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A Writer’s Reflections on the Nuclear Age

Shirley Hazzard

The first news of the atomic bomb reached Australia on a winter morning–I suppose it was the day following the event. I was dressing to go to school, and heard the announcement on the radio. I hardly know why the moment was immediately understood to be important–anesthetized as we were by six years of information on mass bombing throughout Europe and in Asia. Even then, in the brute climate of war, there were persons who began to ponder the consequences–material, ethical, psychological; self-evident, or subtle. I was not close to such people; but the debate opened quickly and was already a global preoccupation by the time the tests took place at Bikini atoll.

Twenty months after the bomb was dropped, I was at Hiroshima. I was en route to Hong Kong, where my father was taking a government job. We had traveled from Sydney to Japan in a tiny ship, taking over a month on the was and topping only one, briefly, for water in New Guinea. The ship was carrying about fifty wives of Australian officers in the occupation force in Japan. Some of these women had been parted from their husbands for the duration of the war. We arrived at the port of Kure, which was a shambles from bombardment , and spent the next day at Hiroshima, a short drive distant. The city center was still a wasteland, quite empty apart from the mangled dome and blitzed shreds even then familiar to us from photographs. On the outskirts, a lot of rebuilding was taking place: new houses swiftly assembled from light timber and plywood. Men and women were engaged in this busy scene, while the vast central area of the bombing remained still and empty, like a gray lake. The attitude of my family and of the officers accompanying us was the conventional one: that the bomb was an inevitable and justified–and even merciful–outcome of the total war. Yet among these generally unreflective people there was some uneasiness in discussing it. No one could explain why the bomb had not, in a first instance at least, been dropped in an unpopulated place. That was the extent of objection.

A recurrent theme at the time was that such a weapon would come to be "like gas" in the First World War–impossible to employ from fear of retaliation in kind. No one I knew had yet envisages the immensely more destructive hydrogen bomb, or the stockpiling of thousands of such devices. In other words, we had not then recognized that self-destructive tendencies in world leadership–and, by extension, in mankind–would prove stronger than rational fear or instincts of self-preservation.

I was, by my generation, part of the new world. But I had been raised in the climate of war, not only from having passed my late childhood and early adolescence in years of world war, but from being born–as were all my contemporaries, British or Australian–into consciousness of "the Great War." The lingering pity and horror of the 1814-18 war pervaded an din some measure dominates our young lives, along with the visible misery of the Depression. My father had been in the trenches in France at the age of seventeen. In a way, this led to our early acceptance of battle as, in Mussolini’s terrible words, "the natural condition of man," and I had never hears either of the great wars discussed in anything other than a context of patriotism and righteousness. However, I think now that the immense presence of the First World War in the thought and life of the decades between wars was indicative of doubts already raised in the unconscious mind. I never heard that war discussed in a casual way by its veterans (as I have, for example, heard later veterans relate incidents of the war of 1939-45). The scale of horror had been too new, too vast. The next change of dimension came, I think, with the atomic bomb. The intervening horrors, of the Second World War, had to some extent been anticipated by human imagination. But not the bomb.

The world conditions in which the atomic bomb was dropped can hardly be recreated in the mind. In Australia, we had recently and narrowly escaped Japanese invasion. Japanese bombs had fallen on Australian soil. Japanese submarines had entered–and briefly bombarded–the harbor of Sydney. Like thousands of other schoolchildren, I had been an evacuee. Thousands of Australians had spent years in Japanese prison camps, and many had died there in atrocious conditions. Nearly every able-bodied man in the land had gone to war, and the casualty lists were long. The animus of revenge in war is powerful, and it is merged with the –more rational–sense of deliverance.

Some weeks ago an Australian friend–a poet and entirely gentle person–visited us in New York. We spoke in despair of the neutron bomb, with which Reagan had just announced his intention to proceed. The poet mentioned his own "first memory" of the atomic bomb. He had been a soldier at the time and dying of wounds in a makeshift jungle hospital on a remote Pacific island. His unit had learned it was hopelessly outnumbered by Japanese troops a few miles away. With the news of the bomb, they were saved. He said, "I never knew how to handle this in my mind: I wish the bomb had never been invented, let alone dropped. But if it had not been, I would be a rotting skeleton these thirty-odd years."

The fallout of the bomb on our modern thought and life has been continuous and incalculable. And combined, over the same period, with other destructive phenomena that exist on a new, incomparable scale: pollution of air, water, oceans, upper atmosphere; the death of forests, of species; the depletion of natural resources and essential minerals; overpopulation and threat of world famine; dislocation of entire peoples; and the apparent disintegration of structures of civilized order. It is impossible to be confident of "posterity." Even were we assured of the survival of the race, we could not prefigure to ourselves the forms of future human existence or its qualities of mind. In our present uncertainty, not the least of the dangers lies, too, in self-dramatization: our state of suspense is exploited, on the one hand, to excuse inertia; and , on the other, to justify violence.

I have written, briefly, in fiction, on Hiroshima and the bomb. In my own life, the event was a confused beginning of pacifism. And also of an awareness that immense evils are impossible to hold in the mind. One’s own contemplation of them can carry dangers of posturing, of easy vehemence, and of claims of unearned morality. By contrast, acts of goodness–even of "public" goodness–can only be properly discussed or understood in their individual manifestations. The dominant proposition of the atomic age–that humankind is doomed by its own evil–cannot be refuted with any single sweeping show of virtue analogous to the bomb. To counter the implications of the bomb, humanity can only offer its history of individual gestures–the proofs of decency, pity, integrity, and independent courage. I suppose this touches the central premise of the Christian ideal, and the very meaning of the word Redeemer. However, the sense of it as a reality was formed in me long before I realized that, and was developed by a few great living spirits I have been lucky enough to know.

I cannot prevent the making of the bomb–although, like others, I may make my protest. I cannot prevent the use of it. My faith is, merely, that the world against which the bomb may be used has not entirely deserved it.

Originally published in the December 1981 issue of Boston Review

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