Responding to Hiroshima
BOOK REVIEW by George Jisho Robertson
God’s Tears (Reflections on the Atomic Bombs Dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) by David Krieger. Translated by Noriko Mizusaki. Tokyo: Coal Sack Publishing Company, 77 pp. in English; 123 pp. in Japanese, $20.00.
How do we respond as human beings or as citizens to the enormity of the contrast between the following quotations from David Krieger’s collection of poems, all seemingly objective statements of bare fact?
A Short History Lesson
Dropped atomic bomb
Agreed to hold
War crimes trials
Dropped atomic bomb
and then this:
‘The rigid body of a charred young boy
stretched out and blackened on the crisp earth.’
and this witness, from the poem ‘A Grandmother’s Story’:
‘The wounded walked past us
With vacant stares, their skin hanging
Like ribbons from their bodies.’
And now a quotation that stands as a marker for David Krieger’s intention and achievement:
‘What was missing was an understanding
The bare fact is that the national governments of the countries of many of the readers of David Krieger’s book still hold nuclear weapons, something that only makes sense (if sense is the right word!) if they are willing to use them. Do we as voters, or as participants in political process, understand this or have we forgotten? Have we imagined the consequences?
The power and scope of this book is in how David Krieger’s poetry leads us into the whole process of the creation and use of the atomic bombs with intimate and touching poems that enable us to enter the experience, the minds and hearts of the range of key individual players in the enormity of nuclear event. It became a shared personal journey for the reader, expressing a felt imagination and understanding of our common humanity – and of man’s inhumanity to man. We meet and learn to feel with and feel for the enormity of the experience of the President, the pilot, the scientists, the victims and the survivors. We are the protagonists and the survivors.
The identification is vivid and complete:
‘…I speak of the victims burned away to their elemental particles, to atoms, similar to other atoms, let loose into the atmosphere to drift and fall without volition.
‘What does this mean? That we breathe our victims, that we drink them and eat them, without tasting the bitterness, in our daily meals.’
The structure of the book is clear – this is a collection of poems, but it is also a sustained argument that needs to be followed through. The key issue is set out in the preface, ‘the arrogance of power … willing to put at risk the future of civilization, if not of life itself’ against ‘the moral clarity of calling evil by its name.’
In part 1 – The Bomb – Dr. Krieger invites us into the experiences, minds and hearts of crucial players in the nuclear drama, an expression of compassionate imagination and contained outrage that issues in
‘He thanked God for the bomb. Others did too.
God responded with tears’;
and a telling quotation from General Eisenhower:
‘It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing’;
and from Einstein,
‘If only I had known,
I would have become a watchmaker.’
In the section titled ‘Memory’, we face both the pathos and the appalling dimensions of our responsibility: ‘Nuclear weapons are not weapons at all. They are a symbol of an imploding human spirit. They are a fire that consumes the air of decency.’ Krieger describes his personal reflections in a moment of silent emotion and gentle awareness on the Memorial Day at the epicenter, contrasting with the depersonalization involved in nuclear war –
‘The bells of Nagasaki,
elusive as a flowing stream
ring for each of us, ring
like falling leaves.’
Against that image set the horror and pathos of the safety instructions for children –
‘This is the way you will be saved
from the radiation that will cause your gums
to bleed, your hair to fall out, leukemia
to form in your blood…’
and how we ‘corrupt our humanity’ in the ‘Code of Conduct for Nuclear Weapons Launch Officers:
‘I will not launch nuclear weapons unless I am ordered to do so
I will turn my key when ordered to do so, no matter how many people will die.’
In part IV with two bold brief declarations, David Krieger sets his theme in a universal context, reminding us what a brief window of opportunity for human life has opened in the 13.7 billions years since the Big Bang and how swiftly we ourselves could close it.
If imagination and understanding are now in place, what is to be done? The writer sets out his proposals for effective action on a world scale in part V: as an accomplished speaker and protagonist for nuclear disarmament and abolition for more than 40 years, he presents a comprehensive summary of the political steps that could be taken, world-wide, to avoid nuclear devastation.
Reading this book, I saw myself as a little boy hurrying downstairs in the dark; I saw my city already in flames and heard the roar and clatter of a German bomber just above the rooftop of our house, piloted by a warrior such as my soldier father was. I remembered the moment that my grandfather showed me the newspaper images of the concentration camps, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the devastation of the German cities by fire. I remembered how many times I woke in the night from the recurrent nightmare I experienced throughout my adolescence of that moment of realization that the light on the horizon was the light of the bomb, the brief appalling moment before the burning and the shock wave – in Krieger’s poem we have this:
‘It would be many years before light
would become so intense that you could see
your bones through translucent skin.’
I am reminded that this moment is still possible.
I grew up at a time when my elders were survivors of ‘the war to end all wars’. Reading God’s Tears I was reminded of Wilfred Owen’s words:
This book is not about heroes.
English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might,
majesty, dominion, or power, except war.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may
be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets
must be truthful.
I am extremely, though painfully, grateful for Dr. Krieger’s courage and his life’s work that brings to immediate life a reality that was on my mind and shaped my life and my values more than half a century ago, and how it is still a very clear and present danger. Each of us reading this book will have to question our current political priorities and what action we should be taking. The humanity, the sensitivity, the power and the clarity of this book remind us that the issue has by no means gone away. We cannot hide from the fact that our governments possess nuclear weapons, and there are active systems in place to use them. I urge you to read and share this book as widely as possible.
The website for Dr. David Krieger’s Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is www.wagingpeace.com