The atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima took place 77 years ago this month, but their place in history remains as significant as the immediate aftermath. War is not a relic of the past, nor is it the radioactive remains and memories that trace the bodies and minds of blast-struck people.
International conflicts such as Ukraine’s war with Russia and rising tensions between China and Taiwan demonstrate the need for a deep understanding of world history and issues. When these conflicts come to an end, they too will cease to be static events whose pages can easily be turned. The fallout will linger on the minds and bodies of those involved.
If we want to reduce the impact of physical and psychological trauma inflicted on victims and witnesses, we must begin by understanding the history of trauma, memory, and conflict.The atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The anniversary of – a tragedy of great importance in itself – helps us begin to address the still-realized consequences of these ongoing human tragedies.
The bombing was a massive atrocity. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimates between 110,000 and 210,000 dead. The former presumption comes from the US military, the latter from anti-nuclear activists.
Whether the atomic bombings were justified or not, the consequences of America’s decision were clear and continue to reverberate to this day. When America dropped “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, it ushered in the nuclear age and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Those who survived the initial blast, or hibakusha, spent the rest of their lives wrestling with physical and mental devastation. Their irradiated bodies have been pierced and impaled by scientists trying to understand the effects of nuclear radiation on the human body and biological processes.
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Survivors were scrutinized as inanimate objects that had lost almost all aspects of their humanity. Even survivors sometimes looked at each other and themselves as if they were no longer alive. One of her survivors, in her testimony, explained that the blast blew them away as if they were lifeless. Another described how he witnessed burning corpses in a crematorium fire.
Their testimony shows how the victims were as human as they were inhuman. This scale of dehumanization between survivors and witnesses is not unique to the atomic bomb. In other human tragedies, victims have been objectified by perpetrators and bystanders. For example, during the Holocaust, Jewish victims were classified as less than human by Nazi prisoners of war.
In addition to coping with personal trauma, many hibakusha have become advocates for the abolition of nuclear weapons. They spoke at ceremonies and school assemblies. They wrote and drew about their experiences. By actively addressing memory and trauma, hibakusha engaged in a cathartic movement, addressing physical and psychological wounds that traced their bodies and minds.
Because these survivors passed on stories to younger generations who did not have direct memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, they created secondary witnesses to pass on their stories and important lessons to posterity.
Now, 77 years later, we face a similar dilemma as victims flee Ukraine’s war zones and the wider world witnesses the atrocities committed in the course of the battle. When conflicts end, it’s good to remember that they only end in one direction.
Survivors and witnesses are forever changed by their experiences. They, too, should begin a lengthy cathartic exercise to deal with the trauma, but they must do so on their own time when they are ready.
Andrew MillsA Chesapeake native, he is a high school history teacher, researcher in contemporary Japanese history, and incoming Adjunct Lecturer in History at James Madison University. His recent research focuses on post-atomic trauma and physical history.