White Light/Black Rain

(The following was written after watching the excellent documentary, “White Light/Black Rain”, on HBO — detailing the aftermath of the bombing by the United States of the Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.)

I understand the stoicism of the Japanese people. The people I came from are also known for smiling through hardship, for maintaining an even keel while the world around you is falling apart.

So I understood the man who laughed as he recalled the months and years that passed after he was caught in the fallout of one of these atomic bombs; he laughed perhaps because what happened those sixty-odd years ago is still such a surreal event that it goes beyond crying… or he laughed because he had already shed so many tears, he had none left. Whatever the case was, as this brave man with the gentle eyes (who looked to me sort of like an Asian version of Jack Klugman) told his story, I understood as he laughed when he talked about how he regained consciousness after 40 days… how every time they’d change the bandages on his burned face and body, the pain would be so intense that he’d pass out… and how the worst thing was “the maggots eating my flesh… that was pure hell.”

Yet another man showed how his body was changed due to the blast and its effects. Six decades later, his chest looked like it had very recently been eviscerated, with just a thin layer of skin to cover it up. As he pointed out, you could see his heart beating between the bones of the very nearly exposed ribcage. His arm was also nearly melted away from the “heat rays” of the A-bomb, and now was very clearly scarred and bony.

A woman, who recalled the agony, pain, and eventual death of her 13-year-old sister Kuniko, bemoaned the fact that “it was me who convinced my parents that the family should all live together” in one city. That city was Nagasaki, and several months later, they were all dead. She said that her siblings had never gotten the chance to taste chocolate, or to experience any of the good things in life… and how she wished that it was she who had died instead, because of the guilt she feels to this day.

Another woman, who with her sister, had discovered their mother’s charred body just moments before it crumbled into ashes, recalled how in the aftermath of the bombing, her sister fell deeper and deeper into despair, and eventually jumped in front of a train going at full speed. This woman said, “I just couldn’t go on.” So she went to the train tracks and stood at the same place where her sister had been, but at the last moment before the train was about to hit her, she became afraid and jumped away. Then she said something that I think is maybe the through point of the whole documentary:

“I realized that there are two kinds of courage. The courage to live, and the courage to die. My sister had the courage to die. Me? I chose the courage to live. Even if I’m alone, I still want to live.”

Watching this, seeing these people, I was reminded of when I was 10 or 12 years old, and my English teacher made us all read the excellent book “Hiroshima” by John Hersey. At the time, I was shocked and sickened by the frank description of what happened during and after the payloads code-named “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were dropped from the air. I am still shocked and sickened by memories of the horrors described within that book. The survivors of the only wartime nuclear attacks in the history of the world, who agreed to appear in this documentary to share their accounts and show their scars, felt a calling to do so, in order that nothing like this would ever happen again.

I urge everyone to see this documentary, not only because the subject carries new weight in light of the current events across the globe, but to put a face on the degree of suffering that humans are capable of inflicting on one another, as long as we have our blinders firmly in place over our eyes. Many people of that generation still feel that the use of the A-bomb actually saved more lives than it took, and I’m not here to open a discussion on the political ramifications of Truman’s decision, because it was a completely different time, and we cannot judge things appropriately from this distance.

But it is good to remember. And it is good to get a small feeling of all that enormous pain, much of which still exists. And yet, through it all, the human spirit shines through — even through the darkest times, even through the blackest rain.

© 2007 DJ Holte

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