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The Devils of Hiroshima

The near worship of weapons emerged,” write the authors, “as did the claims of scientific racism, from collective attitudes involving science and technology that have taken shape over the past two centuries.” Scientific racism may indeed be a modern invention, though I wouldn’t be too sure even about that, but worship of weapons certainly is not. Javanese daggers are objects of a religious cult, as were samurai swords, not to mention King Arthur’s Excalibur. Weapon fetishism, rightly connected by Lifton and Markusen with sexual potency and the power over life and death, presumably began with the caveman’s club. John Wayne would have understood it. And just think of that wonderful scene in Apocalypse Now, when Playboy Bunnies dance for the boys in Vietnam, twirling guns between their thighs. It might have seemed a little crude to the great Alexander’s troops, but they would have got the point.

The problem with Lifton and Markusen is that they, like many other intellectuals, ascribe far too much to that elusive thing they call modernity. Fachidiotie, Auschwitz, the A-bomb, are, in their view, all uniquely wicked products of the modern mind, along with industrialization, total war, and so forth. Science has gone mad; the machine has taken over; morals and humanity count for nothing: life is meaningless. It is an old complaint, going back to the ancients. Nietzsche simply put it in modern terms: the vacuum after God’s death. This theme has exercized most critics of the Enlightenment: the dry inhumanity of rationalism, man’s slavery to science. As the East German playwright Heiner Müller recently put it in an interview, “When one thinks of the historical catastrophes in our century, it seems plausible that the fetishization of progress is based on an accelerating death wish.” Müller believes that “Auschwitz is the altar of capitalism,” that “without religion, there are no more arguments against Auschwitz,” that “the A-bomb is the scientific substitute of the Last Judgement.”5 Heiner Müller is not a rightwing Christian fundamentalist, but a true believer in socialism.

What is easily forgotten is that great technological inventions, of which splitting the atom was one, were usually regarded in their time as the devil’s work. Gunpowder was, and so were the first railway trains, not to mention the combustion engine and those infernal flying machines, and, who knows, maybe even the wheel. Many people in the world still believe that a camera can rob them of their souls. As far as the ability to destroy is concerned, the leap from swords and arrows to guns was arguably as great as the leap from incendiary bombs to A-bombs. If there has been a fundamental shift in our collective cast of mind, turning us all into numbed accomplices and victims of the genocidal mentality, when exactly did this shift take place? During the Thirty Years War, or in the trenches of Flanders, or was it the carpet bombing of Hamburg that did it? Or was it Hiroshima, after all? To assume that it was Hiroshima is to accept the A-bomb as a deus ex machina, or at least as sui generis. The trouble with any deus is that he stands in the way of a human solution or human responsibility.

This is a point beautifully made by Adam Mars-Jones in his criticism of Martin Amis’s collection of nuclear short stories, Einstein’s Monsters:

Amis hives off the issue of nuclear weapons intellectually from other subjects, but he also isolates the nuclear age historically from everything that came before. Nothing is as it was. This rhetorical construction of a Before and an After with nothing in common has the paradoxical effect of elevating the Bomb above history. The Bomb becomes something like the Uncaused Cause of theology. But it is only in its consequences that the Bomb is absolute: to imagine that the development of the Bomb corresponds to no long-standing ingredient of human nature is wishful thinking. The Bomb need never have been invented, but that doesn’t make it a visitation.6

It is no accident that almost every writer who touches the Bomb uses religious imagery, for that is how the Apocalypse is traditionally discussed. To do otherwise, to use technical, rationalist, political language, is to stand accused of nuclear madness. If Lifton and Markusen had chosen to compare American nuclear physicists to their real colleagues in Nazi Germany instead of to the deathcamp doctors, they would have been struck by an interesting irony here. For rationalisim and amoral abstraction were exactly what Nazis regarded as “Jewish thinking.” As Johannes Stark, one of the leading so-called Aryan physicists, observed, “A German natural researcher should not just be a narrow specialist, but should also feel and act as a German racial comrade.” Or as Hitler is said to have remarked: science is a social endeavor which can only be measured by its impact upon the community.7

Dr. Mengele would have agreed. He was not a Fachidiot, but a true Nazi believer, who abhorred “Jewish thinking” and worshiped racial comradeship. But the men who worked on the Nazi nuclear project, such as Werner Heisenberg, were, on the contrary, pure scientists, with little or no interest in Nazi ideology. Some were even quite opposed to it. Nor were they much interested in the practical application of their research, and it has been argued that this, as much as anything else, stopped Hitler from getting his bomb. One might conclude that there are quicker roads to human wickedness than the Fachidiotie of pure scientists.

Arthur Koestler was both supremely rational and given to strange flights of paranormal fancy; a true believer as well as a child of the Enlightenment. He believed that Hiroshima did indeed change human destiny forever:

The crisis of our time can be summed up in a single sentence. From the dawn of consciousness until the middle of our century man had to live with the prospect of his death as an individual; since Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has to live with the prospect of its extinction as a biological species.8

This is something upon which Koestler, Amis, and Lifton and Markusen are agreed. Up to a point, it is impossible to disagree, although there have been enough mass killings in history to make death more than a merely personal matter. Koestler also wrote that man would be able to live with it by shielding himself mentally from the worst: “‘Hiroshima’ has become a historic cliché like the Boston Tea Party or the Storming of the Bastille. Sooner or later we shall return to a state of pseudo-normality.” In other words, what Lifton calls numbing. But then Koestler identified several symptoms of a uniquely human pathology: the demand for human sacrifice, the lack of inhibition in killing our fellow men, the permanent state of “intraspecific” warfare, leading to mass extermination, and, lastly, the split between reason and emotion.

Our rational faculties have brought about unimaginable technological progress and sophistication, while our emotions are still stuck in a most primitive state. We shake hands on the moon, but are still prepared to kill and die for the tribe, the great ideal, the great leader. Koestler: “Prometheus is reaching for the stars with an empty grin on his face and a totem symbol in his hand.” Here is the nub of the problem: devotion demands sacrifice; the totem of one tribe demands the blood of another. From King Herod’s massacre of the innocents to Saddam Hussein, the genocidal mentality is as old as mankind. And prayer, in one form or another, is still the preferred method of many, perhaps most, people of staving it off.

Lifton and Markusen’s book bears this out: it is a cri de coeur, so to speak, of the religious mind. Paradoxically, it is also an indictment of the use of religious language and imagery in nuclear affairs. The authors call reliance on nuclear weapons a secular religion, “in which grace and even salvation—the mastery of death and evil—are achieved through the power of the new technological deity.” They quote Oppenheimer citing the Bhagavad Gita when he saw the effects of the A-bomb: “Now I am become Death the destroyer of worlds.” But like many critics of rationalism and modernity, they themselves seek to achieve a spiritual solution to secular problems. They believe that only through the great universalist religions and the “modern secular syntheses,…notably those of Marx and Freud,” can the species be saved from Armageddon.

Oda Makoto says much the same thing in his novel, by using that hoary device of a wise Indian tribe on the verge of extinction by the wicked white man. The wise old Indians realize what’s coming, and in their boundless compassion and the wisdom of ages, they pray for the salvation of us all. The idea that nuclear war can be averted by vigilance and political negotiation strikes Oda, Lifton, et alia as mad. Deterrence is to them only an illusion, or worse, another form of the genocidal mentality. It is as though they can only fight fire with fire, totems with totems.


Just as the critics of the Enlightenment were useful in pointing out the inhumanity of dogmatic rationalism, the civic religion of peace can be a good antidote to Fachidiotie. There is indeed something unhinged about the continuous buildup and refinement of means to blow up the planet, even though the sheer terror of this happening has probably helped to preserve the peace so far between those with the means to do it. But the religious mind is singularly illsuited to reasonable discourse, and can inhibit scientific enquiry. To Lifton and Markusen the bomb is chiefly a moral problem.

Martin Amis even uses his fatherhood to scramble up to the unassailably moral high ground, as though being a father uniquely qualifies one to discuss nuclear matters, as though it makes all differing opinions redundant. Moralists believe that the issue is one of human consciousness, which must be changed, spiritually, through religious, or pseudo-religious means. To talk about nuclear arms in their relation to politics or strategy, or science, is not just immoral but virtually impossible. One might as well discuss God rationally with an evangelist. This is no reflection on the good intentions of the evangelist, but his cast of mind is out of reach to the rationalist. The only difference between God and the bomb is that God can be declared dead…. But wait, even that isn’t true. The real believer in banning the bomb has to believe that it can be done, that we can simply redirect scientific progress, when it can be put to ill use.

This may seem utopian, but there is actually an example of it happening, of all places, in Japan. In the middle of the sixteenth century, when Japan was an exporter of superb swords, better than anything made on the Chinese continent, three Portuguese adventurers landed in Japan on board a Chinese ship. They brought harquebuses and ammunition with them and impressed their Japanese hosts during a duck shoot. A mere thirty-two years later, in 1575 to be exact, Oda Nobunaga’s troops, armed with high-caliber matchlock rifles, blasted away as wave after wave of Takeda Katsuyori’s soldiers charged in with swords and spears. Sixteen thousand men died that day on the plains of Nagashino.

Three hundred years after that, the Americans arrived in Japan, meaning business. Commodore Perry, with sixty-four-pound guns poking from his decks, was met in Shimoda by samurai who looked like knights in a medieval pageant, swords proudly worn at their sides, with not a gun in sight. Commander Rodgers, USN, arrived a year later in Tanegashima and was deeply moved to find a sophisticated people, who had never heard of firearms. If Rodgers had known that the people of Tanegashima had been keen shots a hundred years earlier, he would have been moved even more. A miracle seemed to have occurred: the gun had been banned as a dastardly, dishonorable weapon of mass destruction, and Japan had enjoyed three centuries of undisturbed peace and social harmony.

The story is enough to make the most hardened supporter of nuclear weapons weep. Noel Perrin, who wrote about it in his book Giving up the Gun, aimed his tale not at historians or Japan specialists, but at “the much larger group of people interested in the possibility of controlling technology.”9 His book is dedicated to Yukio Mishima, “no pacifist, but a long-time hater of guns,” and begins with the following lines by Charles Lamb:

Alas! Can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize and then burn the world? There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?

This is Perrin’s final statement:

You can’t stop progress,” people commonly say. Or in a formulation scientists are especially fond of, “What man can do, man will do….”

This is to talk as if progress—however one defines that elusive concept—were somehow semidivine, an inexorable force outside human control. And, of course, it isn’t. It is something we can guide, and direct, and even stop. Men can choose to remember; they can also choose to forget. As men did on Tanegashima.

What a perfect parable! Once again, the accusation of misusing religion: semidivine progress. Men can choose to forget. Can they? Did they? What gives the game away and reveals Perrin to be yet another one among the believers is the lack of politics in his account. Why was the gun banned, who banned it, and how was it achieved?

Here the story becomes more interesting and less noble. Power during the three hundred years of shogunate rule was monopolized by generalissimos, presiding over feudal fiefdoms of samurai lords. The merchant class made money, but remained politically shackled. A ruthless and highly efficient secret police made sure no one stepped an inch out of line. And the peasants were squeezed to the point of being permanently on the verge of starvation. When things became absolutely intolerable, which was rather often, the peasants rebelled, but what could they do with their bamboo spears against sharp samurai blades? Those who didn’t die by Mishima’s favorite noble weapon died of hunger.

The gun threatened to change this arrangement. Perrin remarks that “It was a shock to everyone to find out that a farmer with a gun could kill the toughest samurai so readily.” He goes on to write that Hideyoshi, the generalissimo of Japan at the time (the late sixteenth century), “took the first step toward the control of firearms. It was a very small step, and it was not taken simply to protect feudal lords from being shot by peasants but to get all weapons out of the hands of civilians.” Gradually the supply of guns dried up and Japan remained firmly under the samurai sword. The result? More than two hundred years of police-state authoritarianism, whose legacy still befuddles Japanese efforts at democratic politics today.10

So, yes, the absolute rulers of an isolated country, deliberately sealed off from the outside world, can force people to “forget” technological progress. They can justify this by claiming to protect harmony and peace. And we can all agree that harmony and peace are very fine things, but not when they are enforced by despots with a choice of their own weapons. Peace on those terms might make even the doves of Hiroshima sit up and pay attention.


The Nuclear Difference January 17, 1991

  1. 5

    The interview with Heiner Müller appeared in the July issue of Trans Atlantik.

  2. 6

    Adam Mars-Jones, Venus Envy, CounterBlasts No. 14 (Chatto and Windus, 1990).

  3. 7

    Alan D. Beyerchen, Scientists Under Hitler (Yale University Press, 1981), p. 134.

  4. 8

    Arthur Koestler’s essay “The Urge to Self-Destruction” was reprinted in Kaleidoscope (Hutchinson, 1981).

  5. 9

    Noel Perrin; Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543–1879 (Godine, 1979).

  6. 10

    I was alerted to Perrin’s book by a superb critical essay by Rudy Kousbroek in the NRC-Handelsblad of Rotterdam (October 10, 1980).

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