Hiroshima, by John Hersey © 1946 & 1985

     On the back cover of the 1985 version of Hiroshima, a New York Times reviewer completely copped out when he wrote "Nothing can be said about this book that can equal what the book has to say. It speaks for itself, and in an unforgettable way, for humanity."

     What rubbish!

     Like a good deal of what the NY Times prints today, the review is empty hyperbole, as full of nothing as the speeches of a politician whose only platform plank is to "do what needs to be done." The review is vapor but its author clearly felt the NY Times' [long-undeserved] reputation for intellectual honesty would give his lame review legitimacy.

     He was lazy and he was wrong.

     Hiroshima was and is an interesting, well-crafted book. It influenced my thinking about the world and about war when I first read it 30-odd years ago, and it caused me to think a great deal more about the same subjects this time. As is usual when rereading an old favorite, however, I brought a much different, more experienced, and definitely biased perspective to this reading. The result is that I do not like it as much now as I remember liking it.

     I don't recall exactly what I felt when I read it the first time, but it made a strong enough impression on me that it has remained on my personal list of must-read books ever since. Sadly, when I closed the book last night, I was just disappointed. I saw this time that the book is constructed in a way that distracts the reader from thinking about why Hiroshima was bombed, and the 'why' matters because the stories, told out of context as they are, portray the main characters as tragic but quasi-heroic victims of an unspeakable horror created by the United States. I do not know if this was intentional, but Hersey was a master writer, so I assume he knew what he was doing. He surely knew by that point in his career that there is often greater power in what one doesn't say than in what one does say. Therein is revealed Hiroshima's bias.

     For contentment's sake, I could assume that Louis Ridnour was correct when he wrote "Hersey draws no explicit morals in Hiroshima, he is concerned entirely with clear and objective reporting." (Louis Ridnour, Book Review Digest, 1946, p.377). I could, but I simply do not agree. Hiroshima was written to make Americans regret the use of the atom bomb, of that I am certain. Possibly, Hersey was also trying to scare the world into leaving atomic power behind. Possibly, but if so, that was not the message I got.

     Part, but not all, of my of my dissatisfaction with the book comes from the difference between the version I remember reading as a boy and the version I read yesterday. Hersey significantly weakened the book when he added a new final chapter because he just couldn't leave well enough alone. In addition to using a tired old trick of writing--interspersing narrative with intentionally jarring counter-themes--Hersey went on to make comparisons. Perhaps this too was not intentional, but throughout the book, Hersey continually presents his six subjects in the best possible light: stoic, uncomplaining, charitable, compassionate, full of civic duty and honor, and generally accepting of their fates. Conversely, the few Americans who appear are portrayed as greedy, manipulative, secretive, stupid, or mean.    [no wonder the NY Times liked it].

     The truth of course is that people are just people. The six at the center of Hiroshima were no more nor less saintly, evil, intelligent, vulnerable, or in any way more worthy of special attention and consideration than any other person who has lived through catastrophe. And the 100,000 people who died at Hiroshima did not even come close to making up for the millions who died at the hands of the Axis Powers.

     The six Hiroshima survivors were victims of their own government's mistakes more than they were victims of our bombing. Not anywhere in the book, however, was the slightest mention made of the uncountable number of atrocities and war crimes performed by those ever-so-beloved husbands, sons, and fathers of Japan who raped, plundered, pillaged, and murdered across the vast expanse of Asia and the Pacific. Not a hint was given and so readers who know little or nothing of the other facts are left to suppose that the people in Hiroshima were victims without reason, that their city was unfairly targeted, that the United States somehow has something to be sorry for and to apologize for.

     Nothing - nothing - could be further from the truth.

     I suppose I could rationalize that we really did not know what the results would be, and that we would do something different today, but this would distract from and dilute the simple truths of the time. No matter how many Japanese people died, no matter the long-term affects, no matter how hard our tofu-brained revisionists work to portray the Japanese as the victims, the following remains as true today as it was in 1945:

     1. We didn't start the war.

     2. Millions of human beings died grim, horrible deaths directly or indirectly caused by Japan's military adventurism.

     3. Japan fought to win and so did we--no holds barred and no misunderstandings.

     4. They lost, we didn't.

     5. We owed 'em one.

     I've stood above the U.S.S Arizona where both my family name and my wife's family name are engraved on the memorial wall. Even so, being Jewish, I would rather the US had dropped the first two nuclear bombs on Berlin instead of Japan. The consolation is that the use of the bombs on Japan ensured my father-in-law to be was able to come home to help create my wife to be. In 1945, he was on Okinawa preparing for the invasion of Japan. Neither my family nor my country has anything to apologize for.

     In the end, I still recommend reading Hiroshima, but don't be beguiled. The stories are indeed touching, but while reading it, remember Pearl Harbor.

     By the way, in its July 24, 1995 edition, Newsweek published an article titled Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, Why We Did It. That article is discussed in a very well-considered piece published on the Children of the Manhattan Project website (now missing, 2008-08-31).
 

This essay was heavily revised on 8 Dec 05, and updated/corrected 20 Jan 08; minor edits were made on 24 Jan 14.
SangerMPermalinkReviews[Back to Top]