The Road from Trinity: Reflections on the Atom Bomb
Photos by Naonori Kohira (Published in Japan by Shoga Kukan Press)
Chapter 2: Hiroshima
We arrived in Hiroshima at the peak of rush hour on a wet October evening. Navigating the maze of Hiroshima station, we finally emerged at Hiroshima Ekimae, swimming like salmon against an umbrella river of homeward-bound commuters. I knew that Hiroshima was anything but the “atomic desert” that scientists once feared it would become; yet the sheer crowded exuberance of the city still caught me by surprise.
Packing into an overstuffed Hakushima Line tram, we headed toward the Genbaku Dome in spite of the gathering darkness. Peering through rain-streaked windows at the crowds bustling along Aioi-dori, I realized that it was not just the train station; Hiroshima is a city very much in motion. By contrast, the Genbaku Dome park was an island of quiet gloom in the heart of Hiroshima’s neon hyperactiveness. Darkness pooled beneath the willows, and oil lamps guttered before soggy strands of origami cranes that hung from the wrought-iron fence. Above, the Genbaku Dome glistened in floodlit silhouette against a bleak and lowering sky.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I was startled to discover that we were not alone. Who besides a crazy gaijin and his bemused photojournalist friend would pause here in this haunted darkness? The shadows resolved into the young, seeking the secluded intimacy of this truly beautiful spot. Every last bench along the river bank was occupied by trysting couples. Recalling descriptions of the Aioi River thick with the corpses of the atomic dead, I shivered. Scenic and private as this place may be, romancing one’s sweetheart here seemed as inviting as picnicking in a cemetery. When the lovers gaze into the dark water, do they see the ghostly faces of the genbaku obake gazing back? On impulse, I approached a couple and started to ask. But I could not find the words. My question hung there, unasked, and I turned away. I rejoined Kohira, and we retreated from the bubble of gloom back into the neon bustle of Kamiya-cho.
Hiroshima is a place defined by contrast, and the evening’s encounter with the lovers and the dead was but the first I observed. Another awaited me at the Peace Memorial Museum the next morning. It is a place torn between serving as a memorial to those who died, and an object lesson to a still-uncomprehending world. I was unmoved by the statistics of death and overwrought dioramas of atomic suffering, but deeply touched by the artifacts that spoke of those who died. The rusted bicycle of a child. The shadow of a man printed on granite steps by an atomic flash camera. A pair of broken spectacles. I could hear the wind of Trinity whispering through these ordinary objects: “This is the consequence of terrible knowledge, wielded in arrogant and uncomprehending haste.”
The bomb’s true nature is revealed by the private tragedy of the one, and not in the cold mathematics of the many. Hiroshima of the myriad dead is an incomprehensible abstraction; Hiroshima of a father burying the favorite toy of a lost son is the place all of us inhabit. Now I understood why the American Legion and the Air Force Association were so adamant in opposing the display of any Hiroshima artifacts in the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit that I had visited half a year earlier. A single ruined and rusted lunchbox would have sufficed to soften the heart of the toughest of warriors, and insinuate doubt into the simplistic certainty of veterans unwilling to reconsider the history they helped make.
Hiroshima’s Peace Park offers contradictions of a different sort. Built during the darkest years of the Cold War, it is less a memorial to the dead than a symbol of the inhumanity of atomic warfare. Its neo-modern 1960s architecture speaks of what, ironically, now seems a simpler and safer age. A time when the nuclear club was small, and nukes were frightening, but controllable, weapons of statecraft. The Park’s monuments are calculated to persuade citizens, and humble statesmen who might otherwise contemplate pushing the nuclear button once again. The aging monuments are thus also monuments to success, for in all of the geopolitical folly in the last fifty years, no bomb has been dropped since Nagasaki. Those who conceived of the Peace Park can take satisfaction that their message contributed in no small measure to the determination of publics, and the restraint of their leaders.
Now the Cold War is over, and its bipolar balance of terror has yielded to a far more unpredictable multipolar world. The nuclear monopoly of states is transmogrifying into a global atomic marketplace. Forbidden knowledge is leaking out of top-secret labs. Stocks of fissile materials are vanishing across porous borders in the former Soviet Republics. Any nation determined to have a bomb of its own can, with ever-less effort, make its wish come true. Before long, terrorists may find that they, too, can move up from sarin gas and fertilizer bombs to tiny bits of the sun’s heart carried in crude but portable packages. The prospect is enough to make one nostalgic for the innocent age of Dr. Strangelove, when only half a dozen fingers rested on doomsday buttons.
As I wandered through the leafy quiet of the Peace Park, an old question returned to me: what is it about the Hiroshima bombing that makes it so unique? Why, in a world full of ever-newer horrors, does this incident stand out so sharply? The question has haunted me like some Zen koan mind-puzzle. Certainly, it was not the number of dead; Hiroshima’s lethal statistics are dwarfed by those of the Tokyo firebombings. The cruel novelty of radiation poisoning certainly is part of the answer. Oppenheimer had forecast a Hiroshima death toll of 20,000, but no one at Los Alamos had anticipated radiation sickness, incorrectly concluding that the radiation effects would not extend beyond the fireball’s killing zone. In other words, anyone who might otherwise have died a slow and horrible radiation death would have already been vaporized or incinerated by the initial blast.
Word of radioactive horrors that filtered out of Hiroshima were sufficient to dissolve the certainty of scientist and politician alike. The first images of suffering Hibakusha sowed the seeds of the anti-nuclear movement, yet radioactivity alone does not explain the bomb’s unique place in the history of human cruelty and destruction. “It’s the most perfect AP [aiming point] I’ve seen in this whole damned war.” This is how the Enola Gay’s pilot, Paul Tibbets, described the Aioi Bridge. Indeed, the distinctive T-shape of the bridge stands out on maps and aerial photos, like the ring on the finger of a city-sized hand. Tibbets’ words echoed in my memory as I stood at the apex of the “T,” gazing out over the Genbaku Dome and the Peace Park. Out of the echoes came the beginnings of an answer. The bomb’s greatest horror lies in the power it conferred upon a single individual. It is the power of the few to coldly and arbitrarily affect the many. It took hundreds of bombers to incinerate Tokyo, but one plane and one crew reduced Hiroshima to slag.
Tibbets and his small crew sat atop a pyramid comprised of men and glittering machines. Its base was composed of the thousands of workers at Oak Ridge and Hanford, and acre upon acre of reactors, centrifuges, and diffusers. Tapering upwards, it encompassed the physicists of Los Alamos and their mountain retreat. Higher yet were keepers of the atomic secret in Washington, D.C. and the delivery team at Tinian. Each step up the pyramid delivered ever-greater power to an ever-smaller group. The Enola Gay occupied its very tip. Alone, it would sow more destruction than an entire bomber wing would accomplish over Tokyo.
Gazing down, I noticed a dragonfly droning idly over the languid surface of the river below. Its shadow crossed the reflection of a cloud, and in a dizzying moment an errant ripple distorted it into the cruciform outline of a high and distant Superfortress. The Enola Gay approached the AP, the apex of the atomic pyramid. Tibbets handed control of the plane to his navigator, and the navigator flipped a switch, handing control of the plane to its primitive bombsight computer. A minute later, “Little Boy” was released automatically by the machine and began its slide down along an invisible ballistic arc to a point above Shima Hospital. I mentally counted the sixty seconds to criticality, and as the seconds peeled away, the answer to the koan revealed itself: the apex of the pyramid was occupied not by a man, but a machine.
The most powerful weapon in human history had in the end been unleashed by a mere machine, a blindly stupid collection of relays and wires. Beneath its apex were layers of human acolytes, who had labored to lift the bomb into the sky. As each layer completed its task, the huge pyramidal juggernaut turned them into mute irrelevancy. The workers at Oak Ridge did not know the full purpose of their labors, much less its ultimate target. And the plaints of Los Alamos scientists for nuclear restraint were ignored by the warlords and the politicians picking the targets. Ultimately, even Tibbets and his navigator, their task complete, became passive observers, mere cogs in a monstrous machine as the juggernaut flew onwards.
The bomb’s inhumanity is not just figurative — it is literal. In the final moments before the explosion, the Enola Gay became a lethal robot guided by a “brain” possessing a mere fraction of the intelligence guiding the dragonfly below me. Humanity’s collective shudder in August 1945 came not from the neutrons unleashed by the bomb, but the electrons running through the wires of the bomb computer. The event foreshadowed a world of nuclear robot-rockets sleeping in silos, awaiting orders from yet other machines to begin their doomsday missions. The Manhattan Project delivered us to a world where the power of one has become infinitely magnified by ever more autonomous machines. As Loren Eiseley wrote a decade after Hiroshima, amplified by technology, “A mathematical formula traveling weakly along the rivers of the neopallium may serve to wreck the planet.”
The atomic pyramid is now a spreading nuclear cone, as the arcane knowledge of a few becomes the commonplace knowledge of the many. Nuclear materials continue to proliferate into the hands of ever more would-be mischief-makers. And our once-primitive robots are becoming more powerful and more autonomous by the day. If a small-yield explosion like Hiroshima were to be repeated now, delivery would be by unmanned cruise missile or rocket, and with an accuracy that would put the 300-foot CEP [circular error probable] of the primitive computer of the Enola Gay to shame. History shrank to a singularity at the moment of the Trinity test, but quickly expanded outwards to embrace Hiroshima too. It has been expanding ever since, racing into an unknown future at light speed. From the Aioi Bridge, the Peace Park resembles nothing so much as an ancient geologic outcrop, an eroded reef slowly surrendering to a restless sea of change. The Genbaku Dome protrudes like the skeleton of an atomic dinosaur, a fading relic of World War II horrors. The newer monuments of the Peace Park are sedimentary layers preserving memories of the Cold War. Beyond, the waves of commerce have effaced and remade Hiroshima as effectively as any nuclear weapon. It is a town racing away from its history even as it tries to preserve the memento mori of its atomic past. Bits of memory are disappearing forever beneath its inexorable erosive force. Already, one must hunt the alleyways of Kamiya-cho to find trace of the hypocenter, a tiny plaque protruding from the wall of a small clinic. How soon before even this reminder is gone?
Without knowing how I got there, I found myself back by the riverside near the Genbaku Dome. The lovers were gone, the benches empty. But I was not alone. I could sense the genbaku obake, the ghosts of the atomic dead, in the water below. They answered my mute question of the night before, not from darkness but from the leaf-dappled sunlight dancing on the flowing Motoyasu River. “We welcome the lovers, for they honor our lives. Monuments speak only of our death. Before Genshi Bakudan, we also sat by this river and dreamed of the future. Honor us now with resilient, exuberant life. A lover’s kiss is a better memorial than all the crumbling cenotaphs and dusty museums. Eventually these buildings will disappear, and the bomb will become a dim and distant memory. But the lovers will always come, and we will be happy.”