More than sixty years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people still have nuclear nightmares. Some imagine a resumption of the Cold War, in which disagreements over human rights or interference in domestic affairs or competition over scarce resources like oil results in a dusting-off of atomic arsenals in the United States, Russia, and China. Others imagine nuclear weapons in the hands of irrational dictators or rogue nations. What if North Korea develops nuclear weapons, as it has frequently threatened to do? Its leader, Kim Jong-Il, an unpredictable man who has nevertheless made a habit of carrying out his threats, might hold hostage to his demands South Korea and Japan, and much of East Asia. What if Iran goes nuclear? Early 2007 estimates are that, if Tehran continues at its current present pace of refining uranium, it could have a bomb as soon as 2009; the Iranian leadership has denied the Holocaust and speculated openly about wiping Israel off the map. The suspicion that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had obtained yellowcake from Niger was one (of several) reasons given by the George W. Bush administration for launching war on Iraq in the spring of 2003. That suspicion was unfounded. Still, worried about Iran and the chronic instability of the region, Middle Eastern governments have begun pressing forward with nuclear programs of their own. Saudi Arabia in particular has recently shown a desire to have nuclear power, though the likes of Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have also acknowledged interest. ‘We will develop [nuclear power] openly,’ declared the Saudi Foreign Minister. ‘We want no bombs. All we want is a whole Middle East that is free from weapons of mass destruction,’ including both Israel and Iran. The world has heard such denials before.1
There is another nightmare, and it is perhaps more frightening because it is harder to predict. A terrorist is supplied with a small bomb built around a core of uranium. He carries the device, fitted into a backpack or a suitcase, into Charles de Gaulle airport, King’s Cross Station, or Times Square, and detonates it. While the blast itself would kill only the handful of people unlucky enough to be nearby, a large area would be contaminated with radioactivity, and the psychological effect of such an attack would probably be shattering. In 1997 General Aleksandr Lebed, a former Russian national security adviser, claimed that the Russians had built suitcase bombs—their targets, allegedly, were NATO command bunkers in Europe—and that several had disappeared since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Just weeks after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, the Israelis said they had arrested a Pakistani man trying to enter Israel via the Palestinian Territories with a backpack-borne nuclear device. The event worried Western terrorism experts and law-enforcement officials. In December 2005 US air marshals shot dead in Miami a plane passenger who evidently claimed to have a bomb in his knapsack, though it turned out that the man had a psychological condition and had neglected to take his medication; no bomb was found. Atrocious and indiscriminate bomb attacks on public transport in Bombay, Madrid, and London have raised fears that a nuclear device might be used in the same awful way.2
Those who would deliver such weapons, attached to their bodies, are different from the pilots at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are not part of a state that has formally declared war. They are reckless with their own lives. But in a fundamental way things have not changed: terrorists with bombs, conventional or nuclear, do not care who they kill, since everyone in a targeted city, country, or civilization is deemed guilty of pursuing an unjust war against them. Their savage logic is that there are among their enemies no non-combatants. All Americans, Israelis, Britons, Shia or Sunni are guilty of transgression against them. Naturally, the intended targets of such attacks find such thinking barbaric, as indeed it is. But let us remember here twentieth-century attacks on non-combatants in ‘Mespot’ and India, at Guernica, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Warsaw, in Coventry and London, at Hamburg and Dresden, at Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. These attacks were undertaken in the name of ‘air policing’ (policing is part of security and less than war), unabashedly to terrorize a population and thus force a quicker end to war (a humane strategy, no?), or to ‘de-house’ war workers (their houses were to be destroyed, not them). Technological advances allowed, in Vietnam and Iraq, the use of ‘smart’ bombs, which found only military targets—unless they didn’t, in which case the result was ‘collateral damage,’ a term suggesting that civilian casualties were an unfortunate byproduct of an attack on a legitimate target. Alas: no type of bomb is smart all the time. One might argue that those who use technologically sophisticated weapons are at least trying to avoid killing civilians; that is not the case for a suicide bomber who blows himself up in a crowded marketplace. And yet, in both cases the result is the horrible and predictable death of innocent people.
It would be pleasant to think that governments and terrorist organizations acknowledge limits to the kinds of attacks they can make, the kinds of weapons they might use. Not since Nagasaki has anyone dropped an atomic bomb on a city, and the energy with which nations have condemned the use of biological or chemical weapons—by the Iraqi government against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, by the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway in 1995—inspires hope that the world regards this sort of attack as unacceptable. That such weapons continue to exist, however, and are used at all, suggests a more sobering reality. Where enemies can be totalized and demonized as readily as they are in the contemporary world, restraint is a virtue out of season. What remains is a conviction that noncombatants can be targeted if the danger is great or the cause just, as so often seems to be the case, or that genuine non-combatants cannot exist in a world of polarized ideologies or opposed cultures.
The editors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are not optimistic about the fate of the earth. In January 2007 the minute hand of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ moved ahead, from seven to five minutes before midnight. ‘Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ warned an editorial, ‘has the world faced such perilous choices.’ The piece cited as particular dangers a recent North Korean nuclear test, Iran’s interest in nuclear power, signs that the Bush administration would consider the use of nuclear strikes on unfriendly nations or terrorist groups holding weapons of mass destruction, and the ongoing insecurity caused by the presence of 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia alone. The Bulletin acknowledged that climate change also represented a serious threat to the welfare of the earth. But ‘nuclear weapons present the most grave challenge to humanity, enabling genocide with the press of a button’. The growing interest in nuclear power, in part as a remedy for global warming, risks spreading nuclear material across the globe; the editorial reminds us that spent fuel from ‘peaceful’ nuclear reactors can be processed into weapons-grade plutonium, only 1-3 kilograms of which are needed to make a bomb. ‘Our way of thinking about the uses and control of technologies must change to prevent unspeakable destruction and future human suffering,’ concludes the piece. ‘The Clock is ticking.’3
Equally important is a change in thinking about human targets in war. It is not easy to find nuclear weapons, but in a happier world warheads can be detected, counted, and even disassembled. The part of the human brain that assists in making moral choices is far more difficult of access. The Japanese butchered Chinese civilians with bayonets; the Americans killed Japanese with non-nuclear weapons and without discrimination, since all Japanese were said to be alike in their inhumaness (the Americans depicted them as rats and roaches). The Nazis exterminated millions of unresisting people during the 1930s and 1940s. The Americans, and especially the British, bombed German cities: in February 1945 Arthur Harris, head of Britain’s Bomber Command, said, ‘I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.’ Much of the world refuses to accept this view. Article 51 of the 1977 protocol to the Geneva Conventions declares that civilians ‘shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations’, including ‘indiscriminate’ attacks such as those ‘expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated’. Thirty years later, among the nations that have not yet ratified the protocol are the nuclear nations Pakistan, Israel, and the United States, and the nuclear hopeful Iran. Neither, of course, has Al Qaeda announced plans for a signing ceremony.
Who is victimized by weapons ought to be our main concern. And yet, in the end, despite the hundreds of thousands of innocents killed by ‘conventional’ means during the twentieth century, we always return to Hiroshima, banal in its similarity to other sites of atrocity, appalling in its difference from them. One bomb, which killed not only by blast and flame but insidiously, from the inside of the body out, by radiation. The atomic bomb was new, and its use made Hiroshima special forever. Hiroshima today is a thriving and attractive city of over a million people. It has been massively rebuilt since 1945. An arcaded shopping mall is perpetually crowded with visitors; the best restaurants are jammed; a major league baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp, plays in a downtown stadium (though is rarely very good). There is an art museum featuring some French Impressionist painting. In 2004 Hiroshima’s central wholesale market sold 33 billion yen worth of vegetables and about 18 billion yen of fruit. Shopkeepers and hoteliers are friendly and Hiroshimans are in general more helpful than Japanese in larger cities. In the summer of 2006 a bus driver left his bus and ran three blocks in the heat to catch an American visitor, to whom he was afraid he had given wrong directions. In short, Hiroshima is a remarkably nice place to spend a few days.
It is also a place that promotes peace. There is a yearly ceremony on 6 August in which the mayor makes a declaration of peace and the victims of the bomb are remembered. The vortex of peace activity in the city is the Peace Memorial Museum, on the lush grounds of the Peace Memorial Park, just where the (Ota River splits in two and within yards of ground zero. The skeletal dome of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion hall rises just across the river from the park. In the northwest part of the park, near a statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Peace, carefully folded paper cranes hang suspended from wires, gifts from thousands of children around the world and given in the memory of Sadako, the Hiroshiman girl who made cranes until the day she died of radiation poisoning. There is a Peace Clock, a Peace Fountain, a Peace Bell, and a monument to the Koreans who died in the bombing, built in 1970 and moved into the park, following some diplomatic wrangling, in 1999. Within the park is the Peace Memorial Museum, with a main building and an east wing. Its exhibitions chronicle the history of Hiroshima, including its role as a military center (information that was added subsequent to criticism of its absence when the museum first opened). The story of the atomic bomb’s development and the decision for its use is displayed in several panels. The museum concentrates on the human consequences of the bomb, and the exhibits that display these are not for the faint of heart: visitors see children’s toys and bottles melted and crushed, a bundle of hair that fell from the head of a (surviving) radiation victim, scorched mompei (cloth work pants) and harrowing photographs of shadows cast in concrete by Little Boy’s flash, of the injuries suffered by the wounded, of the incredulous dead. There are t-shirts for sale—it is a modern museum—but their messages are tasteful, for the emphasis throughout the building is on memory, reconciliation, peace.
In the late spring of 2004, as visitors left the formal exhibition space of the museum’s main building and turned right down a window-lined hall toward the exit, they were stopped by several smiling young women who asked them to fill out a brief questionnaire. The intent of the form was evident immediately: while everyone understood that visitors came to Hiroshima to visit the museum and park, to encounter the history of the atomic bombing, civic leaders wanted people to know about the city’s other attractions. The authors of the questionnaire informed visitors about the shopping centers and the baseball team, about the importance of Hiroshima as a seaport and trading hub, about the zoo, the botanical garden, the trolley cars purchased from cities all over the world, and the nearby island Miyajima, a favorite of Japanese tourists for its graceful temples and its red torii shrine, standing sentinel near the island’s busy dock. Above all, the questionnaire stressed, Hiroshima, city of the bombed, remembered its past but had also moved on. It was no longer a city of victims but a cosmopolitan place with an international reputation. The first atomic weapon was the world’s bomb. Modern Hiroshima, in the aspirations of its leading citizens, is the world’s city.