I’d set my phone to remind me this morning at a quarter past nine – 8.15 am Japanese Standard Time – to mark the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by the USA.
I sat for a minute in silence. Life went on around me without a perceptible ripple. I thought I should spend another couple of minutes making my minute into a social event. (I believe that the opening ceremony in Rio fell silent for a minute – but I wasn’t watching the telly.)
So much fuss is rightly made here of the number of Australians who died in a single day on the Somme in 1915. But that appalling tragedy involved men who were combatants – they had been sent by their government to kill and, as it happened, be killed. The people who died at Hiroshima, instantly or in the long agony of radiation disease, were largely civilians – babies at the breast, old women on their deathbeds, cooks, poets and potters – going about their ordinary lives in the city of two rivers, as much as life could be ordinary in that country at that time. And the Hiroshima anniversary creates hardly a blip on the Australian public radar these days.
The horror of the atom bomb took a while to be generally known, and was overshadowed by the relief of the war ending. What struck me this morning was that my generation is the first to be born into a world where nuclear weapons had already been used to kill people, the first to be born after what scientists now call Year Zero (because radiation dating has to be calculated differently after 1945), the first to live with the knowledge that human beings have the power to wipe ourselves out, and so – for many of us – the first to spend a lot of energy keeping that knowledge away from the front of our minds. The temptation to think small, to look after number one, to cultivate one’s garden, to turn away from the suffering of other people, to live in a bubble, became significantly stronger 71 years ago today.
A minute of silence goes a small way to opening the mind to the possibility of shrinking that sphere of numbness, of embracing the whole world and all that it has to offer, the joys and challenges as well as the horrors.
Since this is mainly a book blog, I should mention some books. Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki is an excellent narrative historyof the planning for the bomb and the dropping as it happened. Robyn Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine and subsequent articles (here, and here) are excellent on Australian responses, as is Michael Bogles’ piece in Overland 218 (my blog mention here).