‘Unacceptable Damage’

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

by the Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused, translated by Eisei Ishikawa and David L. Swain
Basic Books, 706 pp., $37.50

Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors

edited by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation
Pantheon, 111 pp., $7.95 (paper)

The hardest of all tasks for the military people who are occupationally obliged to make plans for wars still to come must be to keep a comprehensive up-to-date list of guesses about what the other side might, in one circumstance or another, do. Prudence requires that all sorts of possibilities be kept in mind including, above all, the “worst case.” In warfare, in this century, the record has already proved that the worst-case possibility will turn out in the end to be the one that happens, and, often enough, the one that hadn’t been planned for. At the outset of World War I, the British didn’t have in mind the outright loss of an entire generation of their best youth; nor did any of the Europeans count on such an unhinging of German society as would lead straight to Hitler. When things were being readied for World War II, nobody forecast the destruction of Dresden or Coventry as eventualities to be looked out for and planned against. In Vietnam, defeat at the end was not anywhere on the United States’ list of possible outcomes, nor was what happened later in Cambodia and Laos.

We live today in a world densely populated by human beings living in close communication with each other all over the surface of the planet. Viewed from a certain distance the earth has the look of a single society, a community, the swarming of an intensely social species trying to figure out ways to become successfully interdependent. We obviously need, at this stage, to begin the construction of some sort of world civilization. The final worst case for all of us has now become the destruction, by ourselves, of our species.

This will not be a novel event for the planet, if it does occur. The fossil record abounds with sad tales of creatures that must have seemed stunning successes in their heyday, wiped out in one catastrophe after another. The trilobites are everywhere, elegant fossil shells, but nowhere alive. The dinosaurs came, conquered, and then all at once went.

Epidemic disease, meteorite collisions, volcanoes, atmospheric shifts in the levels of carbon dioxide, earthquakes, excessive warming or chilling of the earth’s surface are all on the worst-case list for parts of the biosphere, at one time or another, but it is unlikely that these can ever be lethal threats to a species as intelligent and resourceful as ours. We will not be wiped off the face of the earth by hard times, no matter how hard; we are tough and resilient animals, good at hard times. If we are to be done in, we will do it ourselves by warfare with thermonuclear weaponry, and it will happen because the military planners, and the governments who pay close attention to them, are guessing at the wrong worst case. At the moment there are really only two groups, the Soviets and us, but soon there will be others, already lining up.

Each side is guessing that the other…

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