The younger we are, the less history means to us. It isn’t until we have lived through a few history-making events that we begin paying attention to the world outside our tiny bubble of self-absorption. The first historically significant event to break through my bubble was President Kennedy’s assassination. From that point on, world events began to bookmark my life. The world became smaller on that day. Or my awareness of the world grew larger.
Each generation bookmarks their history from a new event. And each new event eclipses the ones before it. The skin-crawling enormity of 9/11 looks tame on the pages of a history book. Atrocities are no modern invention. Cataclysmic destruction is not new. In fact, nothing the United States has endured equals the horror that we visited upon Japan 20 years before history became real for me.
I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in school. The words represented the end of WWII and the opening of a nuclear Pandora’s box. But never did the horror invade my being as it did while I watched the HBO documentary film, “White Light, Black Rain.”
Writer and director, Steven Okazaki, has combined old footage of the bombings and their aftermath with heart-breakingly poignant interviews with 14 Japanese survivors, now in their 70s and 80s, as well as from 4 Americans who were somewhat unwittingly involved in the destruction. We hear first-hand accounts from these people about a moment frozen in time for them. This was the moment their bubble of innocence was shattered. It was the moment that destroyed all hope of a normal life for the 210,000 survivors of the two attacks, 85% of whom were civilians.
The bombs pulverized Nagasaki, a city with a population of about 263,000, and Hiroshima, population 350,000. Rescue workers scavenged to find the living among the pieces and parts and ash of corpses buried under collapsed structures. Orphaned children were shoved into under-staffed and under-supplied medical facilities, where their burns were scraped and medicated by horrified aid workers. Their injuries caused a lifetime of pain, disfigurement, and abandonment. No one wanted to look at them or to be reminded of that infamous day. These 14 survivors are remarkable in their acceptance of their fate, in their lack of animosity toward Americans, and in their ability to live their lives despite constant pain, radiation sickness, multiple cancers, and humiliating deformities. Remarkably, this documentary is not an indictment of American brutality. It recognizes Japan’s role in the war and acknowledges Truman’s rationale “to save as many American lives as possible.” “White Lights, Black Rain” is a powerful reminder that the world has now magnified by 400,000 the nuclear capacity to reproduce the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If I could have one dream come true, it would be to lock each and every world leader into the same screening room, where they would be forced to view this documentary and consider the ramifications of a world that is perched on the edge of damnation.