The blue sky of Hiroshima


It’s the bleakest of anniversaries – the bombing of Hiroshima 70 years ago today – and there is no shortage of commentary (see, for example, here and here).  John Hersey‘s book-length essay on Hiroshima, which filled most of  the 31 August 1946 issue of the New Yorker and has been republished online here.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

It’s worth comparing this with the opening scene of Kamila Shamsie‘s brilliant novel Burnt Shadows which imagines the second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later.  Given the map I reproduce below, it’s also worth reading her short essay on the effect of using Google Earth to ‘map’ the bombing here; and since Nagasaki too often disappears from critical view, try Susan Southard‘s recently published Nagasaki: life after nuclear war (Viking/Penguin, 2015) – you can read a long extract here and here.


For a brave attempt to bring the the two bombings into the same narrative frame, see Paul Ham‘s Hiroshima Nagasaki (2012/2014): there’s a helpful review essay by H. Bruce Franklin here, and The Atlantic has just published an extract, ‘The bureaucrats who singled out Hiroshima for destruction’ here.

Joyce C. Stearns, a scientist representing the Air Force, named the four shortlisted targets in order of preference: Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura. They were all “large urban areas of more than three miles in diameter;” “capable of being effectively damaged by the blast;” and “likely to be unattacked by next August.”… Tokyo had been struck from the list because it was already “rubble,” the minutes noted…

Captain William “Deak” Parsons, associate director of Los Alamos’s Ordnance Division, gave another reason to drop the bomb on a city center: “The human and material destruction would be obvious.” An intact urban area would show off the bomb to great effect. Whether the bomb hit soldiers, ordnance, and munitions factories, while desirable from a publicity point of view, was incidental to this line of thinking—and did not influence the final decision.

(You’ll have to read the extract to see why Kyoto was eventually removed from the list).


For subsequent analysis, a good place to start is Alex Wellerstein‘s Restricted Data: the nuclear secrecy blog, which includes a series of excellent posts on sources and visualizations, on the Manhattan Project and what happened at Los Alamos, and most recently an essay which asks ‘Where there alternatives to the atomic bombings?‘ and gives lots of background to those terrible events.

Among Alex’s visualizations is NUKEMAP, which simulates the dropping of ‘Little Boy’ on other towns and cities.  Here is downtown Vancouver (for a discussion of airbursts, see Alex’s post here).


Elsewhere, there’s a special issue of Critical Military Studies on the anniversary, and all the articles are open access:

The most modern city in the world: Isamu Noguchi’s cenotaph controversy and Hiroshima’s city of peace: Ran Zwigenberg
Unbearable light/ness of the bombing: normalizing violence and banalizing the horror of the atomic bomb experiences: Yuki Miyamoto
Remembering nukes: collective memories and countering state history: Stefanie Fishel
Contested spaces of ethnicity: zainichi Korean accounts of the atomic bombings: Erik Ropers
Hiroshima and two paradoxes of Japanese nuclear perplexity: Thomas E. Doyle II
Re-imagining Hiroshima in Japan: elin o’Hara slavik
Memory and survival in everyday textures – Ishiuchi Miyako’s Here and Now: Atomic Bomb Artifacts, ひろしま/ Hiroshima 1945/2007: Makeda Best
Nagasaki Re-Imagined: the last shall be first: Kathleen Sullivan

There’s also a special issue of Thesis Eleven, (August 2015: 129 (1)) edited by Brad Evans and Keith Tester in association with the Histories of Violence ‘Disposable Life’ project; articles include:

Susan Neiman, Forgetting Hiroshima, remembering Auschwitz: Tales of two exhibits
Keith Tester, Hiroshima: Remembering and forgetting, everything and nothing
Michael J Shapiro, Hiroshima temporalities
Maja Zehfuss, (Nuclear) war and the memory of Nagasaki: Thinking at the (impossible) limit
Hiro Saito, The A-bomb victims’ plea for cosmopolitan commemoration: Toward reconciliation and world peace
Arne Johan Vetlesen, Post-Hiroshima reflections on extinction
Henry A Giroux, Hiroshima and the responsibility of intellectuals: Crisis, catastrophe, and the neoliberal disimagination machine

I have just two things to add.  The first is to draw attention to the firebombing of Japanese cities that preceded Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Alex compares them in an interesting commentary here and provides a series of compelling comparative interactives here: I’ve pasted an example below, and provided a short commentary here).


In fact, as my quotation from Paul Ham reveals, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted precisely because they had been left alone during the previous attacks and would provide effective laboratories to test the effects of nuclear blasts.  On the firebombing campaign, see the painstaking work of Cary Karacas and his colleagues here (my commentaries on the project are here and here; see also their essay on the firebombing of Tokyo and its legacy here); their website includes both a Hiroshima archive and a Nagasaki archive.

Second, I’ve emphasised the comparative effort to ‘bring the war home’, to imagine the effects of Little Boy and Fat Man on other cities around the world.  There are obvious dangers in such an exercise – is our capacity for empathy so limited than we have to rely on a sort of critical narcissism: ‘imagine if it happened to us‘? – but perhaps the most significant objection is that such cartographic conceits can erase not only the bodies incinerated and maimed (through the very abstraction of cartography) but also the racialization of these unmarked bodies.  In the characteristically thoughtful introduction to his new book, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (2015), Paul K. Saint Amour writes about ‘traumatic earliness’ – about the sense of anticipation, foreboding or bukimi that gripped the people of Hiroshima in the months before their collective deaths: that ‘uneasy combination of continued good fortune [escaping the firebombing] and expectation of catastrophe’.  But the ground had already been prepared in the United States, not only scientifically – the endless calculations, calibrations and experiments at Los Alamos – but also culturally.


Michael Sherry‘s The rise of American Air Power: the creation of Armageddon (1987) and Paul Williams‘s Race, ethnicity and nuclear war (2011) are indispensable here – and there’s a sharp, contemporary commentary from Arthur Chu here –  but a vivid example is provided by Alex de Seversky‘s Victory through Air Power (1942) and, in particular, its celebration in Walt Disney‘s film version released in 1943.  For Disney, there was not only ‘a thrill in the air’ but an exuberant delight at death and destruction on the Japanese ground.  You can watch the whole thing below (or on YouTube) but to see what I mean start at 1.07 and watch right through the bombing to the anthropomorphism of the American eagle and the Japanese octopus that follows it.  There’s also a short commentary by Henry Giroux here.

Note: My title is taken from this poem by Yukiko Hayashi; if you click on nothing else, please click on this.

After Hiroshima

slavick After HiroshimaFollowing my post on artists and bombing, and in particular the work of elin o’Hara slavick, elin has written with news of her new book, After Hiroshima, due in March from Daylight, with what she calls a ‘ridiculously brilliant essay’ from James Elkins.

If you’re interested in two different but none the less intimately related works, I recommend Paul Ham‘s Hiroshima Nagasaki (Doubleday, 2012), which is extraordinarily good at placing those terrible attacks in the context of a strategic air war waged primarily against civilians (according to the Air Force Weekly Intelligence Review at the time, ‘There are no civilians in Japan’: sound familiar?) – and this needs to be read in conjunction with David Fedman and Cary Karacas, ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan in World War II’, Journal of historical geography 38 (2012) 303-26 (you can get a quick visual version here) – and Rosalyn Deutsche’s Hiroshima after Iraq: three studies in art and war (Columbia, 2010), based on her Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory given in 2009.

You can get a preview of elin’s ‘After Hiroshima’ project here. Scrolling down that page, my eye was caught by the image ‘Woman with burns through kimono’, taken in 1945, which transported me to another ridiculously brilliant work, Kamila Shamsie‘s dazzling novel Burnt Shadows.  I’ve been haunted by it ever since I read it, and in the draft of the first chapter of The everywhere war I start with this passage from the novel:

Burnt Shadows

And this is how I go on (and please remember this is a draft):

A man is being prepared for transfer to the American war prison at Guantanamo Bay: unshackled, he strips naked and waits on a cold steel bench for an orange jumpsuit.  ‘How did it come to this?’ he wonders.  This is the stark prologue to Kamila Shamsie’s luminous novel Burnt Shadows.  She finds her answer to his question in a journey from Nagasaki in August 1945 as the second atomic bomb explodes, through Delhi in 1947 on the brink of partition, to Pakistan in 1982-3 as trucks stacked with arms grind their way from the coast to the border training-camps, and so finally to New York, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in 2001-2.   These are all, in their different ways, conflict zones and the turning-points of empires, tracing an arc from the cataclysmic end of the Second World War through the Cold War to the wars fought in the shadows of 9/11.   In this book, I follow in her wake; I find myself returning to her writing again and again.  Although this is in part the product of her lyrical sensibility and imaginative range, there are three other reasons that go to the heart of my own project and which provide the framework for this chapter.

The first flows from the historical arc of the novel.   Shamsie is adamant that Burnt Shadows is not her ‘9/11 novel’.  She explains that it is not about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 but about the cost and consequences of state actions before and after.  Her long view reveals that the connections between Ground Zero in 1945 and Ground Zero in 2001 are more than metaphorical.  These are connections not equivalences – and far from simple – but like Shamsie I believe that many of the political and military responses to 9/11 can be traced back to the Cold War and its faltering end and, crucially, that the de-stabilization of the distinction between war and peace was not the febrile innovation of the ‘war on terror’.  I start by mapping that space of indistinction, and it will soon become clear that the dismal architects of the ‘war on terror’ (the scare-quotes are unavoidable) not only permanently deferred any prospect of peace but claimed to be fighting a radically new kind of war that required new allegiances, new modalities and new laws. Here too there are continuities with previous claims about new wars fought by the advanced militaries of the global North, conducted under the sign of a rolling Revolution in Military Affairs and its successor projects, and quite other ‘new wars’ fought by rag-tag militias in the global South: all of them preceding 9/11.

I turn to those new wars next, and this brings me to the second reason why Shamsie’s work is relevant to my own discussion.  While she was writing Burnt Shadows she used Google Earth to disclose the textures of New York City, and marvelled at how obediently they swam into view: ‘3D models of buildings, amazingly high-resolution images, links to photographs and video streams of Manhattan.’ When she turned to Afghanistan, however, all the details dissolved into ‘an indistinct blur, and the only clues to topography came from colours within the blur: blue for rivers, brown for desert, green for fertile land.’  But that was then (2006).  Three years later, a different Afghanistan was brought into view.  ‘As I click through all the YouTube links tattooed across the skin of Afghanistan,’ she wrote, ‘I encounter video clips of American solders firing on the Taliban, Canadian politicians visiting troops, Dutch forces engaged in battle, an IED blast narrowly missing a convoy of US soldiers, a video game in which a chopper hails down missiles and bullets on a virtual city which looks more like Baghdad than Kabul.’  Shamsie uses these distinctions to remind us that ‘we’re still using maps to inscribe our stories on the world.’  So we are; and throughout this book I also turn to these violent cartographies, as Michael Shapiro calls them: maps, satellite images and other forms of visual imagery. These inscriptions and the narratives that they impose have a material form, and they shape both the ways in which we conduct ‘our’ wars and also the rhetoric through which we assert moral superiority over ‘their’ wars.  Yet even as I sketch out these contrasting imaginative geographies, another indistinction – a blurring, if you like – seeps in.  For one of the most telling features of contemporary warscapes is the commingling of these rival ‘new wars’ in the global borderlands, the ‘somewhere else’ that Abdullah reminds Kim is always the staging ground of America’s wars.

And this brings me to the final reason for travelling with Burnt Shadows: Abdullah’s insistence that war is like a disease.  This is an ironic reversal of the usual liberal prescription that justifies war – which is to say ‘our’ war – as a necessity: ‘killing to make life live’, as Michael Dillon and Julian Reid put it.  They argue that war in the name of liberalism is a profoundly bio-political strategy in which particular kinds of lives can only be secured and saved by sacrificing those of others.   You might say that war has always been thus, but what is distinctive about the contemporary conjunction of neo-liberalism and late modern war is its normative generalization of particular populations as at once the bearers and the guardians of the productive potential of ‘species-life’.  Here too there are terrible echoes of previous wars, and these brutal privileges depend, as they often did in the past, on discourses of science and economics (and on the couplings between them).  But contemporary bio-politics also draws its succour from new forms of the life sciences that treat life as ‘continuously emergent being’.  This is to conjure a world of continuous transformation in which emergence constantly threatens to become emergency: in which there is the ever-present possibility of life becoming dangerous to itself.  For this reason the social body must be constantly scanned and its pathologies tracked: security must deal not with a grid of fixed objects but a force-field of events, and war made not a periodic but a permanent process of anticipation and vigilance, containment and elimination.  Mark Duffield calls this ‘the biopolitics of unending war’ – war that extends far beyond the killing fields –in which the global borderlands become sites of special concern. Its prosecution involves the production of new geographies – new modes of division and distinction, tracing and tracking, measuring and marking – that provide new ways of continuing the liberal project of universalizing war in the pursuit of ‘peace’.  In the face of all this, Abdullah had a point.