Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima
Has the ground zero of the nuclear age become too "normal"?
Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima. That's what my AmEx travel itinerary called it: "Hotel Hiroshima." I don't know whether this was the official name of the hotel I was booked in to. It may, more mundanely, have been shorthand for "Hotel in Hiroshima." Or it may have been the name before it was changed to what it calls itself now: "The Crowne Plaza Hiroshima," part of the global chain that has joined other American chains in this shiny rebuilt city.
There's a Hiroshima KFC, a Hiroshima Mickey D's (perfect place for a Happy Meal, right?), a Hiroshima Starbucks, and a Hiroshima FedEx-Kinko's.
There is a special kind of bleakness in the fluorescent hell of the all-night Hiroshima Kinko's, believe me. I spent a sleepless predawn hour there beginning to write this column.
Just try saying it—"The all-night Kinko's of Hiroshima"—and you'll see what I mean. Unfortunately, you can't read what I wrote there, because when I tried to save a draft of my lede on this dual-language keyboard, I discovered you can't save in English, and this is all I found:
I was never able to recapture the original lede, which is perhaps best for all concerned since I believe it sought to evoke the doomed romanticism of the 1960 Alain Resnais new-wave classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour,and Hiroshima no longer seems to have the hold on our imagination it did back then, during the Cold War balance of terror. Not in the Beckett-like bleakness of the Hiroshima FedEx-Kinko's. Still, the name (Hiroshima, not Kinko's) has a disturbing numinous power.
My Amex itinerary listed my room in the Hotel Hiroshima this way: "1 KING BED SMOKING CITY." SMOKING CITY! Turns out "CITY" was shorthand for "city view." But do I need to spell out why I find the name Hotel Hiroshima so resonant? Sure, you hate the Eagles. It's practically a cultural requirement that you do (sometimes I think everybody but me does, but then again, the Eagles seem to sell a lot of music). Still—admit it—there are some lines that will last. Like the one from "Hotel California": "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."
So it is with the Hotel Hiroshima. We checked in to a metaphoric Hotel Hiroshima—"we" as a culture—on Aug. 6, 1945, when the 16-kiloton atomic weapon detonated about 800 meters over a hospital here. (The hospital wasn't the ostensible target; a nearby bridge was, but needless to say, the hospital and all those in it were vaporized.) Nearly 100,000 people died instantly or within hours from the original blast and the firestorms that followed (by the end of 1945, 140,000 were dead). Estimates of those who died over a longer period from radiation sicknesses, from radiation-induced cancers, and other disease sequela range far upward.
We checked in to the First Nuclear Age that day in 1945, and yes, sometimes we check out, in the sense of repressed memory, willed or unconscious denial, cultural amnesia. It's happened for prolonged periods after the end of the Cold War. That all-too-brief "holiday from history" some called it.
So yes, we've checked out, but it doesn't look like we're ever going to leave: The nuclear weapons are still there—thousands of them under the badlands of the Dakotas and the trans-Ural steppes and the sands of the Middle East, all still armed and ready. As they say in "Hotel California," in a phrase that never made sense to me until now, "We are all just prisoners here/ of our own device."
And Hiroshima is still here to remind us of what happened when we first unleashed our "device" and how it can never happen again—supposedly.
That's what everyone says after visiting Hiroshima, the statesmen and citizens who sign the guest book at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. We will never forget. But maybe we will. The very fact that Hiroshima is thriving with its KFC and Starbucks, with the carefully manicured lawns of its "Peace Memorial Park"—the only evidence that hell was unleashed here—may have the opposite, anodyne effect. This is not John Hersey's Hiroshima, the Hiroshima of the horrific immediate aftermath, but is to a certain extent a Hiroshima that says a nuclear detonation is a transient thing, something that's eminently recoverable from with a little time and some good landscaping.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Hiroshima by Charles Voogd. Photograph of nuclear bomb on Slate's home page courtesy AP Photo/U.S. Air Force.