Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked up this book because I was curious to answer a question that had never occurred to me before: how is it that the Japanese people can stand to be allied with the country that dropped two atomic bombs on them? It seemed to boggle my mind; the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in my father’s lifetime (although he was very, very young at the time) but it demonstrates that this is not ancient history. At least 129,000 people were annihilated and yet . . . as a country, Japan forgave the United States. It’s remarkable when you think about it, especially if you try to imagine what it would be like if the roles were reversed and it had been Japan that had erased two American cities.
But I digress. This book is about the survivors of the bombing of Nagasaki, a group of people that, for some reason, have become a footnote compared to sister city Hiroshima. In history texts, all that seems to be said is “oh, and then Nagasaki was bombed a few days later.”
The book follows the lives of several hibakusha (bomb-affected people) and chronicles their struggles with their horrific injuries and the lifelong, agonizing journey towards trying to heal and live as survivors of an atomic bombing. It’s pretty powerful stuff. It reminds me how little we think about nuclear war today, even though this shadow is always looming over us, always poised. We’ve gotten used to that shadow, but after reading about the lives of those who suffered its embrace, I realize that it’s wrong to quietly pretend it’s not a problem.
This book won’t try to shock you by inviting you to imagine what it would be like if it was YOUR city that was bombed. Instead, it presents the stories and lives of survivors, of real people, and invites you to consider our common humanity. From there, you’re able to work out the rest for yourself; that nuclear weapons are a existential threat to all of humanity.
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One of my greatest fears is drowning. I know there are worse ways to die: burning to death is certainly more painful. Due to an incident during my first scuba diving trip, however, I know what it feels like to drown. I know the awful panic, the unbidden desire to take a breath, because you can’t hold it any longer and when you do breath, it’s choking water, cold and terrifying. I survived that experience, of course, and I didn’t let it mark the end of my scuba diving. But that memory does mean that when I consider all the different ways I might meet the reaper, drowning is one of the most terrifying.
Here’s an account of an astronaut who, due to water leaking into his helmet and thanks to the peculiar nature of how water functions in zero-g, nearly ended up drowning inside his space suit. Here’s an excerpt, although the entire entry is worth a read:
As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realise that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.
Yeah, I’ll probably have nightmares about that one. Seriously, to not panic and end up dead? Astronauts have nerves of titanium.