At the dawn of the atomic age, and now, “between hell and reason”

Yesterday, I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the iconic Atomic Bomb Dome for the second time, and my visit was every bit as powerful and humbling as my first in 2015.

Hours before I strolled around the Peace Park, the city of Tokyo had temporarily suspended service on one of its metro lines as a cautionary measure against [yet another possible] North Korean missile launch.

In the morning hours of August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, instantly killing hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians, condemning countless others to slow and painful death from radiation poisoning, and unleashing unprecedented force and destruction.

The Atomic Bomb Dome (pictured here), the ruins of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, serves as a tribute to the innocent lives lost to the bombing and as a sobering reminder of the horrors of war and of the awesome power of modern weaponry.

During undergrad, I had the privilege of studying under the tutelage of a professor who, since the 1960s, has worked tirelessly to reorient public understanding of and attitudes toward the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from conventional postwar orthodoxy (which promulgates that the bombings hastened the end of World War II and thus saved the lives of thousands of American servicemen stationed in southern Japan) to healthy revisionism (which discredits the machinations of the Truman administration and suggests that Japan would have surrendered even in the absence of the two bombings).

I spent much of 2012–2013 researching and writing on the atomic bombings of Japan and how American and French philosophers and intellectuals responded, in their respective writings, to the devastation wrought by the bombings. My experience yesterday reminded me of the stark, life-or-death language employed by writers in late-1945 and thereafter — distilling the exigencies for global peace after the devastation of World War II and for accepting responsibility for the atomic bomb (and later, nuclear weapons) as a device, both symbolic and real, signifying the capacity of man to sow the seeds of his own destruction.

After the war, in a world haunted thenceforth by the specter of a device that mankind imagined as a veritable foe of its very existence and survival, collective humanity was left only to assume “full consciousness of the conflicts…tear[ing] it apart” (1) — among them, science as a force for good (“humanity”) or for evil (“barbarism”); pressing concerns about consciousness and responsibility; and the most critical of dichotomies, pitting petty passions against logic, distinguishing between a thriving community of “brothers” and a degenerate mass of “troglodytes” (2), and choosing between destruction and redemption, formulated by Albert Camus with characteristic eloquence as “choos[ing] once and for all between hell and reason.”

(1) Baldwin, Hanson W. "The Atomic Weapon; End of War Against Japan Hastened But Destruction Sows Seeds of Hate." The New York Times 7 August 1945: p. 10.

(2) Camus, Albert. “Editorial de Combat, 8 août 1945.” "http://www.matisse.lettres.free.fr/artdeblamer/tcombat.htm>.

(3) Surya, Michel. Georges Bataille; An Intellectual Biography (London: Verso, 2002), 360.