Hiroshima - taking back ground zero

Trip Start Dec 01, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Japan  , Chugoku,
Saturday, January 21, 2012

There was a nuclear war. Japan lost.It didn’t happen on film, the bomb actually exploded 600m above my head 57 years ago. But I still can’t get to grips with it. I took the tram from Hiroshima train station down towards the hostel. Like a Kyoto bus, it stopped at every traffic light and then its own stations. The journey took twenty minutes, but felt longer, through the now familiar landscape of clashing high rise buildings and neon. I found out today that this journey occurs entirely within the zone of total destruction. The bomb blast destroyed everything, bar two or three metal and stone structures, within a 2.5km radius. But then why do we use radius? What it means is that a burning fist 5km wide punched a hole in the centre of the city. Hiroshima was chosen because of its dense, unobstructed, urban spread. The tram lines still follow the lines of the firebreaks that were bulldozed through the town in 1943-45 to stop the spread of fires coming from Allied bombing raids. The bombing raids never materialised, but when the fire finally came it sprang up everywhere simultaneously in one second. Hiroshima is built in a bowl of hills. Everything within that bowl was burned or damaged, almost all of it was destroyed. I can’t imagine why people would even decide to rebuild, but they did. There are two main testaments to the destruction; the A-bomb dome (currently under scaffolding, given it is roughly 70 years old and has been hit by an atomic weapon, they like to check its stability every few years) and the peace park itself, which lies on an island that was packed with homes at 8.14am on August 6, 1945, and then one minute later was not.
Perhaps the largest war the planet has known needed the A-bomb as the enormous full-stop of the conflict. Hiroshima has a place in the history of the earth and will probably remain notorious for as long as the human race can keep alive. (Nagasaki's position in history will be determined by whether it is the last or merely the second city to be bombed in such a way). I was watching Hiroshima, Mon Amour with its themes of the fight against the fog of memory, mixing together love and war. The buildings are all back and bigger, the survivors are living the last years of their natural lives, but where is the bomb? The mayor of Hiroshima knows where. Every time there is a nuclear test, even those sub-critical ones that don’t involve explosions, he writes to the head of the state involved, admonishing them for the path they have taken. (Copies of several letters to Barack Obama are on show in the museum). He should do it for casual references as well. The blog I used to write had more than its share of anti-nuke rants, particularly against the UK’s Trident scheme and the decision by two lip-service left-wing, Christian-in-name-alone-posers who pushed through its renewal without any debate. The mayor should write to people like Hillary Clinton who threatened to nuke Iran just to gain some points in her Democratic primary candidacy - an all time low. To my mind she has reeked of death-wielding harpie ever since. Perhaps a few tales from survivors about the half-human-half-corpse figures that staggered through the flames crying out for water would make her think twice. Humans cracked like statues, drowning themselves in the city’s rivers or drinking the black cancer rain that fell that evening. 

This all really happened here. The city was replaced with total hell in seconds. I don't even mean that metaphorically. Back then such a weapon was top secret (following the surrender no publications were allowed to mention the matter – hindering research into the conditions of survivors for some time). Could we possibly imagine the confusion? There must have been sizeable amount of people not killed by the explosion who believed themselves dead, in hell, or at least at the end of the world.
Hiroshima keeps losing out to context though. The death count was not as high as the bombing campaign of Tokyo; the bomb, by today's standards, was not that big, and the mushroom cloud tends to be associated with events yet to happen, or big screen morbid fantasy, rather than an actual historical event. Even the term ground zero has been taken to mean something else.
The city, for the most part built of one or two-rise timber buildings packed together, caught fire instantly. Its population had just been given the all-clear after a night of bombing alerts and people were stepping outside. On previous occasions the Allies had dropped warning notes about bombing raids, encouraging people to flee. The high command had this time said specifically that no warning was to be given.
Hiroshima was a military target; it had been designated the main base for the southern Japanese military in the event the Allies tried to seize Honshu island and split it in two. It had a long history as a military port, however, at that time and place, many of those out on the streets were students and prisoners of war, forced to work on demolishing buildings for the fire breaks. Among the survivors who were later to develop illnesses it was the children who developed cancer and other diseases first, plus those pregnant mothers who later gave birth to deformed babies. So, the bomb does discriminate after all - it prefers to kill children. The effects of the residual radiation then set to work on the doctors and aid workers who poured into the city to help, everyone unaware of the dangers or effects of the bomb's radiation.
The watches stopped at 8.15 - the time that human history reset itself. The secondary effects of the bomb pushed beyond the city's mountain border. It secured the unconditional surrender of a Japanese government that had previously called for 100 million deaths in defence of the homeland. It started a new chapter in global politics and warfare, with the new rule that mankind's conduct could end all human civilisation for ever. The Soviets, who had just days earlier declared war on Japan, were no longer able to advance into the Pacific theatre and were left to strangle Eastern Europe for 50 years instead. Just five years later the USSR tested the world’s biggest bomb which, at 50 megatonnes, had more destructive power than all the ammunition and bombs dropped during the Second World War. 
In the face of such inconceivable statistics of annihilation, it seems odd that those who speak out against nuclear weapons are branded na´ve, pacifists (as if this is a bad thing) or both. I am neither. The charge of na´ve is amusing, given that our future vision is a world where no one has the bomb, while others believe they can maintain the status quo with non-proliferation – a strategy that has already failed with India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Surely it is na´ve to hold the bomb as your advantage while not expecting others to do the same? The bomb was invented to replace aerial bombing raids: one plane to do the damage where 800 were needed before. Now that we can guide missiles from launch point to target with minimum deviation we introduce a new level of discrimination in modern warfare (or reintroduce a tradition of not targeting civilians that was lost when bombing raids on cities began). The bomb is no longer morally justifiable, and if you believe that using the term “moral” in war is again na´ve, I ask you to imagine the other sorts of biological weapons that could be dreamt up (Something to rot the flesh? Sterilise a nation? Blind or retard a population?) and you may realise that a line needs to be drawn somewhere, even in conflict. So why should be bomb not fall into the forbidden side of that line? Because the hero always survives the bomb – he hides in a fridge, flies away, dives into a trench. Sarah Conner burned up screaming as a children in a playground caught fire before her disintegrating eyes, but that was Terminator 2 where the bomb was dropped by machines. 
The bomb was not dropped by machines, it was dropped by humans who also dropped probes and took photos to gauge its effects. There was a nuclear war tens of thousands of people burned alive in seconds, tens of thousands died of horrific injuries in the following days, tens of thousands were affected by radiation, dying of cancer or being born with their genes exploded by the blast. The winter sun hangs low over Hiroshima and I wonder if there are any witnesses left who may see it and be reminded of the day the sun appeared above the city. More than imagining that it happened here, we need to remember and know it happened here.
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thepeterhawkins on

Now the paragraphs have cocked up in the other direction. Every time I put them in they appear in a different section of text. Very annoying.

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