CW: trauma, nuclear weapons
Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?
We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.
– From the Russell–Einstein Manifesto, July 9, 1955
2015. It’s a calm afternoon in Nagasaki; we’re in a public square. Cars flow, slightly uphill, around the perimeter. The air is full and still, and autumn seems reluctant to arrive. We’re only a few paces from the hypocentre.
I’m here with a group of very sharp people from the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and its youth contingent. It’s a good organization: the Pugwash Conferences bring people together to address problems at the intersection of science and world affairs, and something I really respect about the organization is its ability to create a respectful yet productive tension in each discussion room. Its senior members also invest in youth in ways that go beyond nominal efforts to “get the young people involved.” My young colleagues and I are invited to present academic papers, eat our meals with the senior Pugwash members, and serve as rapporteurs and full participants in all of the sessions. So we are in Nagasaki, seventy years after the city was incinerated, to engage in some track II diplomacy. The setting of our meetings is sobering.
“Abandoning ourselves to a life of hopeless solitude until death. This is a world that shuts out all the joy and hope of an ordinary human existence, a world of despair and isolation painted over in black.”
– Sumato Fukucha, museum inscription
I’ve been thinking about nuclear proliferation for a few years, but I am still appalled again and again as the days wear on. Maybe it is the immersion in a city that is now going about its daily life, a greater appreciation of what was lost. Maybe it is an even more immediate understanding that the people who were tortured and killed en masse by nuclear weapons in 1945 were not, in fact, the other. Maybe it’s the realization that my understanding of the nature of nuclear trauma was anachronistic before this trip. The effects of nuclear weapons on human health and the environment are now quite well-understood, thanks in large part to American studies with very problematic research ethics, but seventy years ago the catastrophe eluded classification or understanding. It was new and strange, and survivors had to live – have to live – with lingering, searing anxiety about what the radiation will do to the bodies they inhabit and the people they love.
The museums are educational. I knew, having read a little revisionist history, that the bomb didn’t end the war, but I wasn’t aware that the bombings of this city and Hiroshima were intended to condition the Soviet Union for a hegemonic postwar order. That makes me sad.
As we move through museums and memorials, I think about what an immense and rare privilege it is to be able to moderate one’s own exposure and response to trauma. Seventy years ago, in this same place, that was not possible. And, as always, how removed all the diplomatic talks are from the reality of suffering on the ground, despite our very best efforts.
All my troubles and desires seem so trivial.
Strange: despite my sensitivity, I can handle being exposed to some of the rawness of this history. I’m choosing not to swallow the whole incarnadine pain of the experience. But voluntary numbness is dangerous, isn’t it?
Everything is too narrow. Nation is too narrow. Ethnic/cultural group is too narrow. Everything matters. Everything is knit together; everything cascades.
“It was now feasible for just a few individuals, in a few minutes, to commit genocide.”
There is time to explore. A few hundred metres from the hypocentre, we find a magnificent camphor tree that was battered by the shock wave. We find a one-legged torii gate nearby. We keep walking.
The air is sweet. There are three of us at this point. We close our eyes for a few moments in a park. Later, we follow a stone path in a hillside cemetery, and magnolia blossoms are pendulous above us. Soon enough we have ascended enough to see the city’s neighbourhoods lying scattered around the valley. We are quiet because of the exertion. It’s good to have space to think.
(There is much more to report from the conference.)
After the conference ends, I take a train several hours north.
I feel I should be mourning, but I don’t know how. I leave behind all the stimulating conversation and enter into near silence. The conference was a week or two (how long was it?) of euphoria and purpose. I’m almost alone with my thoughts, now, and I fall rapidly into a state that seems to belong in the middle of an intense depressive episode.
Rainy evening in Hiroshima. Walking down side streets with S., two umbrellas moving in the darkness. We are walking toward a quiet room on the second floor that overlooks a side street. The hostel owner is kind, and she laughs whenever I ask about safety. She puts to rest any fears I have about walking alone. Yes, you’re safe.
I saw a charred saint in New York. The statue of St. Agnes had been found face-down in Nagasaki. Here, in the museums, Buddhas are falling apart. Disaster on this scale – I say disaster naïvely, for it implies a mistake or a natural circumstance or something outside human design, because I don’t want to believe that humans could willfully inflict this destruction on other humans – breaks even our relationship with the Divine – churches are engulfed in flames; shrines crumble.
There is a tricycle in the museum that used to belong to a boy not yet three. Half my brother’s age. A small girl approaches it, and her father crouches down, engulfing her, and reads her the story.
Despair. But then – the healthy, whole bodies being carried around by their owners through the peace park – laughter in public spaces, footsteps, tram schedules, two enmeshed flocks of birds.
I climb down from the peace park until I am standing across from the burned-out factory that now serves as a memorial, the A-bomb dome. The stones hemming in the river are slippery. I come close to stumbling into the water. I meet another traveller on the bank of the river, but there isn’t much to say.
Coping mechanisms for all the situational melancholy: Doing some laundry on the roof of the hostel in the damp evening, later sitting in a 24-hour laundromat waiting for the drying to finish. Walking to the corner market with S. and finding fruit that’s the precise colour of her shirt. Drinking single-serve sake from 7/11 on the tatami mats in my room while trying to get lost in the Murakami book that A. sent along with me. Trying to find quiet spaces.
Humans are so selfish. We raise so much money to cure cancer at home, for our people. We feel good for doing charity runs. Yet we endorse a defence structure by omission or otherwise that allows for the possibility that tens of thousands of cases of preventable cancer will be inflicted on the enemy. The enemy! How absurd. Look at the families. Look at the streetcars passing by. Look at the people shopping, stopping for a bottle of water or cold tea, walking to school or work. The enemy?
And I’d like to think that we don’t think in those terms anymore. But we do. Astonishingly powerful nuclear arsenals are being maintained and modernized to threaten whatever enemy is convenient. The main treaty apparatus dealing with nuclear weapons is not effective at bringing about nuclear disarmament. We may not talk about it much post-1991, but we still are not safe from the spectre of nuclear annihilation.
I wish the world were better so I could be quiet.