By Nora Gallagher
Today we commemorate the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I grew up in New Mexico, a short distance from Los Alamos, where Robert Oppenheimer and his team built what they called “the gadget.” Guard towers were still in place, and the city had an aura of secrecy, isolation and guilt. As kids, we used to call it “Lost” Alamos.
This year, I published a novel about Los Alamos and the building of the atomic bomb.
While I was writing the novel, I came across a phrase from theology: the scandal of the particular. The idea is that God, this enormous creative force that “hung the stars” and created “that great leviathan just for the sport of it” would care about one of us. That the God of Creation–Aristotle’s Prime Mover or Plato’s Divine Source– would stoop to join us in the mundane details of every day human life, would care even if a single sparrow fell to the ground. This “Yahweh” was completely low-brow to the Greeks, a scandal: from Greek skandalon ‘snare, stumbling block.’
And yet, it is a beautiful scandal, isn’t it? That God would care about one singular, particular life. Where would we be, how would we understand our human story, without it? “The first chapter of Genesis moves gradually from a picture of the skies and earth down to the first man and woman,” writes Rabbi Richard Friedman. “The story’s focus will continue to narrow: from the universe to the earth to humankind to specific lands and peoples to a single family.” One family: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.
Writers, too, practice this scandal. Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died this year, said that journalism is “the art of noticing” and the art of noticing, the art of story-telling, is all about the human particular.
When the idea for the novel came to me, I started researching the time, filling in the things I didn’t know. I found out all these surprising and wonderful things about Los Alamos-particulars: when the city ran out of water one hot summer they brushed their teeth with Coco-Cola. Robert Oppenheimer made punch with 200-proof lab alcohol. He named the place in southern New Mexico where the first experimental bomb was tested, in July of 1945, Trinity site. Where the heat from the blast was so extreme that it melted the sand to green glass.
My characters, Eleanor and Leo, fall in love. They are in their own human particular, that world created by lovers that is full of life and possibility. But a wave of history overshadows them at every turn. As I witnessed their increasing desperation, I saw more about why the human particular is so scandalous. It is because I cared about what happened to them, these two, she with her dark hair and paint on her fingers and he with his loathing of the desert and love of cities and cigars. Humanity is made up of one person at a time: one person who loves the color aureolin and another who desires scrambled eggs with matzo. Singular. Irreplaceable.
And so, to Hiroshima. Hiroshima had a population of 400,000. On Aug. 6, 1945, 100,000 were killed. By the end of 1945, 140,000 were dead. The five year death toll was 200,000. The death rate was 54%, compared to fire bombing, which was ten percent. Civilian deaths to military: 6-1. These numbers, of course, stun our minds but do not penetrate our hearts. Another way to look at Hiroshima is by visiting the two museums: The museum in Los Alamos is dedicated to the technological: models of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, photos of the labs. Very distant, detached. The museum at Hiroshima is another matter. There you will find, among the photos of destruction, the stories of those who managed to survive. Each one a human particular. Here is one, from a woman Shin Bok-Su, a Korean married to a Japanese man, age 28 at the time:
“My grandmother was going into the living room to wash the dishes. I had pulled the hose out of the bath and was using it to change the goldfish water in the yard. First there was a flash, then an ear-splitting roar. Instantly, everything was dark: I could see nothing. I heard voices calling, ‘Help me! Help me!’ Terrified and dumbfounded, I stood on shaking legs in the pitch black. It grew a bit lighter. Where had my house gone? The neighbors’ houses too were smashed. Everywhere I looked was a plain of rubble. I hid my mother and second son in a field of millet growing in the corner of the grounds of Hiroshima City Commercial High School and hurried back to the house. I began to pull the roof tiles off the fallen house one by one to get to my two children caught underneath. I screamed their names as if I had gone mad. Rain as black as oil fell from the sky.
“Early on the morning of the 7th, our house caught on fire. I desperately shrieked ‘Takeo! Akiyo!’ The fire ignited a mosquito net that was near where I expected the two children to be. Then I saw Takeo’s corpse burning. The three buttons on his school uniform remained properly aligned as he burned.”
One hundred and fifty scientists who worked on the project signed petitions that summer to President Truman to try to stop him from dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. They called atomic bombs “a means for the ruthless annihilation of cities ” and continued, “Our use of atomic bombs in this war would carry the world a long way further on this path of ruthlessness.”
Several days after the bomb was dropped, reporters asked Gandhi what he thought. He said the atom bomb “resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.” That question is what I have been turning over in my mind since completing this novel.
What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation?
What happened to us as a nation on August 6, 1945? Did the use of a weapon designed to ruthlessly annihilate whole cities contribute to where we find ourselves today? How did Hiroshima erode our sense of morality, what we permit ourselves as a nation to do? How did it affect our fragile sense of what is permissible for one human being to do to another? Finally, what is the connection between Hiroshima and Guantanamo, Hiroshima and Abu Ghraib?
These questions are not easy to think about. The novel helps us to ponder them by illuminating the particular. The novel reminds us of what it is to be human. My lone, particular human voice speaks to your lone particular voice and that is what we have in the face of the enormity of these questions.
Nora Gallagher is author of the novel “Changing Light.”