many as a million lives by bringing about an immediate Japanese surrender: the Japanese leadership in fact barely discussed the bombs at all, but were despertely alarmed by Russia’s entry into the Pacific War. Yet Ham dissociated himself from ‘revisionist’ histories that saw the US use of the bombs as knowingly unnecessary. I bought a copy of the book and was looking forward to reading it, so I was very glad that someone proposed it for the book group.
I finished it with days to spare before the meeting, but other demands on my time meant I didn’t get to write anything. I found it completely gripping – one night in bed, reading accounts of Hiroshima just after the bomb was dropped, I gasped involuntarily at least three times, interrupting the Art Student’s beauty sleep.
The meeting: There were nine of us, including one of the Founding Fathers who had been away for more than a year while finishing a degree, and the other Founding Father who has more or less moved to Darwin, but managed to be in town that night. The book generated a lot of discussion over soup, salad and sausages, with a backyard pond full of frogs as background music. I think it made a deep impression on each of us: it confronted us with our ignorance /amnesia about the Allies’ ‘terror bombing’ of Hamburg and Dresden, and of 60 Japanese cities including Tokyo; one guy who always wants us, as an all-male group, to talk about masculinity, found plenty of grist for that mill; there was rumination on the ‘anything can happen’ theme. Basically, we reminded each other of what was in the book rather than getting into controversy. One of us confessed to having bashed people’s ears about it over Christmas meals. Another said that a friend who hadn’t read the book dismissed it as being akin to the sloppy macho war histories produced by a Household Name (unnamed here because I haven’t read any of his work) – but none of us felt it matched that description. We did discuss briefly the absence of any exploration of the US’s insulting treatment of Japan in the decades leading up to Pearl Harbor, and wondered if we would have responded any differently from the Japanese people who were in thrall to the propaganda urging mass honorable suicide, or from the US people who cheered with no misgivings the mass killing wrought in their name. Someone said that he enjoyed books that were beautifully written; I felt that this is such a book, but he meant something different.
It was one of the best nights we’ve had in the group.
After the meeting: Geoffrey McSkimming, creator of the much-loved Cairo Jim–Jocelyn Osgood books for young people, once told me he has a rule that there need to be three good gags a page (Geoffrey, if you read this, please correct me if I misremember). Hiroshima Nagasaki keeps this rule, except it does it with interesting/devastating details or revelatory flashes rather than gags.
When I mentioned the three-gag rule at the meeting, someone mistook me to mean I loved the accumulation of facts and statistics, which he said (and I agreed) did sometimes become onerous. I was thinking rather of the kind of moment that strikes a spark of emotion or insight, or sets you googling to find out more about someone or something mentioned in passing. I decided to do a little test. I chose a page at random by tossing coins: 2 heads, 6 heads, 3 heads – page 263.
This is a key point in the narrative. The Allies have issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding that Japan surrender unconditionally or face ruin and destruction. The Japanese leadership consider it, but the hawkish, ‘samurai’ side carries the day, and the Prime Minister reluctantly issues a statement saying they ignore the declaration as beneath consideration – the Japanese concept is mokusatsu. This is interpreted in the West as a rejection of the ultimatum, and plans to drop the new bomb are greenlighted. All that is interesting in itself: the page is a good example of how the book’s narrative drive. But how about he three-gag rule? I think it holds up.
One: It may be idiosyncratic of me, but I find that parenthesis at the top of the page riveting. Arguably the most important meeting of the Japanese leadership and one of the two men arguing against suicidal defiance just happened to be absent. Can history really turn on such tiny hinges?
Two: Though the linguistic/cultural titbit about mokusatsu has been introduced on the previous page (along with the equally interesting haragei or ‘stomach art’), here the ‘gag’ is the tragic lost-in-translation effect of those US headlines hot on the heels of t he various literal versions of Suzuki’s words.
Three: The aphoristic punch of ‘The Japanese resolve to continue fighting was a depressing example of the triumph of hope over experience.’
It may not be up there with the page that tells us what the Hiroshima bombing crew did on their return to base, but it fits the rule.
It’s a solid book, with a hideous subject, based on original research and painstaking trawling through archives, and managing at the same time to be a lively, at times appalling read. It sits happily on my mental book shelf with Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ Drawing the global Colour Line, which gives some perspective on the lead-up to Pearl Harbor; Robin Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine, about Australian occupying forces stationed near Hiroshima after the war; and The Boneman of Kokoda, an example of an extraordinary individual’s way of living honorably with his part in Japan’s war history..