Friday, September 6, 2013

John Hersey's Hiroshima

At the second hottest point of the Cold War, 1983-84, I remember talking to several friends and acquaintances who confided in me nightmares (actual) and opinions (heated) following on the accelerated rhetoric between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I sympathized, but didn’t share their fears, although anyone at the time would have been a fool to dismiss them outright. Though I was too young to understand the serious import of the Cuban missile crisis, it wouldn’t be long before the arms race intensified. Throughout the seventies and early eighties, most people paid attention to each side’s bragging advertisements for the specific technological gewgaw of the day. But fears were also tempered, at least in this scribe, by two key ideas: mutual assured destruction (or MAD) and the balance of power. In the former case, each had confidence that the other side wouldn’t be mad enough to escalate tensions to the point of an initial thermonuclear strike. A sovereign nation encompassing a large land mass and citizenry has little to gain and much to lose by dodging fire from the skies just to score a posthumous point. And the balance – and for most of those drawn-out decades of fluctuating tensions, there was a rough balance – meant that to initiate anything was counterproductive since there was no clear advantage in doing so. It’s all a faded trouble now, like trying to recall the emotional immediacy of a social spat or personal illness. Reagan outspent an economically cratering Kremlin (lucky their last oil discovery surge happened after the break-up of the Soviet Union), and the threat evaporated.

Well, for a while, anyway. Now, of course, the world isn’t populated by two equally strong superpowers in a “normal times” draw with every other nation looking on, but is beset by established nuclear players with unstable governments (Pakistan), up-and-comers, even though in initial and (variously) ineffective stages (Iran; North Korea), and proliferating radical agents motivated to get their hands on longstanding portable, or suitcase, nukes. In addition, the hostilities are infinitely complex, and ultimately unknown. Even the wisest political speculation on the current Syrian crisis admits a pocket of incomprehension at the “end game” of the various players involved. Even if the U.S. Congress votes “no” tomorrow, the subs and ships and aircraft in and around the Mediterranean will remain. Obama’s “ninety day” window (read: opportunity) to attack Syria will stretch, just like prior “temporary” wars, and there are many motivated players in the Middle East and without who are eager to forge new working relationships with other countries in order to build, secure, and operate LNG pipelines.

At that last nuclear hot point, 1983, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a long essay published in 1946 (in its entirety) as the only entry in that issue of Time. Relentlessly objective in approach, amazingly subdued in tone, Hersey told the stories of six of the survivors from three hours before, to one month after, the U.S. atom bomb detonated over their city. I just reread it less than a day ago and was even more impressed with its attention to detail, its dignified utterance, and, not least, its compositional clarity. That equanimity infuriated many readers, those who desired outrage and condemnation, theories and follow-up calls to action. But Hersey, as he did in a much different manner in his fictional masterpiece White Lotus, wanted to allow a few affected people to speak over the screaming ideological forays in newspaper op ed  and on university podium. And though I’m often irritated by self-regarding quietness in the literary world – work and  the reaction to it – when the topic is grave, it seems to me the measured voice is more than compelling, it affects a gathering force, or rather it gets out of the way to let the force of the content carry the scarred and scary emotions. (I’m reminded here of the 1984 anti-nuke BBC movie Threads. It’s up on you tube. Don’t watch it just before bedtime.)

Why so much focus on tone? Well, just remember tone during the next few days, weeks, and months. There’ll be a lot of screaming, a lot of anger. Much of it comes from people who see everything in narrow-minded, unsophisticated, ignorant partisan repetition. Ideologues. And the powers-that-be have their own ideologies, much different than those reacting. But what struck me about Miss Toshiko Sasaki, Reverend Mr Tanimoto, Mrs Nakamura, Dr Masakazu Fujii, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, and Dr Terufumi Sasaki, after their courage, was their fatalism. Now granted, that’s a cultural attitude, a deeply ingrained one nurtured through centuries (though Kleinsorge was German). But fatalism is a dirty word for us Western go-getters, us gung-ho pioneers and optimistic, idealistic war-spared citizens. I get that. But I also get that we’ve been living through a half-century of fortunate oil-soaked largesse, even if the waves have been choppy at times. Fatalism is often misunderstood. It’s not a passive attitude at all. Look at how Japan quickly rebuilt itself after the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And how they rebuilt their country with spirit, all while undergoing a rapid transition from emperor-worship to democracy. The least we can do is put aside silly, simplistic opinions of left versus right, capitalism versus socialism, personality versus personality, and go a little deeper to find, in repose, the roots to these conflicts which (in true fatalistic Japanese-intoned “it can’t be helped”) will always be with us.

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