The day the Sun came to Earth

Today is the 6th of August and marks the sixtieth anniversary of a day when science fiction became a hideous reality: the day the Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; the day the world was introduced to the awful possibility of Nuclear Holocaust, a nightmare that would stalk us for decades. Even when I was a boy in the 80s it was always there, in the background; imagine growing up knowing that the entire world could end five minutes after the banshee wail of an air raid siren. That’s what we did – against that terrorist scum aren’t quite as terrifying (although I must admit I felt nervous for the first time on the bus the other day when a very Arab-looking man got on with his hooded top pulled up tight round his head and constantly fiddling with his bag).

I am not going to get into the ins and outs of the entire debate circling the dropping of the Bomb: was it a purely strategic decision to end the war and save from a blood-soaked invasion or was it aimed even more at other powers like Russia to illustrate American know-how and power? I don’t think today is for that; I think today is for people to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to remember people who were so utterly annihilated that all that remained of them was their shadows, blasted onto nearby walls as if some ghastly flash gun had gone off, except it wasn’t a flash gun, it was a miniature sun brought momentarily to Earth.

For the first time our technological race had brought us to a stage where we were now using some of the very forces that held the universe together; in the classic parlance of the many atomic-nightmare infused SF films and books that came in its wake, we were ‘meddling in things we cannot comprehend’. And for once the B movies had it, at least partially, correct: even Oppenheimer and his crew didn’t fully understand the processes they had unleashed, let alone the new horror of radiation poisoning which would physically poison the bodies of survivors as effectively as the idea of it would poison our minds for generations.

It’s a time to remember the people who died and the many others who died in the slaughter of a world on fire. And as the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea feature once more in the new it is a day to recall how, for many decades we, as a species, danced on the edge of oblivion at our own hands (as if any political ideology was worth the entire world’s existence) and how the nuclear nightmare hasn’t gone away with the end of the Cold War but has mutated into a new and equally terrifying form of rogue states and terrorists. Oppenheimer, famously, quoted from Indian myth and religion when he saw the first Bomb exploded, saying “I am become Death, destroyer of Worlds.”

He was right, but perhaps they should also have recalled the Classical myth of Pandora and how once her box is opened it can never really be closed. The one shining light in this tale of human folly is the same as the light from Pandora ’s Box: hope. After the evils of the world were released from her box, so too was Hope to balance against them. We somehow got through the Cold War, often by the narrowest margins, without the End of the World and we should look upon that as Hope that perhaps we’re not all as foolish as our species can sometimes seem.

For anyone interested I blogged at work yesterday on this subject because it tied in with the timely re-publishing of the classic Japanese graphic novel Barefoot Gen, written and drawn by Nakazawa, a survivor of the Bomb, a fascinating work on a par with Spiegelman’s Maus. There is also a link in there to a site with eyewitness testimony from Hibakusha.