A meditation on sin and goodness: Hiroshima at 71

In the spring, The New Yorker republished "Hiroshima" by John Hersey on its digital edition, online. It ran in the magazine on August 31, 1946, 31,000 words, displacing most of the regular content. I read it on my computer in an airport over Memorial Day weekend, waiting for a plane.

I thought I had read it before, but maybe not. Although I know a lot about the making of the bomb, the decision to use it, the moment of impact with its blinding flash followed by heat and thunder and the ground shaking -- I know those things, but I didn't remember the details in the lives of the six men and women Hersey follows through that first several weeks and months after they survived the bomb.

It's 71 years* since we dropped the bomb. If you haven't read this essay, it's worth the read: a German Jesuit priest, a Japanese Methodist minister, a widow with two children, a woman working as an office clerk, and two doctors survived the blast and made their way slowly out of Hiroshima with their fellows. Hersey's reporting is astonishing in its detail and its respect for these civilian survivors.

Hersey catches Japanese culture and lifestyle too: the widow's work as a seamstress; the practices of the Christian and Shinto faith communities, medical procedure, war preparedness and rescue operations. But the point isn't the Japanese way of life but how the atomic bomb interrupted that life, causing heretofore unimaginable suffering and sorrow. These six people were ordinary participants in the catastrophe who, like those around them, carried on, rescuing neighbors, giving water to the dying, searching for their family members, caring for the injured.

"Hiroshima" is a story, not a polemic against war. It describes what happened in a particular moment in a particular war to six particular people. One could write a similar article about survivors anywhere -- but again, the point is to give us a window into suffering and sorrow, to help us imagine it and perhaps to transfer that suffering and sorrow in our imaginations to the survivors of urban gun violence, drone warfare, pipe bombs, chemical weapons.

Underlying the account of these lives is that the catastrophe was man-made. It's a different experience than experiencing a flood or tornado. While those survivors may be just as dazed and confused and just as heroic as the survivors of human violence, we the readers know that this misery did not have to be.

Hersey isn't analyzing whether Truman should have dropped the bomb, and I don't mean to go there either. This is what war looks like, any war, any violence perpetrated by people. Read "Hiroshima" if you are looking for a good meditation on sin and on goodness.

*The original version of this article stated the wrong amount of years it has been since the bombing. 

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