Hersey Wars

I have very nearly finished the long-form version of ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies‘ (really), and en route I’ve re-read John Hersey‘s stunning essay on Hiroshima that took up a whole issue of the New Yorker in 1946 (you can read it online here).

As so often happens, to me anyway, I was lured down all sorts of other paths while I was digging around.  One of them, which looped back to my wider work on aerial violence, led me to another essay by Hersey.  In several of my presentations on bombing I’ve used this image from Life magazine on 27 December 1943:

But what I had missed was the author of the essay wrapped around Floyd Davis‘s image: it was John Hersey.  Called ‘Experience by Battle’ it accompanied a 32-page portfolio of paintings by six American war artists of different theatres of war.  ‘Each battleground and each type of warfare has a distinctive effect on the men it involves,’ Hersey wrote.  ‘The pictures bring out the differences.  They are universal war, but they are also particular war.’

Hersey explained that he wasn’t interested in artistic technique – he probably wasn’t the person to write about that – but in a combination of memory and mood.  In his view, a painting was ‘a kind of memory – of an event, of a place, of an idea – and if it is good, it will give the person who sees it a pang quite like that of a vivid memory.’

In order the theatres and artists were:

Guadalcanal (Dwight Shepler):

Submarine warfare (Paul Sample):

Hill 609 in Tunisia (Fletcher Martin):

The saturation bombing of Hamburg (Floyd Davis; shown at the top of this post)

Rendova (Aaron Bohrod):

Sicily (Mitchell Jamieson):

Hersey was a master at conveying the experience of war – it was precisely that gift that he used to such extraordinary effect in ‘Hiroshima’, and at a time when so many American writers and artists had turned their eyes away from Japan to imagine instead ‘Hiroshima USA’….

He also had a remarkable ability to imagine military violence  from both sides.  In the text that accompanies Davis’s painting of the saturation bombing of Hamburg, Hersey had this to say:

‘It was not for our fliers to see in their minds’ eyes that Hamburg was as bad as the seventh circle of Dante’s hell, where flakes of fire fell on naked sinners.  They could not afford to spend too much time imagining the scene in the tunnel under the Elbe River, where thousands of people had taken shelter, at the moment when a bomb burst one end and the water rushed in.  As fliers with an important job to do they could not afford to have nightmares about people driven from shelters by heat into an ocean of flame outside; or about the city gradually dying – water no longer running, gas gone out of the mains, telephones silent, buses stopped, food distribution crippled – finally a city populated by people either dead or blank in the face.’

It’s a remarkable passage, conjuring up what Hersey acknowledges the aircrews could not see and dared not imagine.  He later explained that in ‘Hiroshima’ he wanted to ‘write about what happened not to buildings but to bodies’…

And the final panel of the Life portfolio returns me to my current work on wounded bodies:

In case you are wondering – you can access the full run of Life via Google Books: it is a truly excellent resource.

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