November, 2018. My wife and I were on our honeymoon, touring the largest and greatest cities of Japan. Having visited Tokyo and Kyoto, we were now in Osaka, the final leg of our trip. There was so much to see, so much to do, but we made time for a day trip to a city I had always wanted to visit.
A name that echoed across history. I first encountered the name in a history book about the Second World War. About the atomic bombing, the cold peace that followed, and the colder war that came after that.
To understand the way the world is now, you must understand the Cold War. To understand the Cold War, you must understand the Second World War — and, most especially, the event that ignited the Atomic Age.
Death statistics. Diagrams. Decades-old black and white photographs. Testimonies of the survivors. I’d read countless articles about the bombings that ended the war and birthed a new world order.
I’d seen photos of victims of radiation poisoning, the skin and flesh melting from their bones; the ruins and rubble where once stood a proud and ancient city; the shadows permanently scorched into the world. I thought I was ready.
But you’re never ready until you experience it.
When we stepped off the Shinkansen, I tasted the pain in the air. Thick and tangible, it was an omnipresent fog hanging over the world. Every breath drew a billion blades into my chest, scraping against my lungs, sending an autumnal chill deep into my blood.
The Chinese say that grief is stored in the lungs. Here was lived proof. It had been seven decades since the bomb, but the sheer density of grief stored in the city had weathered the passage of generations, a grief so thick it had transmuted the very air.
The closer we drew to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the thicker the air grew. It was stifling, filling my lungs with a slow-motion sandstorm. It was as if the collective pain of a hundred thousand lives, snuffed out at once, was collected and condensed here, here at the hypocenter of the bomb.
At the entrance of the park, I saw this sight.
The Atomic Bomb Dome, the ruin of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building left standing at the hypocenter of the blast.
I wondered if this was what the hall had looked like on that fateful August morning, when a city burned in the fires of a thousand suns.
The war was long over. Still the scars remained. Though it was evening, hundreds of visitors explored the park, paying their respects at the memorials scattered across the park.
The foreigners took videos and selfies, listened to guided tours, laughed and chattered among themselves.
The Japanese prayed.
Japanese atrocities against the Chinese in the Second World War are well-documented. Execution of prisoners, forced labor and sexual slavery, the use of chemical and biological attacks, the Rape of Nanking.
Singapore saw similar horrors. The Alexandra Hospital Massacre, starvation, torture of prisoners of war, the Sook Ching Massacre. Up to twenty-five thousand Chinese men were murdered in the space of two weeks.
I am the grandson of genocide, here in the nation that had visited widespread devastation upon the land of my ancestors.
But the war was over seven decades ago. Everyone responsible is dead or soon to die. We live in a time of peace now, in a world that acknowledges the brutality and the horror of total war.
Bloodshed breeds bloodshed, and more than enough blood has been spilled already. The cycle of slaughter and vengeance has to end. In a time when man has the means of collective suicide, we must find a way to keep ourselves from crossing the line into total annihilation.
It is well and good to say, never again. May the world never again witness another nuclear attack. May the world never again be plunged into total war. May man never again make war on man.
But Man is a fallen being, at once imperfect and free. Free to choose good or evil, free to obey or resist, free to work for all or for one.
So long as evil men remain, there will always remain a need for good men to stand at the gates.
Shall there be a world without nuclear weapons? Only in a saner world, a world where there are no longer any oppressive regimes that dream of world domination, no longer any rogue nations or factions with the power to split the atom and the will to unleash it on the world. Until those regimes surrender the bomb, other, saner, powers must hold on to the ultimate deterrent — and the ultimate weapon.
One sword keeps another in its sheath. One bomb keeps another from exploding. Such is the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction, the doctrine with a fittingly appropriate acronym: MAD.
That saner world is a dream. But maybe dreams can come true. Maybe the world can stuff the nuclear genie back into the bottle and take a step back from collective suicide.
All I know is that it won’t happen if nobody works for it.
Standing before the ashes of the dead, sighting down the arch towards the Atomic Bomb Dome, we prayed.
The sun shone brighter. A soft wind sighed. A thick, unseen veil lifted from the world. The miasma of grief remained, but reduced now. Now, instead of a billion blades in my lungs, there was only a million.
It was all that we could do.
But maybe, someday, the cloud of grief would finally be lifted.
(Photo of the Atomic Bomb Dome by myself, all other photos by Jasmine Cheah.)