Was Hiroshima Necessary?

The Prisoner and the Bomb

by Laurens van der Post
William Morrow, 152 pp., $5.00

This is the story, complete with moral, of the well-known explorer’s experiences in Japanese prison camps in Java. Considered as literature, it has faults. His narrative may well be true, but its style makes it a prolonged invitation to skepticism. His atrocity stories are no more atrocious than could be matched in my own experience in the Singapore camps and on the Burma railway, or in that of people whose reports I believe; and yet I found myself saying again and again as I read, “Did it really happen just like that?”

This effect is chiefly due to the way in which the whole prison world is made to revolve around the narrator, who conveys an image of himself deficient both in the modesty which can make autobiography (even the autobiography of heroes) palatable and in the sense of humor which kept many of us prisoners sane. And much of it is written in a kind of prose-poetry of which the following is an example:

I thought of all the times I had watched from the tip of the mountain-of-the-arrow, assailed by an immense feeling of doom, the great volcano’s shattered rim wrapped in red-ragged sunsets and the dying light of day outlined beyond like a shadow of foreboding in a magic mirror of scarlet water, the tangled world of the vast island of Sumatra where I had begun my war in Southeast Asia. The feeling of doom was all the more disturbing then because it was not personal so much as cosmic almost, for I remember clearly how the end of day then was always in my mind the end forever of an age of Empire and the night that came down swift as a bat, the fall of shadow implicit between end and re-beginning in the brief and brittle life of man. [Page 93]

On the other hand, the book is commendably free from the recriminations against fellow prisoners which mar some other books in this genre. Van der Post gives generous credit to many of his associates; and his denunciations of the Japanese are not so overdone as his descriptions of the scenery. It is regrettable that the Japanese prison camps did not elicit from their inmates as much good descriptive writing as they deserved; those of us, therefore, who, out of laziness or reticence, have not written anything about our experiences ought not to be critical of those who have.

The book is intended to be read (and is indeed worth reading) as a contribution to the argument about the morality of the use of the two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It starts with an account of how Colonel van der Post met by accident in a television studio a Japanese survivor from Hiroshima who had lost his whole family in the bombing; and of how, after the Japanese had described his experience, van der Post persuaded the producer to allow the program to continue with an impromptu discussion in which he …

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