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To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
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I have a piece up at Asia Times To Hell and Back: Obama, Hiroshima, and Nuclear Denial, just in time for President Obama’s visit & promised non-apology at Hiroshima.

“To Hell and Back” is a phrase that can bear a pretty heavy metaphorical load when it comes to talking about the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It’s also the title of a book by Charles Pellegrino that I quote extensively in the AT piece.

Pellegrino’s book is a moving and grueling close-up look at the horrors experienced by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki both on the day of the bombing and in the days and years afterward. I have the heart of a dried-up raisin but even I got a little teary in places.

There are few opportunities for inspiring “triumph of the human spirit” narratives amid the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings were titanic, apocalyptic events that mock human scale and comprehension. Pellegrino depicts dazed “ant-trails” of survivors threading through the instantaneously blasted landscapes and past heaps of the dead, dying, and horrifically maimed in the shadow of an eight-mile high radioactive cloud. Fate and the desperate efforts of the rescuers saved some, but many lives literally disintegrated in seconds, minutes, days, and years after the bombs were dropped.

Near the hypocenter, the experience of death was overwhelming and random in a dehumanizing way. For some, it came down to the decision to wear a white shirt or a dark shirt. The white shirt might reflect the intense, instantaneous radiation of the blast with remarkable efficacy; a black shirt absorbed the radiation and incinerated the wearer.

The bottom line for many survivors is that their families, their communities, their city, most of the world they knew, their health, their spiritual equilibrium, even their social status had been annihilated in an event of overwhelming horror. The survivors experienced physical and mental trauma; ostracization; guilt; shame; and lingering illness.

Nevertheless, Pellegrino does document instances of courage, compassion, and ingenuity and people sustaining their humanity through acts of love and sacrifice.

An inspiration for the title of the book is the “double” hibakusha, people who experienced and survived both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One survivor of Hiroshima goes back home to Nagasaki and tells his co-workers of the awful weapon he had experienced; he warns them if they see a blinding flash—the pika—they must use it as a signal they have a few seconds to seek shelter before the don—the crash, the massive shock wave created by the bomb, arrives.

And so “duck and cover” was born.

A document of human horror, To Hell and Back is also a memorial to the survivors and their struggle to restore sanity and meaning to their lives with little outside help. And it also sounds like a backhanded reference to Pellegrino’s own travails at the hands of the nuclear denialists.

His book was originally published in 2010 as The Last Train to Hiroshima. But the book—and Pellegrino himself– became a piñata for indignant veterans, nuclear denialists, and atomic bomb fanboys.

The relatively substantive problem with Last Train was that a guy, who claimed to have been part of the squadron of planes escorting the Enola Gay and provided several pages of gripping detail, had made up his story.

Pellegrino acknowledged the error and retracted, but it became clear that the intention of his opponents was not to correct errors; it was discredit Pellegrino, the book, and the idea that the sufferings of the victims should be remembered when considering the bomb and its legacy.

The attacks on the book went beyond scientific nitpicking along the lines of “could a human really be vaporized by an atomic bomb?” and snowballed into attacks on Pellegrino, his credentials, and his integrity. The New York Times provided a platform for the anti-Pellegrino crowd, helping stampede the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, into withdrawing Last Train to Hiroshima.

The battle continued on various message boards; Pellegrino held his own, especially after it transpired that the New York Times and other media outlets, while pursuing their ambitions to serve as journalistic gatekeepers and bring a literary malefactor to justice, had themselves been gulled by a series of malicious forgeries supplied by Pellegrino’s enemies.

The attack on Last Train appears to have been very much of a piece, both in themes and protagonists, with longstanding U.S. government and military veteran groups’ efforts to suppress the more disturbing issues and viewpoints surrounding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On the scientific side, the US government had a vested interest in suppressing the details of pervasive and persistent radiation effects that undercut the usability of nuclear weapons and threatened to deliver a gigantic bill for human and environmental remediation.

Here’s one of the first important U.S. military documentaries on Hiroshima/Nagasaki, A Tale of Two Cities from 1946. There’s a lot of image management going on; for instance, the Nagasaki bombardier missed the designated bull’s eye by 3 miles, which is spun as a judicious decision to drop the nuke right between two major targets to git ‘em both!

What’s very interesting is the very early interest in poo-pooing radiation effects. Physicists suspected from the outset that radioactive contamination from a nuclear blast was a pervasive, unmanageable problem; the Pentagon has always been, in a rather unscientific and immoral way, committed to advertising the fiction that contamination issues are manageable and the health impacts minimal.

The movie pushes the “clean blast” story (bomb detonated above ground to minimize fallout); presents the statement of a Jesuit priest that he worked in Hiroshima with no ill effects after the attack; and offers the reassuring observation that that it was back to business as usual on the roads of Nagasaki after the massive radiation release: “people using them without ill effects shortly after the explosion”.

Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US military has been kept busy in its crusade to assert the sanitary and housebroken character of nuclear events. In 1954 it faced a particular challenge when eggheads miscalculated the yield of the Castle Bravo shot, a sizable chunk of Bikini Atoll was vaporized into radioactive dust, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 got contaminated, and Godzilla was born (no lie; read it here).

Managing and covering up the consequences of atmospheric nuclear releases is also very much a contemporary problem for the US, as I’ve discussed in my CounterPunch piece on the U.S. apparent coverup of the radiation problems of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which was contaminated offshore of Fukushima during post-earthquake/tsunami rescue operations.

My piece picks apart the peacetime radiation effects issue in history, from one of the most significant fallout events in U.S. history—in Albany, New York, of all places!—and the Chernobyl disaster, in addition to Fukushima, to describe the U.S. government “long war” on unfavorable radiation effects science and its concerted effort to minimize the accounting of radiation casualties to the absolute, irrefutable bare minumum.

The Reagan has never been completely decontaminated, several hundred members of the crew and other U.S. military personnel are suing for compensation for medical issues, and the Reagan has been sitting in the naval base at Yokosuka for a suspiciously long time for an aircraft carrier that’s supposed to be pivoting all over the western Pacific at this crucial juncture (the USS Carl Vinson out of San Diego & aircraft carriers transiting from the Middle East are picking up the d*ck-swinging slack).

But Hiroshima/Nagasaki denialists are only peripherally interested in issues of radiation effects. They want to suppress or minimize all accounts of human suffering in order to pre-empt discussions of the morality of U.S. tactics in the ultimate “good war”.

Like the coverup of radiation effects, feel-good denialism has been a factor in attitudes toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the git-go.

Douglas MacArthur believed that the A-bomb got too much credit, especially since it threatened to dilute the glory of Douglas MacArthur’s victory in the Pacific, and his team devoted a significant effort to poor-mouthing the strategic significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as dismissing the magnitude of human suffering it caused. In the words of MacArthur’s point man for spinning the public health effects of the attacks, Crawford Sams, the A-bomb was “a poor killer”.

Milestones in U.S. denialism include MacArthur’s imposition of censorship on reporting from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the suppression of gruesome footage of the medical consequences of the bombings, recorded shortly after the surrender both by a Japanese newsreel company and the U.S. Army’s own lavishly-funded Technicolor documentary unit.

As chronicled by Greg Mitchell, the footage has emerged fitfully and incompletely.

Erik Barnouw of Columbia University edited the two hours and forty five minutes of the Japanese footage into a 15 minute piece shown on US television in 1969:

Some of the U.S. Army footage, known as the McGovern footage after the unit director, found its way onto the Internet:

Be warned before clicking: these two videos, especially the McGovern footage, are essentially medical atrocity videos.

But also, if you can sit through the videos, you notice that to the amateur observer much of the movie documents horrific burn trauma that, aside from footage of people whose eyes got melted by the flash, doesn’t look demonstrably and exclusively like radiation effects.

It just looks awful and inhumane. And that’s probably why it was suppressed.

Key punctuation points in the war against humanitarian and pacifist attempts to detail the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the campaigns against plans for a revisionist setting for the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in 1994 and 2003.

Many of the same protagonists emerged with the same themes to savage Pellegrino in 2010.

One of the interesting and melancholy developments is that the denialist campaign to minimize the human consequences of the atomic bombings seems to be losing some of its heat in 2016. Not necessarily because understanding, reflection, and compassion (in Japanese omoiyari, a concept embraced by some hibakusha that Pellegrino celebrates in his book) are finally prevailing; it’s because the World War II generation is dying and it’s easier to ignore a bygone horror when the living, human legacy of injury and suffering is no longer before our eyes.

The good news is that Pellegrino’s book is back, new and improved, expanded, documented, fact-checked, and footnoted and published by Rowman & Littlefield thanks to the efforts of Mark Selden of Cornell. You can do the publisher a solid by buying the book direct from the R&L website. And for the most complete and authoritative reporting on nuclear/radiation issues in Japan, bookmark Selden’s A sia-Pacific Journal/Japan Focus e-journal.

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Whoever says:

    [T]he Reagan has been sitting in the naval base at Yokosuka for a suspiciously long time for an aircraft carrier that’s supposed to be pivoting all over the western Pacific….

    You undermine your argument–and your credibility–by asserting something that is not true and can be easily verified to be not true:

    CVN-76 Reagan
    early 2016 Selective restricted availability (SRA)
    30 Oct 2015 Arrives in Busan
    Summer 2015 Reagan replaces Washington in Japan
    20 Apr 2015 Completed 8-month Planned Incremental Availability
    07 Jan 2015 Planned Incremental Availability (PIA) at Naval Base Coronado
    6/26-8/01 2014 RIMPAC
    02 Jun 2014 Departed Santa Barbara
    mid-Mar 2014 Tailored Ship’s Training Availability (TSTA)
    18 Mar 2013 Departed Puget Sound Naval Shipyard
    21 Feb 2013 Completed Planned Incremental Availability
    10 Jan 2012 Arrived Bremerton, for 1 yr Planned Incremental Availability
    06 Jan 2012 Departed for Bremerton
    21 Nov 2011 Homeport San Diego
    10 Nov 2011 3rd Fleet AOR
    06 Sep 2011 Operating in the 3rd Fleet area of operations
    06 Sep 2011 Port visit to Pearl Harbor
    16 Mar 2011 Relief efforts in Japan
    13 Feb 2011 Started 6-month WESTPAC
    15 Nov 2010 Completed a successful Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX)

  2. Dave37 says:

    The outrageous Japanese use of chemical and biological weapons in China or the even the Rape of Nanking are more easily forgotten than the nukes used against Japan but at least the US hasn’t used any more nukes for military purposes despite the military’s love of big bangs. I suspect somebody will be using them in the future but there is a whole list developing of potential nuke users including even Japan.

  3. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    thank you for this writing

    Americans just do not know and don’t want to know.

  4. Priss Factor [AKA "Anonymny"] says:

    Peter Flea, Obama no visit Libya and Syria which he destroy real bad at behest of Zio-globalists. Those places now worse than Hiroshima after bomb.

    He no go hug Chinee in nanking who were raped badly by Japper dwarfs.

    He only feign sympathy for Hiroshima because his masters, the Zionists, want to use Japan against big bad China.

    It nothing but politics of sympathy. It very bogus. Not sincere sympathy. Just cynical use of sympathy for political gain.

    You no see Obama visit West Bank and huggy Palestine people.

  5. Ofcourse, knowing one’s true history, may prevent repeating mistakes.

    Also Oliver Stone/Peter Kuznick’s book: The Untold History of the United States,
    doubt the purpose of the Truman’s Satanic decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    I miss the pointing finger in this piece. Too many generic words, like vested interest.

    Who are the Satanists, that is the question!

    Name the organizations and people responsible, do the accusation! Now it’s all air, like many historians do.

    Jesus Christ did!

  6. J1234 says:

    War waged against civilians is an atrocity. For the US, this tactic started with Sherman’s march through GA.

    Having said that, Nagasaki and Hiroshima weren’t much more destructive to human beings than Tokyo and Dresden firebombings. All were horrific. And then there’s Jap non-capitulation. What would Peter Lee say if US leaders, over the course of three days, failed to take a course of action that could’ve saved as many lives as were lost in Nagasaki (the second atom bomb attack)? They would be lower than scum. No such rebuke for the Japs.

    MacArthur was right…the Japs quit because they’d rather surrender to the US than the USSR. Had a Soviet invasion not been imminent, Japanese rulers likely would’ve made their population suffer through two more nuclear attacks (Tokyo being the next one scheduled.)

  7. Jeff77450 says:

    Someone once said that the (perceived) (im)morality of the use of atomic weapons on Japan is in direct proportion to one’s distance from a Higgins boat (re. amphibious assault). It’s easy to denounce the bombings as immoral when there was/is no chance of having to participate in the planned invasion of Japan.

    My father, may he rest in peace, served on a mine-sweeper, USS SC658, that was to be a part of the invasion force. He expressed that if the invasion had occurred that he didn’t think that his ship would’ve survived. He was very grateful for the atomic bomb as is his growing list of descendants.

  8. Sam J. says:

    If the Japanese would have had a bomb they would have bombed us. Japan was actually building their own nuclear bomb which they would have readily used against us. See, “Japan’s Secret War: Japan’s Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb” by Robert K. Wilcox.

    Further confirmation comes from the enormous resources put into the ultra long range submarine that Japan built carrying only three airplanes. They only military use for such a vessel would be if it carried nukes.

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