Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War

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Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War


Fri, 05/08/2016 - 10:30


Battered religious figures stand watch on a hill. A Japanese report on the bombi
Battered religious figures stand watch on a hill. A Japanese report on the bombing characterised Nagasaki as ‘like a graveyard with not a tombstone standing’
04 August, 2016

NAGASAKI: A Life after Nuclear War is an impressive book, well worth reading. It ought to lead to action. It tells the story of the atomic calamity which struck the Japanese city on August 9, 1945, only three days after the des­truction of Hiroshima. We are used to seeing pictures of both cities flattened by those horrific bombs, but the story of those who survived, with broken bodies and even broken minds, is not so often told. 

Susan Southard weaves her account primarily around five survivors who lived to witness the horrors they experienced and to call for the elimination of all such weapons. Some survivors were bedridden for years. One had to lie on his stomach for years, since the wounds on his back made any other position impossible. Some stayed out of sight at home for years – if there was a home – since their injuries were too awful for passers-by to look at without obvious shock.

One young girl lived with sense of guilt all her life. Not long before the Nagasaki bomb was dropped on August 9 she, missing her two siblings who had been sent away for safety, went out of the city and brought them home. Both were incinerated by the bomb and her mother blamed her for their deaths. Only at the end, just before her mother’s death were mother and daughter reunited in forgiveness, sorrow and tears.

Not much was known about the effects of these bombs in the wider world because of the clamp- down by the United States military on any publicity or comment. General Groves, in charge of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, denied that there was anything like radiation sickness. In one sense he did not know – at least precisely. Both the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were experimental. 

There were of course brave journalists who did their best to lift the lid of secrecy. One was Wilfred Burchett who escaped his minders and made his way down to Hiroshima. He managed to get the account of the destruction and horrors he had seen past the censor and into the wider press.

The courage of the survivors, especially the ones who are the main characters in this book, is so impressive. I well remember hearing several of them at the United Nations Disarmament conference in New York in 1982. Much of the media still did not want to know. 

After the war ended Japan became a client state, dependent for most things, including security, on the US. Popular American opinion, often expressed by ex-Service associations, was that since the Japanese had started the war with Pearl Harbour, and had behaved very cruelly during the war in many places, they deserved what they got with the atomic bombs. Yet the deliberate killing of civilians is and was then a war crime.

These are issues which the author deals with indirectly if at all. Perhaps that is just as well. The first priority is to get people to realise that there are lessons for today in the horrors of 1945. 

There are now, between the current nine nuclear armed countries, perhaps 20,000 nuclear warheads ready for use. Ninety per cent of them are in the hands of the US and Russia. Most are vastly more destructive than the bombs of August 1945. 

Meanwhile the list of accidents and near disasters grows longer every year. Robert McNamara, senior US official, said a few years before he died that we have been saved so far not by our good judgment but by “good luck”.

This book may help to jolt the world into taking the practical steps needed, and perfectly possible, to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world. Of course there are security threats today but the possession of nuclear weapons meets none of them. If ISIS and the like are the current military threat, how does it help to threaten them with death? Paradise is exactly what they want.

Perhaps I can leave the last words to our own Field Marshal Montgomery: “In my view it was unnecessary to drop the two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 and I cannot think it was right to do so… the dropping of the bombs was a major political blunder and is a prime example of the declining moral standards of the conduct of modern war.”  

• Bruce Kent, a political activist and former Catholic priest, is honorary vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

• Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. By Susan Southard. Souvenir Press £20

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