Has Hiroshima become too "normal"?

Scrutinizing culture.
March 25 2008 1:46 PM

Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima

Has the ground zero of the nuclear age become too "normal"?

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Bix adds that "American intelligence analysts, meanwhile, watched" Japanese preparations for an invasion of the home islands. "They saw how the Japanese had fought and died on Okinawa—thousands almost daily for eighty-two days—and how the whole nation had become enveloped in the imagery of national salvation through mass suicide." Which, Bix argues, gave Washington decision-makers reason to believe the United States faced mass deaths in any invasion attempt—and thus predisposed them to use the bomb. And there's the question of why a mainly civilian target was chosen. These are not dead issues. Just last week, a blogger dug up Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright's contrarian view of Hiroshima.

I don't know if these controversies will ever be resolved, but they all raise the same question: Why are these deaths different? It's something you are forced to contemplate as you get farther into the Peace Park Museum and you see the blown-up pictures of the burned bodies of the wounded and dead. Is it because you know that you may well be looking not just at the past but at the future as well? Did crossing the bright line make it, however tragic the sacrifice, less likely the line would be crossed again? Or more likely?

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There doesn't seem to be a rationally airtight reason to believe that the deaths at Hiroshima deserve unique consideration or bear a message beyond that borne by all civilian deaths in wartime. Why are these dead different? They are different in which the dead of the death camps were different. Another bright line was crossed there.

But I found myself thinking of a question I'd asked of Robert Conquest, the great historian of Stalin, toward the close of my book Explaining Hitler. I'd asked Conquest, who brought to light the genocidal scale of Stalin's murders, whether he considered Stalin or Hitler the more evil. He said there was really no way of measuring evil quantitatively, rationally, at that level. At a certain point, you had to rely on feeling. He said Hitler's evil seemed to him to surpass Stalin's although he had no rational reason for saying so. "It just feels that way."

I think something like that obtains with the dead of Hiroshima. We have always had wars. We have never had nuclear war. The ghosts of the first nuclear ground zero feel like they have something more to tell us.

The irony is that Hiroshima has been rebuilt so successfully, mourned and memorialized so dutifully, that the raw horror Hersey captured has been museumized. The streets have been franchised. The Hiroshima Starbucks' latte tastes the same as it does anywhere.

But walking back through the predawn streets from the all-night Hiroshima Kinko's, you can hear the whisper of hundreds of thousands of ghosts.