TO THE Allies, they were just more bombing raids. The use of atomic weapons was novel, but the morality of visiting mass destruction on an almost completely civilian population warranted no new thought. After all, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 came five months after Operation Meetinghouse, the overnight incendiary attack on Tokyo which left an estimated 100,000 dead and reduced one quarter of the city to cinders. It was the deadliest air raid of the war, and yet seemingly had no effect on the bellicose Japanese leadership. Five years of casualties had dulled leaders’ moral senses on both sides.
The attack on Hiroshima occurred on the morning of the Feast of the Transfiguration, ever thereafter giving a sinister shadow to the account of Christ’s appearance to the apostles in a dazzling white light. Descriptions of the nuclear flash, so powerful that it burnt eyes and seared flesh, caused those on the periphery of the Manhattan Project to wonder whether something pertaining to the divine had been unleashed. Although an understandable reaction to an incomprehensible phenomenon, this makes the mistake of equating God only with great forces. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were no more sacrilegious than Tokyo, and Tokyo, ultimately, no more than the firing of a single bullet. All life is part of the divinely ordained world, and violence of any kind is the surest route to dishonour it.
Failing to learn lessons from past violence is the next surest. Teruko Ueno, one of the hibakusha — the survivors of the bombs — was interviewed for an anniversary feature next week. She had been 15 years old when the atomic bomb burst over Hiroshima: “I haven’t been to hell; so I don’t know what it’s like, but hell is probably like what we went through. It must never be allowed to happen again.” A similar view was expressed in the Church Times immediately after the explosion, on 15 August 1945: “The atomic bomb should be outlawed as soon as possible by general agreement, like poison gas.” But this early determination, shared by many, was undermined by, first, Cold War fears, and, second, by a creeping complacency. A later Church Times leader, marking the 25th anniversary in 1970, was written at the height of the multilateral/unilateral disarmament debate. Yet even then, the leader-writer was prompted to remark: “One way and another, fears have been lulled or put to the back of the mind.”
And so to today. It is remarkable how firmly the idea of the “responsible” nuclear state has taken hold, perhaps encouraged by agreements that have lowered the number of active nuclear warheads from more than 70,000 in 1986 to fewer than 14,000 now. But to remember the destructive power of just two puts this total into perspective, especially when considering that the bulk of these weapons are at the disposal of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. It is not pleasant to be scared, but no other emotion makes sense until every warhead is permanently disarmed.