August 6th is celebrated in western Christendom as the Feast of the Transfiguration. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus went to “a tall mountain” (traditionally Mount Tabor) with Peter, John and James the son of Zebedee. While they were praying together, Jesus was momentarily transformed into a being of holy light.
August 6th is also observed as the day that the United States unleashed an unholy light and transformed the bustling industrial city of Hiroshima into a smoking, radioactive ruin.
It has been a long time since I have been an active Christian, but I still find the juxtaposition of these two stories striking. Both tell of a great light, unlike any light seen before. In the one, Heaven is revealed to the earth; in the other, Hell is unleashed upon the earth. In the one, God promises life and eternal glory; in the other, man promises death and eternal fear.I will not comment on whether the bombings of Hiroshoma on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 were actually necessary: I have seen compelling arguments supporting both yes and no. In either case, by the end of that October an estimated 140,000 people were dead in Hiroshima as a direct result of the bombs. The large majority of the casualties were wives and children; most of the rest were Allied prisoners of war, Chinese and Korean slave laborers, foreign students on scholarships, and Japanese-Americans who had fled the United States to escape the concentration camps set up by the US government for citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry.
A report filed by military investigators on August 8 described Hiroshima: “Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death.” It is estimated that 60% of the initial casualties were caused by flash burns, with the very lucky ones dying immediately. Another 30% died from injuries caused by falling debris, and the rest from other effects of the blast, including acute radiation poisoning. By 1950, another 100,000 had died slower deaths from infections, radiation and the obliteration of hospitals, power plants, water treatment and other infrastructure. The number and circumstances of death in Nagasaki were similar.
The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were extremely small by today’s standards: Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” had an estimated yield of 14 kilotons (meaning it released the energy found in 14,000 tons of TNT) and Nagasaki’s “Big Man” had a yield of around 21 kilotons. By comarison, modern nuclear warheads have a yield of up to 1.2 megatons, or 12,000,000 tons of TNT. Even so, the after effects were profound, and long term. Many of the blast survivors, called hibakushas in Japanese, bear terrible scars from the burns caused by the blasts, and they have a significantly higher rate of anemia and cancer than other Japanese of similar age. Nightmares among the survivors remain a persistent problem: imagine if you survived a nuclear blast that destroyed your home, levelled your city and killed almost everyone you had ever known.
Their children, too, have been affected. In the 20 years after the bombs dropped, misscarriages in Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly tripled. While few children were born with obvious birth defects, they developed serious health effects later in life including anemia, pulminary fibrosis and various cancers, all at a much higher rate than children born to non-hibakushas. Medical research into the long-term effects of radiation exposure on people and their descendants continues, and the results are not at all comforting.
We Americans are insulated from the events of August 6 and August 9, 1945 by both space and time. We take comfort in the moral superiority that comes with winning a war, but we must never forget: we are the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and we did so not once, but twice. It is vitally important that we remember this fact, because those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
We have a choice of two great transfigurations, two different visions of the future of humankind. Let us chose the light of promise and not the light of death. Work for peace.