I am extremely grateful to Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and her Literature and War Readalong for steering me toward Black Rain, an exquisite Japanese novel about the bombing of Hiroshima and the horrifying days and months that followed. Fortunately I was able to download it onto my Nook, because my entire library system (30+ libraries) did not have a single copy.
First off, I think I should say that for decades I have been intensely interested in the effect of war on civilians. My book Women during the Civil War (2004), included dozens of my essays dealing with the effect of the Civil War on women and children. I mention it because I have studied the effect of war on civilians in many, many wars. Yet I find it interesting to note that I have devoted the most extensive study to the effect of war on civilians during the Second World War. It has been a life study, actually, starting at about age 11, though I have never written about it. I should, because there is not an issue that I feel more strongly about.
As an American, my study of the effects of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Japanese civilians, who were predominantly women, children, and elderly men, as are all civilians in war, has been horrifying to me. What is even more horrifying are the extremes that our political leaders will resort to to achieve their wartime goals.
I think the most horrific aspect of Black Rain is the details that relate to the immediate effects of the atomic blast on people and animals, as well as the long-term effects of radiation. I remember reading John Hersey's classic Hiroshima when I was twelve and in the seventh grade, a school assignment. I was rivetted by the account, about what my country had done to the Japanese people, but I wanted more graphic details, curiously enough. I could tell that Hersey was doing his best, but I knew he was holding back. So many Americans believed and still believe, I'm sorry to say, that the atomic bombings saved millions of American lives. My mother told me long, long ago that in August, 1945, like so many millions of American soldiers, my father had been shipped out to wait to board ships and planes for the invasion of Japan. He had his orders. But the bombings turned those orders to dust--or to ash, and the boats turned around to head home.
To me, because of my prior readings, Black Rain was not so much horrifying as it was exquisitely painful in its poignancy. How often I have read diaries and first-hand narrative accounts of civilians who have struggled on, who have overcome trauma, excruciating pain, and devastating injuries and yet have never lost sight of their humanity--to continue to take care of their loved ones, their neighbors, and their communities--even when they have no resources to draw upon. Shigematsu in Black Rain was such a person. I agree with Caroline about the poignancy of his observations of nature and his reactions to the effects of the bombing were fascinating and terribly sad.
This is the inevitable legacy of war. The fact is, there are always far more civilians who suffer than soldiers. And I have enormous sympathy for the latter as well, who, for the most part, have no choice about their futures.
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