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“Hiroshima” by John Hersey Essay

The human mind cannot comprehend the split-second deaths of 100 000 people when the atomic bomb hit the people of Japan in August, 1945. However this event, which has changed the world forever, can be relived through the lives of six survivors in John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Expository texts such as the aforementioned often present powerful social issues which challenge not only the reader from the contemporary Western culture but also the reader from the 1946 American society. Hersey employs various techniques, including point of view, tone, emotive and descriptive language to position readers to respond to changing priorities, Japan’s reaction to the crisis and moral and ethical issues.

Up until Hersey’s account of the Hiroshima bombing, texts that were presented to readers were fabricated propaganda and contained the preconception that dropping the bomb was not ethically wrong. This influenced readers in that context to feel as if the Americans had taken the right action to end the war. However, Hersey writes Hiroshima in the point-of-view of six ”hibakusha’s”, focussing entirely on their stories of endurance and hope throughout the atomic blast. As he writes in such a journalistic style and detaches any feelings or opinions he may have about the event, he forces readers to draw their own conclusions from the facts and question the morality of the Americans and their president. Quoted from Rhodes, the making of the Atomic Bomb from a scientist who took part in assembling the bomb, “…I still remember the feeling of unease, even nausea, when I saw many of my friends rushing to celebrate. Of course we were exalted by the success of our work, but it seemed rather ghoulish to celebrate the sudden death of a hundred thousand people, even if they were “enemies”‘.

Hersey portrays the six characters not as enemies, but as normal people, with real values and attitudes which elicits resentment towards the Americans and encourages readers to sympathise with the Japanese characters. To reconstruct the effect of the blast and its dismal consequences on Japan’s population, Hersey selects a variety of characters such as a widow, a priest and a surgeon to resemble the microcosm of Japanese society. Not once does Hersey question or agree with the decision to drop the bomb nor does he sympathise with the Japanese victims but by emphasising the survival instead of the suffering he prevents his book from becoming anti-American, therefore broadening his target audience. The only way “Hiroshima” would be read by the “New York Time’s” loyal readers was for Hersey to write in this unemotional tone, for example “…they had not had the strength to move; they must have drowned.” This is a style which is seen today as a clever way to escape extreme controversy.

Of course it is inhumane to kill thousands of innocent people without warning and “The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Often, because of pain, they held their hands up as if carrying something in both hands.” The descriptive language throughout the novel proves the abovementioned point to the reader. Still, you have to consider the context before making judgement on the decision to drop the bomb. Truman may have been concerned for his countries welfare but there were many other alternatives. Surely readers can see that now, but Hersey’s use of language techniques in his recount of Hiroshima was taking the American readers one step closer to realising the truth; that Truman’s resolution to drop the bomb “…in order to shorten the agony of war [and] in order to save the lives of thousands of young Americans” [Public Papers of the President, Truman, 1945] not only ended the war but inflicted suffering and death to thousands of innocent people.

Very few of Hersey’s characters have close family ties, further emphasising the way Japan comes together as a community in the time of this crisis. Unscathed are aiding the wounded on the riverbank, providing water, food, and comfort as though they were family. Readers are positioned to accept the character’s attempts to help the people that are only strangers to them. However even though these six characters help one another to try to rebuild their lives, each suffers on their own. “The hurt ones were quiet, no one wept, much less screamed in pain, no one complained…not even the children cried.”

After the explosion the lack of dialogue creates an eerie, almost silent atmosphere to portray the peaceful and humble characteristics of the Japanese people. The characters have an admirable patience and endurance shown in the face of adversity. When father Kleinsorge offers water to the wounded, “almost blotted out by flash burns, they [take] their share and bowed to him in thanks.” No one shouts out in rage or promises revenge towards their opposing country. The techniques Hersey has employed in this text positions the reader to accept the Japanese culture and realise that even though thousands of lives were lost, the attack on Hiroshima brought the community together and shaped it into the country it is today.

On the morning of the attack, the citizens of Japan were living like ordinary people, with priorities and values which would be similar to those we have in our contemporary Western society. However they were completely unaware that their priorities would change dramatically when the bomb was dropped, destroying their lives and tearing apart their families. The detail selected encourages readers to experience the severe shock that is instilled into the characters as they come to terms with their new situation. “Things don’t matter anymore. Yesterday my shoes were my most important possessions. Today I don’t care. One pair is enough.”

This symbolises the preciousness of life and the insignificance of material possessions. The suffering of thousands of people and their wounds and burns are described repeatedly and the injured and dying are so numerous that the doctors no longer help the badly injured because they are not going to survive. Dr Sasaki is faced with the decision to leave the severely wounded and readers are positioned to sympathise for him as making this decision in the devastating circumstances would be almost impossible. He feels that they will “die feeling cheated” if he tells the victims he will return to help, only leaving them to die. Combined with the point of view of each character, readers are encouraged to respond to the bombing with feelings of anger and empathy towards the six survivors and the way it has affected their priorities and their future.

Hersey’s bleak yet graphic account of the Hiroshima bombing is a novel which can be read for generations and still capture the horror of war and the endurance of the Japanese people. Hiroshima encourages readers of today’s western society as well as the readers in 1946 to respond to the text with feelings of sympathy, anger and remorse. Hersey employs techniques such as selection of detail, language, tone and point of view to encourage readers to be challenged by the powerful social values; changing priorities, Japan’s reaction to the crisis and moral and ethical issues which are embedded in the text. Overall Hersey exposes the true side of war to the readers; the side which is not glorified but elicits extreme loss of life and untold suffering.

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