New Nuclear Weapons?

Should the UK renew its nuclear deterrent? In short: no.

In long:

Currently, the UK has four submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons, of which one is constantly on patrol. Submarines carry 40 warheads which can be loaded onto 16 missiles. These Trident missiles have an estimated range of 7,000 miles, meaning that you could park your submarine in the Mediterranean and nuke everywhere on Earth except Australia and Hawaii. Each missile can hold eight warheads, which can then be fired at separate targets within a certain (classified) radius. This is called a Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle, or MIRV. Each warhead has a destructive capability of around 100kt – or eight Hiroshimas, to use the now popular metric. So at any second the UK can incinerate almost any population with the destructive power of 128 Hiroshimas. Turn 40 megacities to ash. Scorch the Earth.

USA Peacekeeper MIRV

USA Peacekeeper MIRV

The UK government will shortly decide whether or not to update our nuclear deterrent by replacing the missiles used to deliver nuclear warheads. This will also marginally reduce our number of operationally active nuclear warheads to a paltry 120. Government papers explain the cost of these weapons and give two main arguments for keeping them:

1)      Everyone else is doing it

2)      Fear of the unknown

You will recognise the first argument from Primary school and dismiss it as childish. This post deals with the second. The papers also include pleasing doublethink such as “Renewing our minimum nuclear deterrent capability is fully consistent with all our international obligations. It is also consistent with our continuing commitment to work towards a safer world in which there is no requirement for nuclear weapons”, as well as chilling threats such as “We are now able to give an assurance that the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties [sic] to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In giving this assurance, we emphasise the need for universal adherence to and compliance with the NPT, and note that this Strategic Defence and Security Review assurance would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations”. I will argue why I think these positions are incorrect, and that even if I am incorrect, that people deserve a fair choice over this issue.

Scalpels and Sledgehammers

Nuclear weapons are far too imprecise and expensive for effective military use. Tests at Bikini atoll (the swimsuit was named after the first explosion) demonstrated that huge fireballs, whether generated above or below the water, were remarkably ineffective at sinking ships. It took two atomic bombs to sink just 15 ships in 1946 (although nearby crews would also suffer heavy losses due to radiation). These ships were positioned in a formation tighter than any used in combat, so the damage caused would be even lower in a real world situation. Likewise formations of aircraft are widely spaced and would sustain limited damage from a huge explosion. Ground formations are denser, but if you were fighting an enemy with nuclear warheads would you let them ball up? Despite their enormous power, nuclear warheads produce a single sphere of destruction, and most spheres are overwhelmingly filled with empty space. For military use a series of small scale and accurately targeted explosions is far more effective (economically and tactically) than one big bomb. The only two types of viable targets for nuclear weapons are production centres and population centres, which are almost always the same thing: cities. The only cost-effective use of a nuclear weapon is a war crime.




The main argument given for having a preposterously large stockpile of war crimes on hand 24 hours a day is not to use them, but to deter other countries from attacking the UK. Looking around at the devastation that has plagued Northern Europe for the last half century, it is abundantly clear that we’ve needed it. In fact, I can’t think of any comparably developed countries that have been invaded anywhere in the last half century. Most of them don’t have nukes. The ridiculous nuclear arsenals maintained selfishly by a small number of states puts humanity at risk of what should be everyone’s deepest fear: nuclear war. I don’t think that nuclear war would make humans extinct, but it could easily destroy modern civilisation. Additionally, millions of innocent, conscious, feeling human beings would die wretched and terrified and screaming.

States which possess nuclear weapons are behaving in an incredibly childish way in a desperate bid to get or maintain authority. The ownership of these weapons is an implicit threat over the rest of the globe, used to further the agenda (s) of the nuclear states. Some Politics students may aseptically call it the purest form of state power, but I call it cowardice. Nuclear states are just the kids who bring a katana to school so that no one fucks with them. Unlike at school, these katana kids then joined a knife crime advocacy group to try and prevent other kids getting similar weapons. The greatest gift from the nuclear states to the rest of the world is the perfect definition of hypocrisy: Their joining the NPT. The NPT is supposed to work on the agreement that states without nuclear weapons will not develop them, in return for the states with nuclear weapons disarming. Despite signing the NPT the recognised nuclear states (USA, UK, Russia, China, France) are making no progress towards disarmament (see So, given the sort of language we saw in the UK government’s own paper, it is really a group of nuclear bullies who have no intention of disarming trying to stop other states from getting them.  India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are not signatories of the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons. India’s response is a reasonable one: the NPT creates nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” by distinguishing between states which tested weapons before 1967 and those which tested them afterwards, for no logical reason. The abject failure of the nuclear states to uphold their end of the bargain makes it more understandable for other states to develop nuclear weapons, making the world a more dangerous place for everyone.

Don't be that girl UK

Don’t be that girl UK

Cost-Benefit Analysis for the UK

The question of whether we might ever have a situation in which using a nuclear weapon is the best and only option (possible scenarios outlined in my last post) is very difficult. Thankfully, that is not the pertinent question when it comes to deciding whether the UK should maintain a nuclear arsenal. The real question we have to answer, which is somewhat easier to answer but much more difficult to phrase, is this:


[X x P(X)]  + [Y x P(Y)]> [A x P(A)] + [B x P(B)]+[C x P(C)]

X = Benefit of using a morally correct nuke

P(X) = Probability of nuke use being morally correct and the only option

Y = Benefit of threatening other states with a nuke

P(Y) = Probability of other states being threatened

A = Cost of nuclear war

P(A) = The probability of nuclear war occurring if the UK owns nuclear weapons

B = The cost of a terrorist attack using stolen weaponry

P(B) = The probability of UK  nuclear weapons being stolen

C = Diplomatic cost with countries who disagree with the UK maintaining nuclear weapons

P(C) = Probability of countries resenting the UK’s maintenance of nuclear weapons

This a simple analysis pits the benefits of owning nuclear weapons to the UK multiplied by their probabilities versus the potential costs to the UK multiplied by their probabilities. If the left hand side is larger than the right hand side, we should keep nuclear weapons, and if not, we shouldn’t. It is reasonable to think that A>X, as nuclear war is pretty much the worst thing imaginable. Also, P(A) is probably larger than P(X): in the last 50 years we have had a number of near scrapes with nuclear war (the Cuban missile crisis, a false alarm in 1983, and a misidentified scientific rocket in 1995 are probably the closest) – although these incidents concerned the USA and Russia,  they demonstrate that all that stands between us and nuclear war is a couple of accidents. Accidents do happen and have happened, repeatedly. I cannot think of any examples of 20th century history (or world history, for that matter) in which the use of a nuclear bomb would have been both morally correct (see for my take on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and the only option.

The other terms in this equation are more difficult to evaluate. Threatening the use of nuclear weapons is of course illegal, but ignoring international law is easy and you don’t have to specifically threaten someone with your katana, just for them to feel threatened when you see it on your hip. Terrorist threats are very unpredictable, but the UK’s woeful record of safety using other nuclear materials does not fill you with confidence. So sadly we cannot answer this question satisfactorily with simple logic. In my opinion, nuclear war has the potential to be so damaging that it completely overbalances the left hand side, even without considering terrorist threats. There is a certain public goods game feel to this equation, and it is tempting to think that maybe states stay nuclear as they reap selfish benefits whilst everyone shares the cost of possible nuclear war. It is important to remember that in the event of a nuclear conflict our possession of nuclear weapons would make us a target. If America and Russia began fighting, where do you think Moscow would aim next?



The Right to Choose

For me, the unfathomable human suffering caused by nuclear weapons, and the just all-round shittiness of holding them to threaten everyone else is enough to persuade me that the UK should not renew its nuclear deterrent, but this is only my opinion. There is also the logical argument, which is not clear-cut, but I think still suggests that holding nuclear weapons is actually more dangerous than giving them up. However, this is a controversial issue and (many) people may disagree with me to varying degrees.

This got me thinking about democracy. This in turn led to the sad realisation that the key determinants for most voters are party loyalties and policies which are short term and have immediate effect upon them personally. Taxes, planning permission, benefits, education, hospital care, etc. Something as abstract and unimaginable as our apocalyptic nuclear arsenal is a footnote at best when competing with other issues. Sadly, western ‘democracy’ means that we only get to choose a certain formula of policies that are decided by political parties, rather than on policies individually – despite the fact we could do this easily. This means that many people who don’t actually want a nuclear deterrent can indirectly vote for one. For instance, a pensioner might (understandably) prioritise whether or not they can afford heating for another year over whether or not we own nuclear weapons. At the next election I would like to vote against updating our nuclear deterrent. That means I won’t vote Conservative, and Labour are still deciding their stance, which only leaves the Liberal Democrats. Having recently been a student, I’m contractually obliged to desire punishment of the Libdems, and so am left in a pickle. What if a Conservative supporter doesn’t agree with updating our nuclear arsenal? Vote Libdem?

If only it could be heard

If only it could be heard

The question of whether our country should maintain a large number of devastating weapons is a very important one, and now is the perfect time to ask it. Morally, it dictates if our country is to become much more capable of committing great evils than acts of good. Financially, it is extremely expensive, at an initial cost of £25-30 billion and a lifetime cost of £100 billion. £100 billion does not include renewing the warheads, which will come around 2020-30. Critically, we are at the right time (the arsenal apparently needs updating) to decide whether to maintain these weapons. After we have sunk the initial £25 billion into updating the weapons it will be a lot more difficult to justify getting rid of them (blame psychology). Initially, I thought that the best outcome would be for Labour to decide to abolish our nuclear deterrent, storm the next election, and finally the UK could grow up a little. Now, I think that the best outcome would be a simple referendum. The AV referendum cost £75 million, which is expensive. However, if a nuclear weapons referendum cost a similar amount (though if we have an EU referendum you could have it for almost free) this would still only be 0.075% of the financial price of our nuclear deterrent. This issue is important enough and expensive enough for the citizens of the UK to decide, rather than the political class who do such a bad job of ruling them. I have absolute faith that we, collectively, would make the right decision. If not, I could emigrate.

I would be so proud if the UK became the second country on earth to renounce nuclear weapons, and avoid being the Nth country to use them.

Referendum Question

I would suggest a referendum be attached to the EU referendum, if it occurs, to save money, and be worded thus:

“The UK should update its nuclear deterrent at a lifetime cost of around £100 billion: Agree/Disagree

Additionally, if the UK does not update its nuclear deterrent would you prefer?

A) Maintaining the aging weapons we have

B) Total nuclear disarmament”

This wording avoids splitting the vote of those who want complete abolition and those who wish to maintain the weapons without updating them.

What You Can Do

Petition for disarmament:

Petition for a referendum:

Pressure labour policy makers:

Ask your local mayor to join Mayors for Peace:

Spread the word.


Close shaves:

2010 report on defence:

2006 White Paper on our nuclear deterrent:

Public Opinion Polls:

Political polls almost always have small sample sizes and methodological errors. Regardless, it is worth pointing out polls of UK public opinion consistently show opposition to nuclear weapons (I know this list is from the biased CND, but could find no reviews in favour through google…let me know if you do)

Other things to do with £100 billion:

Yes Minister on nuclear weapons:


Were the Atomic Bombings War Crimes?

Humanity entered the atomic age with two huge bangs and a multitude of whimpers.

I’m going to write about whether the atomic bombs should have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Visiting Hiroshima (see last week’s post) was an extremely upsetting and thought provoking experience. The question that keeps coming back as you wander amongst the twisted paraphernalia is obvious and insistent. Was it the right thing to do?

Hiroshima Before (target bridge at top right)

Hiroshima Before (target bridge at top right)

Obviously, this is an emotive and controversial topic, so I’ll take a little time to explain what the post is trying to address. The question of whether or not the only two atomic bombs ever used in war should have been dropped effectively consists of two questions, given the uniqueness of the event. The first one, or this post’s version of the Hard problem, is whether or not the use of nuclear weapons is ever justified. The second (which, irritatingly enough is also extremely difficult) is whether the use of these atomic bombs in this specific set of circumstances was justified. The Hard problem I will not attempt to answer in any definite way. It seems that the level of moral justification for using nuclear weapons can vary depending on the situation. Extremely contrived sets of circumstances can be dreamt up in which not using nuclear weapons is morally wrong, for example. Practically speaking, I would suggest that the most justifiable use would be against a concentration of military might in which all combatants are volunteers and intending to commit destruction on a similar or larger scale. The least defensible use, of course, would be against a large, concentrated civilian population.

Hiroshima Afterwards

Hiroshima Afterwards

The Hard and the Easy problems become more and more similar as the use of atomic weapons becomes more justified. i.e. The question of whether or not the most justifiable use of nuclear weapons is  morally correct is equivalent to asking whether any use of these weapons is correct. A very justifiable instance would be the use of nuclear weapons as a last resort in order to avert an even more horrible eventuality. However, we only need to address the Easy problem, as I will explain.

In the case of the war between Japan and the allies in 1945 there was certainly a horrible eventuality to be avoided: the invasion of mainland Japan. Given the ferocity of fighting on the pacific islands, and the enforced mass suicides of both soldiers and civilians on the Okinawan islands, it is likely that an invasion of Kyushu by the USA would have been disastrous. Somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Japanese troops were present in Kyushu by July 1945, and the civilian population had also been provided with antiquated weapons to fight the invaders. Large scale suicide plane and boat attacks were planned, with around 10,000 planes earmarked for Kamikaze use. Assuming the American forces did gain a beachhead; they would have faced fierce resistance in difficult terrain, and probably would have followed waves of mass suicides (likely forced) as they progressed inland. The Japanese plan was to force an armistice by making invasion of the home islands unfeasibly costly. The Americans manufactured 500,000 purple hearts (bestowed upon injured servicemen) in anticipation of the landings, and these are still in plentiful supply today. The invasion of mainland Japan would have been a nightmare, so it is probably reasonable to assume that the use of nuclear weapons did prevent an even larger disaster.

Nagasaki Before

Nagasaki Before

The narrative that I was subtly taught as I grew up was that the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was tragic but ultimately unavoidable. A necessary evil. Collateral damage. The story goes that the Goodies needed to defeat Japan, but that the Japanese military was so, well, insane, that a mainland invasion would have killed millions. The only option was to regrettably, reluctantly, drop the bomb (s).

Nagasaki Afterwards

Nagasaki Afterwards

To be justified these atomic bombs had to be a last resort. A desperate move when all other reasonable efforts to get the Japanese to surrender had failed. This, as explained below, was not the case. The moment you accept that the USA had other options is the moment you realise that the bombings were wrong.

There is a chilling, clinical feeling you get when reading about the decision to drop the bombs. The notes of the interim committee read  “Mr. Byrnes recommended and the Committee agreed, that the Secretary of War should be advised that, while recognizing that the final selection of the target was essentially a military decision, the present view of the Committee was that the bomb be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers’ homes; and that it be used without prior warning.”. Truman’s diary later read that they should bomb a purely military target, but the actual order to use atomic bombs on Japan included no mention of sparing civilians or hitting military structures, only cities. The military drew up a list of Japanese cities. They removed those with less than three square miles of continuous urban area (read: civilians). I let out a snort unintentionally when reading this. How silly of me. How could anyone not want to explode the first nuclear weapon used in war in the middle of a large city. This was to be a demonstration of force. They removed from the list cities which had been heavily bombed already, such as Tokyo and Osaka. It’s worth mentioning that the firebombing of Tokyo killed an estimated 100,000, and probably many more (both sides had their reasons to downplay the damage). On the 9th of March 16 square miles of Tokyo, with a population of 1.6 million, was burnt in one night. Bombing a city in which many civilians had evacuated or were dead already would not demonstrate the full power of the weapon. The last city off the shortlist was Kyoto, as the secretary of war had been there for his honeymoon.

The cities on the shortlist were then deliberately excluded from bombings to ensure the maximum number of civilians remained in these cities. Practice runs on cities with similar geography were organised, dropping a single large bomb from high altitude. These were called pumpkins. Then atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The combined death toll was over 200,000, and over 95% of the victims were civilians.

The Blast over Nagasaki

The Blast over Nagasaki

The “last resort” narrative is a comforting story which essentially removes allied responsibility, and turns the guilt and moral abhorrence of civilian slaughter into something that was, all in all, the Right Thing to Do. This is simply not the case. The crucial thing that could and should have been done, at no great financial or military cost to the USA, was to try harder to elicit surrender from Japan. Here is a list of approaches for trying to do this, and their costs:

1)      Tell Japan You Have Nukes

Japan was not warned that the USA had developed an atomic bomb and was planning to use it on civilian population centres. It is thought to have been referenced obliquely as the alternative to surrender in the Potsdam Declaration: “prompt and utter destruction” (the Potsdam Declaration was a demand for Japan’s surrender issued after the first nuclear bomb test). They could have attached pictures and scientific recordings from the Trinity bomb test.

Cost: Nothing. If Japan had not surrendered they could have moved more civilians from city centres, which would decrease the output of any war plants staffed by civilians and the civilian casualties by any later strikes on city centres. Being aware you are about to be nuked is somewhat like being aware you are about to be hit by a train. You can prepare a little, but it’s still going to hurt. A lot.



2)      Show Japan You Have Nukes

There was no public demonstration of an atomic bomb on an unpopulated or depopulated area. This was suggested by the prescient Frank report (written by nuclear physicists), which argued for a public demonstration of the atomic bomb’s power, and predicted the nuclear arms race that followed the surprise use of the bombs. This could have been done by inviting Japanese diplomats to a demonstration in the pacific, or by just detonating one in a depopulated area of Japan, preferably with a large audience. The middle of Tokyo bay, for example, or over the top of mount Fuji (OK, I just think that would make an emblematic picture). Leaflet dropping campaigns could have then warned the Japanese people that the same would occur to a city within a week unless the government surrendered.

Cost: Probably a week at most. Assuming the demonstration bomb was dropped on the 6th, and it still took two bombs for the Japanese to surrender, it would have been August 19th by the time the third bomb (and second bomb over a city) exploded.



3)      Tell Japan that Russia is Going to Declare War on them

Russia stated that they would enter the war in the Far East three months after the end of the war in Europe at the Yalta conference. Japan and Russia had been engaged in an uneasy truce, until April 5th 1945 when Russia notified Japan that they would not be renewing the pact, but that they would respect it until April 1946. They followed what they had agreed at the Yalta conference, and invaded Manchuria on the 9th of August (the day the second atomic bomb was dropped).

Cost: The most costly option. Increased defensesin Manchuria would have increased Russian casualties, although not greatly given the superiority in strength and numbers of the Russian armed forces.



4)      Actually Try Hard to Get Japan to Surrender

This is what stunned me the most. This is something that really makes no sense within the Western narrative. The Emperor of Japan was the head of the state, military, and revered as a deity. The allies knew that promising the continuation of imperial rule was seen as essential by the Japanese government. Allied documents detail their knowledge that the Potsdam Declaration would have a much higher chance of success if they offered the carrot of imperial rule. It initially contained an article offering this, but it was removed on the recommendation of James Byrne (he’s the charming man from earlier who suggested dropping the bombs on a civilian population without warning). The Japanese government therefore ignored the declaration.

The emperor had authorised the use of chemical weapons on the Chinese hundreds of times, and knew about a large number of atrocities committed by the Japanese military. So the allies’ not promising continued imperial rule seems reasonable, if very narrow-sighted, as they could then prosecute the emperor for war crimes. After the atom bombs were dropped, and Manchuria invaded by Russia, the Japanese government responded that they were prepared to accept the Potsdam Declaration, but even then only if the emperor was preserved. This was responded to by the allies ambiguously. Eventually Japan surrendered, despite a coup determined to prevent it. The punchline to all this is what happened immediately after Japan surrendered: the imperial family were preserved, actively protected from being implicated in war crimes, and allowed to rule Japan. The question is when you know there is a huge block stopping a country from surrendering, why would you ignore it, kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and then remove the block anyway?

Cost: Nothing. The imperial family were preserved anyway. Maybe a slight poll drop for the democrats.



5)      Make them an Offer they can’t Refuse

I like to imagine a world in which the Potsdam declaration stated: we have nuclear weapons, Russia will declare war on you within a month, and if you surrender the imperial family will be preserved. Three weeks later the first atomic bomb is dropped in the middle of Tokyo bay, at an altitude of 1500m to minimize damage. Leaflets are dropped across the country explaining that surrender is required within one week and that the imperial family will be preserved, or an atomic bomb will be detonated over a Japanese city.

I would bet everything on them accepting that offer. What do you think?

So, I’ve come to the unhappy and uncomfortable conclusion that the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII was an unjustified war crime (by all legal definitions since the end of the 19th century). The USA (and Russia, Israel, China) aren’t signed up to the current statute for war crimes, but I would argue that a war crime remains a war crime, even if you choose not to recognize that fact.

Common counterarguments and their weaknesses:

The Japanese were not going to surrender without something as shocking as the atomic bombs

Firstly, just because you think this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try as hard as you can to get them to surrender. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. Secondly, the Japanese had made numerous approaches about surrendering before the atomic bomb tests (link below). The president of the USA was aware of these approaches, and knew that their key requests were the preservation of the imperial line and avoidance of the term “unconditional surrender”. The most serious of these approaches was the Japanese foreign minister’s attempts to persuade Russia to receive Prince Konoye, who would present their peace agreement. Russia was attempting to delay Japanese surrender to strengthen their position in the Far East.

At this stage in the war, the Japanese war machine was broken. Their navy was barely functional, their cities were in ruins, and food was running out. They were not yet defeated, but could not mount any effective attacks against the USA, and could only hope to achieve concessions by making the invasion of mainland Japan too costly. For the record, when people tell you that 100 million people would have died in the invasion, it’s bullshit. This comes from a quote from the fanatical Japanese war journal of the imperial headquarters. If you believe that all 100,000,000 inhabitants of Japan would have committed suicide rather than lost the war, you are suffering from a mixture of ignorance and racism. I am sure that a small minority of fanatics would have chosen suicide, that a larger minority would have been forced into suicide, and that the rest would have lived, because people like living, and Japanese people are people too. A third of Okinawa’s civilian population was forced to commit suicide, and a far larger proportion would have escaped on mainland Japan due to the much smaller ratio of troops to civilians and the far more expansive geography.

This is all very well to say in hindsight, but wasn’t it a very, well, difficult decision at the time?

Yes, it was a difficult decision. If it had been made by a frontline GI who had spent a year in the hell of the pacific war, I would completely understand why the bombings went ahead (although still not agree with them). These decisions were difficult, but they were made by very intelligent people provided with extremely good intelligence and far removed from the horrors of war. They felt pressure to remain popular to the American public, and to prove the value of the hugely expensive Manhattan project. The influential James Byrne made clear on numerous occasions that he felt the bombs would also intimidate Russia, and stop them “getting in on the kill” too much. These are not good enough reasons to massacre innocent people. James Byrne was probably wrong as well. The shock of the atomic bombs ensured that both India and Russia had started nuclear weapons programmes by the end of 1945 (the British already had theirs).

The Civilians were not Innocent, as they had not Rebelled against the Japanese Government

Human history is a sad chorus of the fact that most people will allow remarkable atrocities to be committed in their name provided that they are relatively comfortable and have something to lose. Those who defected from Japanese military rule should be praised for their bravery, but those who remained with their families whilst powerful men played war games should not have been punished for it.

The American People Deserved Revenge for Pearl Harbour

Firstly, no. Secondly, Tokyo was revenge enough. Thirdly, the American people (to their credit) had rejected the use of chemical and biological weapons on the Japanese people during WWII, even if their use would hasten the end of the war. They were not consulted about the third type of WMD.

Is there any Point in Dragging all this up Now?

Yes. Truth is a very important thing, and it seems to be becoming increasingly rare. Our children will have even less chance of avoiding the mistakes of history if they are not aware of them. Most importantly, over 200,000 hibakushas (blast victims) are still alive today. It would be the most beautiful thing in the world if one of them could live to hear an apology.

The Gate of Hell, Nagasaki

The Gate to Hell, Nagasaki


Photos of the bomb sites

Official bombing order (not mentioning military targets or minimizing civilian casualties):

The people who decided to drop the bomb without warning:

CIA report on Japanese peace approaches:

Timeline to bomb drops:

Good for further info:

Hiroshima, or How I Learned to Loathe the Bomb

Hiroshima was the most thought provoking and challenging experience of my time in Japan. It is the experience that I would keep above all others, and recommend to anyone in this neck of the woods. But it was not comfortable.



There is a disjointed feeling of apprehension when arriving as a Briton. An echo of responsibility. Hiroshima is spacious, leafy, and new, like most Japanese cities. There are marquees up for what looks like a food fair, and hundreds of school kids walking about with bows taller than they are (presumably a kyudo tournament). Lune is waiting in the city centre, we grab pastries and coffee, then go to dump our bags. Hiroshima seems lovely, and I end up thinking “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer city”, which is sort of perverse but instinctive. People are friendly, the air is relaxed, and school orchestras play by the riverside.

Aioi Bridge - The Bullseye

Aioi Bridge – The Bullseye

Sausage Dogs

Sausage Dogs

The sign in our path reads “Atomic Bomb Dome”. This jars the eyes a little, and I do an unconscious double-take. There is something ridiculous about seeing those famous words, indelibly linked to devastation, in a whirring urban area. It was the nearest structure to the hypocentre to be left standing (just under a kilometre away), apparently because the blast was almost directly above, so the walls were forced down rather than sideways. The dome is a beautifully wretched skeleton of iron, painted in flaking pink and bowed to one side. It sits on a central cylinder of concrete, which is immaculate except for a network of thin white veins, which could be heat or restoration work. The building was nearly demolished like all the other concrete shells left after the blast (all the wooden buildings collapsed or burnt), but eventually it was designated as a memorial, and will be restored in perpetuity as a monument to peace. Nearby is the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, which was the target for the bomb. Children run and jump off the granite information slabs, and a man persuades two remarkably well behaved sausage dogs to pose in the foreground as he photographs the dome. There is a blue sky, and brilliant sunlight, but the place still feels dark. Some information on the bomb in booklets and on posters has been placed there by an elderly man who has a happy smile and a baseball cap. The writing explains that he was in the womb when the bomb went off, and I get the impression he comes here often. There is a clay roof tile which has a rough surface with glossy black bubbles, melted by the heat rays. It feels coarse and cold.

What Happened in Hiroshima

What Happened in Hiroshima

Hiroshima Peace Park occupies the former site of a vanished neighbourhood, on an oval island which is reached by the vertical stroke of the “T”. There is a peace flame, which I assume to be eternal but find that it will be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon on earth is destroyed. I hope there’s a difference. There are a number of memorials devoted to different groups who lost their lives: the students mobilized to clear a fire corridor that morning, the children, and, embarrassingly late (erected in 1970, moved into the park in 1999), the forced Korean labourers. An amorphous mound covers the ash which they couldn’t identify. School kids in coloured caps and shorts trot after their teachers, bowing at each memorial, carrying reams of paper cranes. The cranes are for the Children’s Memorial, which was inspired by the death of Sadako Sasaki. Sadoko was two when the bomb went off, and was healthy until the age of 11 when she, like many children from Hiroshima, developed leukaemia. It was said that if you fold 1000 paper cranes then the gods will grant your wish. Sadoko had little paper, so used bandages and the wrapping paper from the get well gifts of others. Accounts differ as to whether she got there or not, but agree on the end of the story. Around the Children’s Memorial there are Perspex cuboids absolutely stuffed with these cranes, hanging on strings or arranged into mosaics. I wonder what happens to the cranes after their time is up. Is there a huge warehouse somewhere, filled with boxes upon boxes of them? Do they float them on the river? Throw them in a fire?

The Children's Memorial

The Children’s Memorial

The peace museum is a glass fronted concrete shoebox on stilts, and about as inoffensive as a public building from the 50s can be. It costs 30p, because they want everyone to see it. The museum is fairly balanced, and first tells the story of Japanese imperialism in the first half of the 20th century. It covers the war with Russia, the annexation of Korea, and the invasion of China, including the rape of Nanjing. It also notes every time a new military unit or structure is created in Hiroshima, which happens faster and faster in a crescendo up to a stopped watch.

8 16 am.

There is a TV loop playing shots of the foliage around Hiroshima whilst a survivor describes the sky opening. First she mentions her breakfast, clothes, and the weather. The sky was almost perfectly clear and pure blue. Opposite loops the footage of Enola Gay, taking off and flying towards the target. This cuts to the rising cloud; the footage shaking despite the fact the plane was by now around 10km away. Between them lies a model of the city, stuffed with matchstick houses. The wall shows a panorama of the view afterwards. It is filthy and hollow. Nothing lighter than the grey of ash is visible. Concrete shells hunker over amorphous debris.

Peace Cranes

Peace Cranes

One of Many

One of Many

The most heartening thing about the Hiroshima bombing is the response of its people. People came in from the surrounding region to help the wounded, which was crucial as almost all of the medical staff were incinerated in the hospital. The fallout meant that these rescuers suffered radiation sickness for payment. Debris clearance began immediately. The first streetcar resumed three days afterwards. On the first anniversary of the blast, when people were still suffering from radiation sickness, and rebuilding their homes, Hiroshima began campaigning for peace. Imagine another country killing half the people in your city, then a year later asking for reconciliation. It is as if they saw the true face of war, and rejected it unthinkingly, instinctively.

A wall is plastered with the protest letters that Hiroshima mayors send in response to every nuclear weapons test. Over 600 so far, and four this year, including a couple to the recipient of the world’s first ever pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize. A mayor of Hiroshima has set up a global network of mayors calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons (check for your city here Every year there is a peace festival on the day of the bomb. They add the names of hibakushas (bomb victims) who have died in the past year to the coffin at the main memorial, and float coloured paper lanterns down the river, into the darkness.

The Blast

The Blast

The first section covers the concepts, the build-up, and the aftermath. We walk past a burned horse carcass, over a bridge to the main building, which contains information about what happened to the people of Hiroshima. Later I realize this is because after you hear about what an atom bomb does to people you can’t really think straight. A dark brick corridor leads to a map of the city after the blast, with the fireball after one second hanging above. Human models show survivors creeping through the wreckage, clothes torn, forearms at 90 degrees. This is because the skin on their forearms is hanging off in tatters, presumably from shielding their eyes against the light. All the horrible articles are here, which have now become almost clichéd. In the flesh they are weighty and shocking.

Microcephaly and Azaleas

Microcephaly and Azaleas

Glasses melted together. Rooftiles with bubbles that look like human eyes. A human shadow on the steps of the bank. A child’s tin lunchbox filled with foamy charcoal. Fragments of skin and nail that a victim carried home before dying. The dark patterns on a girls kimono burnt into her back (dark colours absorbed more heat). A rusty tricycle. The dead child’s dad had buried his son and his favourite toy in the garden, because he felt he wasn’t old enough to be buried far away in the family grave. Reading this is heartbreaking. Decades later, he moved his son’s remains and gave the tricycle to the museum. The most shocking thing is reading the stories of individuals besides their clothing, which is torn and stained dark. They are uniforms, and look sort of like pajamas. The general narrative is this: person X was working at place Y, suffered 50-90% burns, wandered home as there was nowhere to go (the hospitals were gone), and died after Z days of suffering. What hits home are the individual details; the things which make you see them as people rather than 1 in  140000. After five you realize this is too many, and see those vaporized as the lucky ones. The death toll for Hiroshima is 140000, but only half of them died immediately. The other 70000 (those that died by December 1945) died slowly and painfully due to burns or radiation sickness or both.

With almost cruel thoroughness, the next section describes the long term effects of the radiation. A firestorm burnt through what was left of the city centre and the people there. The radioactive ash spiralled up into the sky and fell back as black rain 30 minutes later. People were suffering from smoke inhalation. Most of the clean water had been disappeared when the bomb went off. Those not drinking the pus from their burns blisters could look forward to the black water in puddles. A mother’s diary records what happened to her seven and five year old children. Their appetite vanished first, then their hair. They began vomiting, and passing blood. Teeth fell out. Eventually her younger son died after around a month and her older daughter survived. People’s skin grew into strange lumps, and 20 years later their eyes were still growing cataracts. Trying to block out what they had seen.  The Americans set up a station to monitor, but not treat, the radiation sickness and the cancers that followed. They chose not to share this information with the Japanese doctors treating people. Children born after exposure in the womb suffered from microcephaly, and require extensive help to survive. They were innocent.


The last panel is a picture of the first plants to grow after the blast. We emerge wet-eyed, blinking, stunned, wretched. The peace park stretches below us, and a neatly dressed security guard thanks us for coming. The walls on the way out contain drawings by hibakushas, showing the attack as they remember it. One woman draws a column of dishevelled people dressed in rags, shambling past fire and holding their arms like zombies due to the skin tatters. Her caption says that what most affected her was that they were silent, and stumbled towards nowhere, stunned, like wounded dumb animals. There are visitor’s books for notable visitors. Gorbachev has been, but no US president. No UK prime minister as far as I can see. The queen has turned up. An American diplomat has hurriedly scrawled one line: “with utmost sympathies” which really pisses me off. The people sitting above the buttons that control all these terrifying weapons should see what they do to the little people.

For a few years I have hated nuclear bombs, and felt that there is never a morally justifiable occasion to use them, but here everything is amplified. I begin to feel incoherent anger, and injustice, and sad that children are born into a world such as this one. This all sounds a bit whiney and teenage, but it doesn’t feel that way, if you know what I mean. In Hiroshima you are not able to imagine what it was like, as such, but you can begin to realise just how far you are from being able to imagine it. You have to start climbing Everest to understand how high the summit is.

The inscription on the memorial cenotaph reads “Let all the souls here rest in peace; for we shall not repeat this evil”.

Very upset, we left, and Hiroshima was beautiful and the sun was shining and children were playing on the grass. That was something, at least.