Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #11: Hiroshima
I was young when I first read John Hersey's recounting of humanity's first encounter with the horrific consequences of atomic weaponry. I think it was assigned reading the summer before freshman year, perhaps by Tom Smith for his world history class. Jay or Nate or Ken might recall the specifics. What I do recall is how deeply affecting this book was. Hersey does not engage in flights of poetic indulgence in an effort to bring home the tragedy of his subject. Instead, his journalistic prose lays out the grim facts of the event and its aftermath in cold, unmistakable agate. It's emotionally exhausting to read, as slim a volume as it is. I'm reminded of the story of when a Gestapo officer in occupied Paris barged into Picasso's studio and, seeing the upsetting atrocities depicted in the Guernica, demanded of the artist, "Did you do this?" To which Picasso replied, "No, you did." With "Hiroshima", Hersey has shown us something we did, and it's revolting.
I can recall a history class at UNH in which we had to write a paper discussing whether Truman made the correct decision in dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think I argued that the decision was logically correct - it saved lives with avoiding a bloody conventional assault, it demonstrated to the Soviets that we had this capacity, etc - but that it was morally wrong. There was a lot of talk in class about the casual racism of the act - would we have ever dropped something like Fat Man or Little Boy on Berlin? On Moscow?
"Hiroshima" should be required reading for every federal elected official, every senior military officer, and every appointed diplomat. If you're going to play with fire, you should know what ashes look like.