It was a kind of metaphysical event it remade

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beyond the limits of what victory should have cost. It was a kind of metaphysical event — it remade everybody’s sense of the war in a single subliminal flash of horror. That’s the tacit point of the best book about the dropping of the atomic bombs — in fact, one of the few enduring classics of American journalism about the war: John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It was originally published in August 1946, on the first anniversary of the bombing. It holds up exceptionally well today. My respect for it was only increased by the way I’ve just reread it — after plowing through hundreds of pages of American wartime reporting (including several gung ho pieces by Hersey himself). It’s a genuine shock to see Hersey’s seven representative citizens of Hiroshima treated with such respect and compassion: “Mrs. Nakamura” and “Miss Sasaki” and “The Reverend Mr. Kyoshi Tanimoto” and the rest come off as figures of intricate humanity, compared to the caricatures of Nips and Japs that had infested American newspapers and magazines. In fact, the only difference Hersey finds between the Japanese and the Americans is that the Japanese are kinder and more courteous. They bore up under the nightmare of what happened to them
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on that August morning with a kind of bewildered decency well beyond the reach of the typical citizen of the heartland. You can’t help but admire Hersey’s own evident decency, his determination to shake free of the hatreds of the war. On the other hand, there’s no denying that his vivid picture of Hiroshima before the bomb fell is essentially a work of fiction. It artfully thins out or omits altogether the hysteria and desperation that was sweeping Japan in the summer of 1945, as everyone awaited the inevitable American invasion. In the real Japan millions of schoolchildren were being instructed in how to kill American soldiers with sharpened bamboo sticks, and the propaganda machines were proclaiming that the Japanese people were ready as one to sacrifice themselves for their emperor. But in Hersey’s Hiroshima people are still going about their lives much as they always have, except for some vague “jitters,” some nagging “anxiety” about the prospect of an American air raid. His Hiroshima becomes the transfigured image of small-town America before Pearl Harbor. But then Hersey sees no point in going into what the war might really have been like for his seven subjects. What did that matter? Whether they were proud or ashamed of Japan’s military conquests, whether they hated Americans and all other foreigners, whether they were contemptuous, curious, or had no opinion about the outside world — all of that had instantly been rendered irrelevant. It didn’t even matter what they thought about the atomic bomb itself; any mere attitudes for or against would have seemed like obscene distractions compared with the “soundless flash” that blasted their world into nightmare. “Shigata na gai,” Mrs. Nakamura says about what happened to her city that
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