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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

A tale of two cities

An extraordinary documentary looks at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki


“It is a thing of beauty to behold,” wrote The New York Times’ William L. Laurence of the atomic bomb nestled in the belly of the B-29, Aug. 9, 1945, on the way to Nagasaki. Did he feel any pity or compassion for the “poor devils about to die”? Not when he thought “of Pearl Harbor or the Death March on Bataan.”

Awestruck, he watched the black object fall and the ball of fire rise. His imagination struggled to match metaphors to what he saw: It was a “new species” being born, a flower, a mushroom 45,000 feet high topped by creamy foam, a thousand Old Faithfuls, a decapitated monster growing a new head.

When the first bomb hit Hiroshima three days before, my family was on vacation on a farm in Pennsylvania. When we heard the news on the radio, I remember looking up “atomic” in the dictionary. That night on a horseback ride I saw a comet course across the sky. Was this an omen of world peace? I was 12 years old.

It was not until I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, with its description of the 20 men whose faces had been turned upward when the bomb exploded, that I knew what happened to those “poor devils” below: Their eyeballs had melted and run down their cheeks. Around 1949, Fr. Schiffer, a Jesuit who had survived Hiroshima, addressed our high school, St. Joe’s Prep. I remember the scars from the shattered glass on his bony face.

“Original Child Bomb,” first released in 2004, is an extraordinary documentary on the moral impact of dropping the first atom bombs. Directed by Carey Schonegevel and produced by Mary Becker, it is, in a sense, made to educate “children” like me. The American and Japanese generation with any memory of August 1945 is dying out. We turn to the visual arts, to its graphic depiction of human suffering, to render today’s viewers more compassionate.

Ms. Becker’s father was a U.S. sailor in the Pacific when the bomb dropped. Inspired by Thomas Merton’s poem “Original Child Bomb,” haunted by her visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the 9/11 images of the planes hitting the Twin Towers and bodies tumbling through the air, she has moved toward this documentary for more than 20 years. She has woven together long-suppressed film footage and photos, drawings and animation, interviews with survivors and contemporary teenagers, statistics on the carnage, and Merton’s text.

The film opens with old color footage of pre-bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki street life in 1945. Children exercise, play baseball and dance. Men and women circulate in the outdoor market, cut wheat, eat lunch. A plane appears in the sky. The screen erupts in an animated blast. A woman’s body flies through the air. America celebrates. WAR IS OVER. President Truman proclaims the “biggest achievement of organized science in history.”

Then -- red, withered faces; chests, backs, breasts, legs blistered, torn, gone. A witness told Ms. Becker her friend had looked like “a fish on a charcoal grill.” In a few days came the effects of radiation -- vomiting blood, diarrhea, paralysis.

By the 1960s, a cloistered Trappist monk, writing daily in his cell, had become the religious voice of the antiwar movement. Merton’s prose-poem, a 41-stanza narrative, moves from President Truman’s first learning about the project in April to the 70,000 killed by the first bomb, which the Japanese called “original child” because it was the first of its kind. The poet’s brutal ironies illuminate the moral madness behind the decision: Many advisers opposed its use, yet some insisted that using it just once or twice “would produce eternal peace.” The president’s committee picked Hiroshima because “it had not been bombed at all. Lucky Hiroshima! What others had experienced over a period of four years would happen to Hiroshima in a single day! Much time would be saved, and ‘time is money.’ ”

In a classroom discussion among American students who have viewed the Hiroshima pictures, one asks, when will the blind cycle of Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima -- they BOOM us, we BOOM them -- stop? Another concludes: “Americans have a hard time feeling compassion for people other than themselves.”

In a creative riff, the producers send a present-day Hiroshima teenager in a backward baseball cap and earphones on a walk through the modern city, leading into the wreckage of 1945. He hears the voices of victims pleading with a woman with milk in her breasts to share it with another’s starving baby.

The film ends too quickly with its warning that the Bush administration has not learned the futility of atomic war: While the United States threatens Iran and Korea lest they develop nuclear capabilities, we order a whole new family of tactical nuclear weapons we are all too ready to use.

“Original Child Bomb” will be shown on the Sundance TV Channel Aug. 6 and 7.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth teaches journalism ethics at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. His email address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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