August is the peak vacation season for millions, but it also marks the anniversary of a deadly event. It wiped out, in an instant, more than a hundred thousand people and killed thousands more, slowly, over many years. I am referring, of course, to the dropping of the first atomic bomb.
I was only five at the time (August 1945) and lived in a remote environment worlds away from the war. But as news of the strange new weapon spread through my hometown, I felt the chill of fear in the air. And I am sure that children all over the world felt it too.
So did adults, even worldly-wise ones. Regardless of their views on the rightness or wrongness of the bombing, everyone agreed that the world had entered a new era. At first, most people celebrated the dawn of the Nuclear Age: splitting the atom was a sign of human progress. Later, as the Cold War swung into high gear, the euphoria evaporated, and people spoke of living in the “shadow of the A-bomb.” Writers described nuclear winters, and in my upstate New York high school, people worried about living so close to Manhattan and took part in tense civil defense drills.
Strangely, as the seventieth anniversary of Hiroshima approaches, attitudes toward it range mostly from the casual to the ignorant. Not that the menace is any less.
Yet, as I look around at my children, my grandchildren, and their peers, I sense little, if any concern. Both generations have grown up since World War II. As the last hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) die over the next years, they will lose the opportunity of ever hearing a first-hand account. Before long, Hiroshima will be reduced to a sentence in the history books. The true magnitude of its horrors will be forgotten for good.
Or will it? A few days ago I talked with Paul, a neighbor and close friend who was in the first vanguard of Marines to land at Nagasaki after the bombing. “There was…simply nothing left,” he remembers. “The whole area was burned black. The people on the roadsides looked at us with blank stares. There was no hatred, but they were utterly devastated…” At this he breaks down in tears, unable to go on.
I am familiar with all the arguments defending America's use of the A-bomb: that Hiroshima “saved lives;” that it “helped to bring a quick end to the war.” I am also well versed in the thinking of anti-nuclear activists, many of whom see the arms race as the sole root of evil. But is the issue really so cut and dried? It is easy to demonize a leader like Emperor Hirohito, and to fight him to the bitter end in the name of freedom and truth. It is harder to face the fact that the demons unleashed by war can grip any heart, if given room.
World War II had its own set of villains. But lest we point the finger at them – and forget that others are pointing back – let us consider something Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once observed about evil. He says that the line separating it from good does not pass “through states, classes, and political parties” but “right through every human heart.” He goes on: “It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it in your own heart.”
In recognizing this truth, and living with it for decades, my friend Paul came to see the horror of war for what it is. He has also come to realize that, given a different set of circumstances, he himself could have pressed the fatal button high over Japan. Paul has struggled long and hard to make peace with the part he played in the war. He has gone through the agony of deep remorse. But he has also found healing in remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in letting the pain soften his heart. (My uncle once said that evil only exists to draw us closer to God. In this case, at least, he was right.)
Survivors and other eye-witnesses have no choice but to live with their nightmares. But the rest of us have a duty to try to understand what they went through. For even if time has erased much of the terror, the shadow of the bomb still lies over our world. Greed, lust for power and recognition, national and racial hatreds still destroy countless lives every year. These forces are at work not only in soldiers, but in every human, and so we must battle them first and foremost in our own hearts.
In his Duino Elegies, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke asks, “Isn't it time for the ancient seeds of suffering to put forth fruit?” As we mark another August 6 (Hiroshima), and another August 9 (Nagasaki), let us contemplate his question, and apply it to ourselves. How can the ongoing threat of nuclear war – any war – change the way we live in a positive way? How can it bring us closer to God, closer to the wretched of the earth, and closer to each other?
Only when we let Hiroshima and Nagasaki bear good fruit in our lives can the suffering of its dead and dying begin to be redeemed. Only then will we – and our children and their children – be saved from the hardheartedness that allowed it to happen, and that could, at any time, allow it to happen again.
This piece first appeared in the Los Angeles Times under the headline: “Keeping 1945 seared in our hearts: only memory can hold the atomic monster in check.”