Last week I visited the peace park in Hiroshima, where a U.S. bomber dropped the first nuclear weapon to be used in war. Walking through the memorials, it is impossible not to remember the exact moment of the bomb’s detonation: 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. Clocks in the city stopped because of the awesome power of the atomic blast, and the distinctive face of the A-bomb watch — minute hand stretched level to the right, hour hand splayed out slightly lower to the left — is Hiroshima’s own crucifix, displayed in wristwatch relics that survived the bombing as well as modern-day memorials. By the end of 1945, an estimated 140,000 people had died from the A-bomb attack, slightly less than half the city’s population. An astounding one in ten of the dead were actually Koreans, many of them brought over to Hiroshima as slave laborers.

I remember a while back there was a flap over an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. American veterans groups were angry that the exhibit focused too much on the casualties inflicted by the bomb and not enough on how it — and the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later — brought about a thankfully swift end to the war. The Smithsonian exhibit was eventually canceled. More anniversaries have come and gone, but the debate is still not resolved. Supporters of the bombings, including some Japanese historians, have argued that the war would have gone on for many months longer without the use of atomic weapons and that the cost of conquering Japan, in military casualties on both sides as well as Japanese civilian deaths, would have surpassed the nuclear death toll. Opponents of the bombings, including General Dwight Eisenhower and other top U.S. commanders during the war, have said that Japan was all but defeated by August 1945 and the use of such an awesome and indiscriminate weapon could not be justified militarily. The latter is the view expressed in the Hiroshima peace museum. Clearly, the Japanese war machine needed to be stopped — the exhibits in the museum make pointed reference to Japanese war crimes in China and Korea — but the atomic bombings were not the solution. The museum makes the case — one that I never heard growing up in the U.S. — that the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan would have ended the war quickly, without the need for atomic weapons. (The Americans refused to wait, the museum claims, because they did not want the communists to establish any further footholds in Asia once the fighting ended and the victorious powers began carving up their post-war spheres of influence.)

Which military scenario would have brought about the least loss of life is just one of the questions to consider, however. We sometimes forget that bombing Hiroshima was more than just the taking of civilian life — it was the taking of life in the most gruesome way imaginable. The horror is captured in heartbreaking detail by the museum’s exhibits. Men, women, and children walked through the burning city like zombies, their skin charred and hanging off their bodies in tatters. Black rain fell from the skies, the detritus of a poisoned earth; bomb victims mad with thirst drank the radioactive waters. The black-and-white photographs of the carnage are difficult to behold, but for me the most moving images were the sketches drawn by the survivors themselves. In raw colors and sometimes child-like scrawls, they depict the most terrible suffering. Naked bodies and tortured flesh, like a scene of hell from the dark imaginations of medieval Christian painters. A mother wailing over her son’s disfigured body as it lies in a field of unclaimed dead. Such suffering did not end on the day of the bombing. Those who were within one kilometer of the blast radius died within days. Others drowned themselves in the Motoyasu River because the pain of their wounds was so great and the available treatment so little. Still others suffered for years to come, bearing keloid scars and other disfigurements and eventually contracting diseases linked to their radiation poisoning. (They included the young girl Sadako Sasaki, just two years old when she was exposed to the bomb’s radiation, who died of leukemia at the age of 12 and whose spirit is remembered in the peace park’s especially moving memorial to Hiroshima’s young victims.)

Since the bombing of Hiroshima, the city’s mayors have written letters to the leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, reminding them after each nuclear test they conduct that they are dishonoring Hiroshima’s dead and killing the hopes of the bomb’s survivors for an end to war. The last two letters featured in the museum were sent in February to U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Sixty years after Hiroshima, the United States and Great Britain persist in testing sophisticated new forms of nuclear weaponry, even while reprimanding hostile nations like Iran and North Korea for their arms development.

Since the U.S. and British governments still have not given up their addiction to nuclear weapons, citizens of these two countries may find a trip to the city’s peace museum all the more important. For American visitors in particular, the scenes of blasted buildings and soot-covered victims may evoke memories of the horrors of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It seems that the power to perpetrate mass killings of civilians, and the politics to justify them, remain very much with us today. Until the world lays down its arms, Hiroshima, too, will remain with us, as the cross of our shared suffering.

Victor Tan Chen

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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