Instant Death

Dec. 7, 1941, and Aug. 6, 1945 – and what happened on those dates – are fading from the world’s memory as the generations who experienced those events die off.

Those two dates mark the beginning and the beginning of the end of World War II in the Pacific. They were the dates when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Japanese attack, aimed at America’s military assets, killed less than 3,000. Nobody knows for sure how many died in Hiroshima. Many of the victims were vaporized, but the more-or-less official estimate is 140,000 in the initial blast.

It is always pointless to argue about an event that has already happened. To his credit, documentary filmmaker Steven Okazaki, an American, does not do that in his excellent production White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which just debuted on HBO.

Instead, he simply tells the story of what happened through interviews with survivors, most of whom were children or teenagers at the time. The survivors – at least as far as we can tell from the portions of their interviews shown – demonstrate little or no bitterness toward Americans. Some did express anger toward the Japanese government, which not only got them into a war they couldn’t win but initially, at least, did nothing to help the survivors.

One thing that comes across, especially in the interviews with Japanese teens at the beginning of the documentary, is how similar people are. The contemporary Japanese – dressed pretty much as American teens dress, and just as giggly and blank-minded as far as history is concerned – didn’t have a clue as to the significance of Aug. 6, 1945.

They reminded me of a baby sitter I once employed who had brought her history book with her. I asked her if she liked history. "It’s OK," she said in a bored voice, "except for that real old stuff like World War II." She said that in 1970, only 25 years after the end of the war. Truly, the world starts over with each birth. It’s probably a good thing that we have no genetic memories of the past before our birth, since so many would be nightmarish.

The documentary certainly is worth seeing, if only to remind ourselves that nuclear weapons are too destructive ever to be used again by sane people. The bombs dropped in 1945 are mere hand grenades compared with the power of nuclear warheads sitting on top of missiles around the world today. Looking at films of the nuclear fireball gives me, at least, the impression of looking at pure evil. It’s like the universe is sneering at us that we are nothing and can vanish in seconds.

One of the Americans interviewed who had participated in the raid on Hiroshima said that people who say we ought to nuke this or that country "are stupid jerks who’ve never seen a nuclear bomb. If they had, they wouldn’t say that."

Only brief segments of the film are gruesome, but I wouldn’t let children see it. Images stay in the human brain much longer than words. It’s wrong to pollute a child’s mind with images of horror and death. That goes for make-believe images, too.

The saddest part is that the documentary shows that wars are started by governments without the people’s permission, and the people follow their respective governments blindly, no matter what the consequences. That’s always been true and always will be. Antiwar movements are always futile, and the phrase "never again" is just as futile. As a general who once commanded our nuclear forces told me over lunch some years ago, "I wouldn’t give you two cents for the future."

Author: Charley Reese

Charley Reese is a journalist.