About soldiers, Randall Jarrell wrote these lines:
And his dull torment mottles like a fly’s
The lying amber of the histories.
The subtitle of Ronnie Dugger’s book Dark Star is “Hiroshima Reconsidered in the Life of Claude Eatherly of Lincoln Park, Texas.” That vast distance, that more-than-global discrepancy between Lincoln Park and Hiroshima attracts and then exhausts in its vastness the speculative mind. It was an easy flight in a B-29 but an impossible one for the imagination. For twenty-three years these celestial and infernal regions have been, as Eliot said of Milton’s regions, “large but insufficiently furnished apartments filled by heavy conversation.” The current non-proliferation treaty is heavy conversation. All the years of worthy alarms and arguments against the Bomb seem a heavy dark Miltonic wind.
But these truths are too important to be new; they have been taught to our infancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar conversation, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life. Being therefore not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in the mind; what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise.
Milton again; this time, Dr. Johnson is speaking of him. Even Milton, vastest of poets, would fail here. But lesser voices must try to sound in that void.
The tale of Claude Eatherly, sometime “Hiroshima Pilot,” has been told in every sort of voice, the sob sister’s, the wounded, the heavy political, the righteous, the half-crazed, the unctuous, the clinical, the self-advertising, even in the voice of honest human concern. Ronnie Dugger, former editor of that outpost of reason in the Southwest, The Texas Observer, tells the story in modest, honest, human concern. His concern is for Hiroshima’s victims, for the victims of the future, and for poor Claude Eatherly of Lincoln Park, Texas. It is not Dugger’s fault if the celestial and Infernal regions are too much for him. They have been too much for everyone.
THE TALE ITSELF is surely familiar. In 1957, a Texas reporter discovered that a man in jail for robbing a Post Office was a former Air Force Major who had been involved in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Immediately misinformation stormed around the world. It was sometimes said that Major Eatherly, who was pilot of the weather plane that scouted the mission and declared the target clear, had been the pilot of the bombing plane itself. More seriously, it came to be widely believed that Eatherly was being held in a veteran’s mental hospital by the United States Government because he was attempting to state publicly his repentance for his act and his belief in atomic disarmament. Led on by the disjointed and often inaccurate letters of Eatherly himself, Günther Anders in 1961 published their correspondence (as edited by Anders), leaving the impression that Eatherly was indeed being persecuted. This led to further publicity, in Europe, Asia, and here, to poems, petitions, and widespread misapprehensions. Yet for all …