The Catholic Cathedral of Nagasaki after the atomic bomb blast on August 9, 1945 (picture from Jan 1946)

Tens of millions of replays on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook — we never tire of watching the apocalyptic explosion in Beirut this week. Yet the Beirut horror is but a glimpse of the instant devastation in Nagasaki that took place 75 years ago, on August 9, 1945, killing up to 80,000 persons, nearly all civilians.

If mobile phones had captured that bomb would we have been as mesmerised by the obliteration of Nagasaki as we are today of the port of Beirut? Isn’t there something quite unsettling about this?  Four or five German cities were devastated but half the cities of Japan were burned to the ground. The allies became progressively desensitised to the pain of war.

Lesley Blume writes this week about our ability to depersonalise suffering, to desensitise ourselves to the pain of others:

“It remains imperative to humanise mass casualties, whether the more than 800,000 murdered in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, the more than two million Vietnamese civilians killed in the Vietnam War, the 3000 slain by al Qaeda on 9/11, or the 155,000 plus American dead in the Covid-19 crisis.”

We of Nagasaki

The urgency to bring to light the pain wrought by the bomb motivated Dr Takashi Nagai, himself a survivor, in his remarkable book, We of Nagasaki: The Story of Survivors in an Atomic Wasteland. Nagai asked in his introduction,

“What would the world be like in an atomic war? The experts have shown cities demolished and fields laid waste. They have talked about genetic effects and about radiation sickness. But very little has been said about people in an atomic war, as people.”

So to show the effects of nuclear war, he presented the stories of eight young survivors of the bomb. Nagai included his four-year-old daughter: 

“All of a sudden there was a great big flash, like lightning. I didn’t know what it was – I was so surprised! Then there was a big noise, then a strong wind came and pushed me. I was scared. I got on the floor and stayed there with my hands over my ears. After a while I took my hands away from my ears and I couldn’t hear the cicadas they weren’t chirping anymore. Then I opened my eyes and got up and, Oh my! what an awful thing I saw.”

Later the first news arrived from the city.

“’Everybody’s dead, everybody!’ said Ritsuka… ‘Mama where are you? I want Mama! Oo I hurt!’ – that was all she kept saying all the time…. Then they all got down on their knees together and began to say the prayer of the rosary…. After that night and one more night at last Daddy came along …. Daddy had a queer kind of look on his face when he saw brother and me. He looked at us in a strange kind of way. He had a can of peaches in his pocket and he took it out and gave it to us.”

The occupation forces did not initially allow publication of this book. Perhaps the victims were far too normal. In 1951 it was published in English. 

Stories of the hibakusha (survivors)

Nagai has been an inspiration for Australian researcher Gwyn McClelland, whose precious interviews of 12 survivors and commentary are now published and accessible. McClelland asked whether Nagai’s Catholic views on forgiveness and acceptance of a Divine plan were shared by other survivors. 

The courage and lack of bitterness of all are impressive. Nakamura Kazutoshi tells him:

“I think that whatever the case, I hold no grudge against God. It [the bomb] was a shiren (trial)for humankind, I think. Do you know the word, shiren? It was shiren, a trial from God, given to humanity, to survive through suffering.”

Kataoka Chizuko says, echoing Nagai’s view:

“In Catholic faith (we participate) with the sacrifice (gisei) of Christ’s cross, we perceive how to offer up the wartime sins of humankind by way of atonement through the unprecedented horror (pain) of the atom bomb, at the same time, recognising God in Urakami together with Christ as the redeemer of humanity.”

Others were less generous to Nagai. Another Catholic convert survivor, Akizuki, described Nagai as “too sentimental. And I do not care for such brimming religiosity…. He employed only religiosity in dealing with the atomic bomb.”

Another survivor spoke of the help from her religious faith in the worst moments of radiation sickness. The raw memories brought back tears 70 years later.

“My faith was helpful for me. It was Mother Mary. And Christ. When my stomach was ill and even when I would cry, the assistant would say to me with the meaning beyond words. Nagase-san, you are held by Mary like a baby.”

Is empathy enough? Surely there is something deeply human in being moved to act through compassion. And something inhuman about the one who refuses to look, who does not meet the gaze of a homeless person, who walks by past …  

Repudiation of violence

Sentiment, social media and slogans are not enough. Let us learn from Takashi Nagai, and from Henri Dunant who formed the Red Cross after his experiences at the Battle of Solferino. Let us learn from John Hume, recently deceased, the Nobel Peace Laureate who brought peace to Ireland in 1998 after the horrific Omagh bombing killing 28 innocent passers-by. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Hume quoted the Irish poet W.B. Yeats:

“Too long a sacrifice    
Can make a stone of the heart.”

All too easily we can become hardened to others’ pain. A.C. Grayling plots the increasing cruelty of the bombing of cities in the final years of World War II. Four or five German cities were devastated and half the cities of Japan were burned to the ground.

Since then, the West has still not repudiated violence to resolve international conflicts. Think of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, of the Falklands Islands, of the two invasions of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of arms sales to Saudi Arabia to pursue a war in Yemen.

What must we do? For starters, let’s be convinced that peace and violence are incompatible. The face of suffering must lead us to the conviction that we cannot turn to violence to solve problems. Violence must be utterly repudiated.

Makoto, Nagai’s son, writes:

“Down to my father’s generation everybody considered bravery in battle something to be proud of…. It’s up to my generation to make the courage to stop war something to be proud of — that’s what we should admire and that’s the way we should all try to be. It’s all right to take the sword away from somebody who is trying to kill you with it but there’s a good chance of a fight. What we want is to be brave enough and wise enough to let him keep the sword and still make him our friend.”

Violence can never bring peace. As Martin Luther King Jr said:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

This is theology but also sober, inescapable reality. Peace is only possible when one is determined to love first.

Dr Andy Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney. Now he teaches formation of character at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the neurobiological...