By John Hersey
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
Hard not to feel nostalgic for days when war was waged by warriors. A certain civility in that. Rules of engagement. Codes of honor. You think of Greeks, and Samurai, and “The Charge of the Light Brigade;” of French and German soldiers who meet in No Man’s Land to share Christmas treats then return to opposing trenches.
But then here comes Nanking, Stalingrad, London, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Total war, as the phrase goes. A reversion to tribal days, perhaps, when warring foes fell men, women, and children alike, to void vengeance. A weapon now to instill dread, to sap the will, to raise the costs of conflict.
Hiroshima: August 6, 1945, 8:15 a.m. That’s when John Hersey‘s story begins, with “a noiseless flash.” It begins not in the White House, nor in the Imperial Palace or the B-29 that dropped the bomb. But in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, where Toshiko has just turned to speak to a co-worker. In the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, where Dr. Sasaki walks down the corridor, a blood specimen in hand. In the minds of six who survived, at a half dozen points across the city, at the instant the atomic bomb exploded.
Here Hersey does not pontificate, excuse, blame, or rage. He reports. With meticulous detail, in short, clear, declarative sentences, with controlled understatement. To describe a human experience so beyond words and thought that it can be grasped only through the senses.
So, through the eyes and ears of these six hibakusha, literally, “explosion-affected persons,” we see the scarred multitudes fleeing the fires, hear the shocked silence of the radiated dying, feel the flames, and smell the putrefying flesh. Working like a novelist, Hersey puts us there, scene upon scene, with dialogue and pertinent detail, to show the reality on a human scale. Not commenting, but showing:
“The hurt ones were quiet; no one wept, much less screamed in pain; no one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily; not even the children cried; very few people even spoke.”
“Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces.”
“He saw a uniform. Thinking there was just one soldier, he approached with the water. When he had penetrated the bushes he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.”
“She kept the small corpse in her arms for four days, even though it started smelling bad on the second day.”
Though a Yale and Cambridge educated journalist, novelist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Hersey uses simple words, simple sentences, and a direct, conversational tone to tell a story that would dwarf any language. He gives the numbers: 6,000 degrees centigrade; 70,000 of 90,000 buildings destroyed; 100,000 killed, another 100,000 hurt in a city of 245,000. But cold facts, Hersey realizes, cannot encompass the horror. Only by reliving the day and its aftermath through the eyes, ears, and words of those who experienced it can we approach it. Simply and hauntingly, Hersey places us at ground zero, with austere language that vibrates with intensity:
“They told her that her mother, father, and baby brother…had all been given up as certainly dead…Her friends then left her to think that piece of news over. Later, some men picked her up by the arms and legs and carried her quite a distance to a truck. For about an hour, the truck moved over a bumpy road, and Miss Sasaki, who had become convinced that she was dulled to pain, discovered that she was not.”
A year later, the August 31, 1946 edition of The New Yorker devoted all its space to Hersey’s Hiroshima. Newspapers worldwide reprinted it; it was read aloud over radio. Since then it has, for good reason, become a classic of American nonfiction.
In its final chapter, Hersey quotes a Hiroshima priest who had been away from his mission house the morning of the attack:
“It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?”
Fifty-six years later, while some still await an answer, Hersey’s Hiroshima still breathes a clear reply.